It was over, just as the moon rose.
The men were exhausted, barely standing, to tired to cheer as the last of the enemy fell.
We won, but what that was exactly, then and there, I could not tell you.
I reeked of the blood and guts of others, and my own blood mingled with theirs, to drip into my eyes, down my arms, and dull the gleam of my blade in the moonlight.
Falling to my knees, unable to stand any longer, I looked around me.
Bodies everywhere, in stacks, in pieces, ending in wetness, ending in white bone.
And someone lit the field on fire, and howls began in the woods.
“Koyah, we cannot stay here.”
My second in command, Sengo, my brother in arms, long trusted, bedecked also in gore.
He grasped my forearm, helped me to my feet.
“You fought bravely,” I told him.
He nodded. “As did you, and all the others who are left to tell the tale.”
I looked around.
“We burn our dead,” he told me, “and leave theirs to rot.”
“It is done well.”
. “Do we push on toward the city, Koyah?” Sengo asked.
“We push on, but in the morning we rest, bind our wounds, eat, and mourn our fallen.”
His smile was wan, and his nod weary. He left my side to go marshal the survivors; they weren’t as many as before, but they might prove to be enough.
Heaviness settled across my shoulders, as if the hands of a giant pushed me to the ground.
I dropped my weapon, flexed my hand, wiped my eyes free of tattered red flesh, and let the energy of the slaughtering day dissipate, and I pitched forward, and lay in a cool, clean patch of blood-soaked grass.
And not for the first time, thought that maybe it was time to set this whole fighting thing back down into the cave which spawned it, and the dream came afresh, with vivid detail, so real that I felt the breeze across my skin like a palm leaf’s kiss.
I felt my lips form a silent curse my father would have smacked me for uttering, and I turned to face the king again.
He shook his head, eyes full of malevolent pity; his voice was soft, deep, almost fatherly.
“Fool boy, turn your army now, while there is yet time. Your souls are forfeit when you see the city wall. I will reap among you with all the effort of a child in high summer fields, and the vultures and dogs will glean the scraps of your corpses.
“Koyah, do you not grow weary of this? Turn aside.”
“I will never turn.”
Last time, his throne had been in a natural alcove, surrounded by exotic, vibrant birds, and women that fawned on his corpulence, and guards with serpentine eyes and charcoal skin.
This time, he was in darkened hall, with nothing of mock gaiety around him. This time, there were countless thick black serpents, gleaming and sleek, uncoiling around his feet like living smoke, slithering in languor up the height of his throne, and cloaking his body like a scaly robe; their eyes of fiery emerald and ruby and tourmaline glittered with preternatural intelligence as they looked at me, and almost seemed to smile.
The chills that gripped me did not come from the wind, but the yawning, bottomless grave.
“You had no right to kill us, enslave us, burn us…”
“You had no right to keep my tribute, my gold, my children-“
“OUR children, you –“
He merely put up his hand, and I choked on my own tongue as it bent backwards in my mouth.
He released it, speaking over my retching coughs, my eyes stinging with tears, made more acrid by the fires around me.
“Watch your tongue, child. You only think you lead, but you are a boy playing ‘warrior,’ not fully understanding all that means, for yourself, and others.
I was able to breathe enough air back into my lungs to defy him once more.
“I will not.”
“Then come, child-warrior, and learn at the point of my knife, as it furrows your throat, what it is to become a man.”
I woke up sweating.
“How long was I…?”
“Not long, Koyah. The men did not see.”
“No. You did not cry out…this time.”
I put my hand on Sengo’s shoulder in gratitude.
“He put you to sleep again?”
“Yes. And commanded as he always does.”
Sengo leaned forward. “But we have nothing to counter him, brother. The closer we get, the smaller our numbers become; these …things…he sends after us, are more than dead, but less than men, and they are weeding us out, and down.”
“What are you saying, Sengo, that we turn back?”
“No. He is using rituals that were old beyond writing, dark and forbidden; these are workings, and dead things, that would drive most insane.”
He seemed to consider what he was going to say next, which meant it was portentous, but I’d known him long enough to let him form his thought.
“We need someone like him.”
“In our ranks?”
“How else can we fight him?”
The fires did their cleansing dance, and the flesh of men I spoke with only yesterday, smiled with, drank with, told ribald jokes with, wrestled with and fought beside, now curled and blackened and drifted up in red sparks under the waxing moon and the wheeling stars.
Sengo’s smile was tenuous.
“He will be here tomorrow.”