A question nags at me persistently, “Where must I be to be so enveloped by such an offensive malodor?” A weight lays upon me pinning me down in this immeasurable darkness. A sudden wave of claustrophobia strikes threatening to overwhelm me, dragging me into the vast depths of hysteria, but I easily manage to avoid its malicious grasp. I attempt to move pushing out against whatever it is holding me down but I find that even the smallest motion escapes my limbs. I continue to struggle willing the slightest movement at all. Showing no results, panic seizes my mind in a vice grip. I'm not one to give up without a fight but every attempt seems in vain.
I concentrate realizing in very short order that not even the whisper of nature caresses my ear. This silence seems louder than the suffocating inadequacy of my limbs. Within my mortal bones, my senses seem to be fabricating activity in the vacuum of the tomb in which I'm enclosed. I struggle to prevent a panic of imagined movement but I'm not buying it. I notice that the slight sound, one I had previously taken for granted, is absent, the tiniest hint of conversation which was normally carried so easily on the wind signifying human activity. Had there been a victory for either side? I can’t recall, my mind filled with stunning visions that attack me in numbing vivid flashes. Had I been somehow knocked unconscious? It wouldn't be the first time though I had always been lucky enough to have someone drag me to safety away from the battlefield. Where was everyone? I briefly consider crying out for help but push aside the notion for fear of being discovered. It would be disastrous in the position I find myself in, helpless to defend myself and my honor.
The moments pass while I attempt to hold the creeping negative thoughts at bay trying to keep my head clear. I consider my next move, a thought forming slowly in the corner of my mind are concerns that fester only to grow and transform in clarity becoming monstrosities of striking detail. These visions encroach swiftly clouding my sanity, invading my every thought. I envision my family awaiting my return from yet another successful campaign thwarting the threat of the unrelentingly and growing menace of the bestial hordes.
The image in my mind’s eye so brilliant I can virtually taste the salt air rising up from the lapping tides crashing against the docks, I can hear the ships soft colliding into those same rocks alongside the whoops of victory growing steadily in volume from the gathered masses awaiting a victorious return. I’m filled with a palpable sense of pride within my chest warming my heart. I can see my daughter, son and my beaming wife all awaiting my arrival, their faces beaming with pride as I stride onto the dock of my home bearing the banner of the King and the realm on high. Another victory splits my face with a smile, I can even feel the muscles of my face contort beneath the iron mask still dripping with my enemy's grue. Alas it is not real, I am here, buried, entombed in what may very well be my final resting place.
A single blinding ray of sunlight connects with my flesh, somehow finding a path through the assorted debris that blankets me. Dust mites flutter across my line of sight in the single ray highlighting my prone position. In reflex I squint but my eyes fail to cooperate. The blinding agony that I would have previously endured doesn't in any way register. A glint of machinery in the corner of my clouded vision pulls me wildly astray from this pondering. My attempts to turn my head towards it produce nothing but abject frustration. My irritation would normally contort my visage into looks befitting a court jester frolicking in the town square for naught but laughs. How is it then that I cannot move regardless of my numerous ongoing endeavors?
My mind begins to reel. Am I the victim of a damnable sorcerer's spell? I've heard tales of such things, soldiers, even common farmer folk, captured only to be released weeks later as puppets, mindless infiltrators, to breach the City's formidable ranks. I'm not, however, surrounded by ranks of snorting beasts or aberrations of human form strung up in a dark sorceror’s laboratory awaiting transformation nor am I, to my knowledge, secreted in a slimy catacomb. I find myself buried, in solitary confinement and to my knowledge free from any Mage's scrutiny or dark wizardry.
As I find my confines are gradually pulled from around me, my mind reels in recognition. The armor covering the limb tearing aside my temporary cage is much like what I saw myself wearing in my most recent dream of a victorious return home. A sudden realization hits me like a careening cannonball to the gut. The arm within the armor is my own. I know it now to be true. However, it's baffling that I cannot feel it nor the power of my limbs nor the sensation of the protective metal's movement upon it.
The various scrapes, scratches and dents that give the sculptured metal it's character are those that I have also suffered, gifts from the plethora of thwarted enemies, every one of which I can recall sending to the afterlife with a grimace of hatred still deeply etched upon their faces. Each battle and skirmish carved in my mind, as clear as the happiest moment spent in the company of my celebrating comrades, children and my precious wife.
My phantom limb continues to move unfelt. Uncoordinated jerky motions, unpracticed at best, but not of my conscious volition. So how then? Perhaps I am under a dark spell after all! I wish to cry out in alarm but find that I'm unable to do even that. The actions and reflexes I once took for granted, all taken from me, held for ransom, but for whom and for what purpose I can not fathom. My vocal chords are mute, immobile, and unresponsive to anything I command. I want, no, need to scream my frustrations aloud but cannot.
At this exact moment I care not whose attention I attract. My body is not my own yet it moves of its own (?) accord. I'm diminished, nothing now but a prisoner inside of a shell I have no power to control. I am relegated to nothing more than a character in a fable whose actions have been laid out, etched forever in stone, until the final tragic stanza.
Several objects drift pass my eyes managing to direct my attention elsewhere I subsequently ponder yet more questions. How in the name of everything that is damned was I just able to redirect a siege weapon from its position atop me? It was one of our own branded with the King's seal, a stamped blessing (even the year of its production). The same verse found on every piece of weaponry thought to hold the unholy menace at bay, our troops had quickly come to the conclusion that it didn't work regardless of the continued notion that it was effective from those in esteemed positions of religious standing (ironically also those who would never sully themselves by swinging a weapon or even stepping foot on a battlefield). Although the machinery was shattered and strewn around in a multitude of pieces like a ruined small child's toy, it would still take a small platoon of well directed troops to budge the piece in question even a fraction of the distance it had just been moved.
I stumble awkwardly as I endeavor to stand upright, nearly toppling as I fumble kicking out at a curious and rather large rodent. I turn slightly, dazed somewhat as if finding my bearings for the first time following what many might consider a night of unabashed celebration and merriment amidst copiously consumed mass amounts of ale. In the moment it had taken me to turn I happened to spy the space my foreign feeling body and I had crawled out from under. A shallow trench that even in the dim light I could still see was lined with torn cloth and a dark crimson hue. This crawlspace, admittedly no larger than the opening to a small woodland creature’s lair, had yet another distracting feature, the unmistakable remains of another, darkened by writhing parasites disturbed by my own awakening, now no more than a flattened sack of dried flesh wrapped within various fabric of indeterminable color. The body like no human carcass I'd ever seen and I've witnessed more than my fair share, both close comrades, strangers and all manner of beasts in various states of decay and distress, enough to last several lifetimes in fact.
It appeared as though I'd managed to drag a beast down as I had fallen. An ugly specimen without a doubt sporting a ridge of horns from forehead to chin and the telltale sign of the invading hordes on its forehead. It was the brand of the damned, an uneven circle crossed with a multitude of ragged lines at its center. The idea that it was the same creature that might have delivered the fatal blow that had taken me out of this mortal coil is but a fleeting thought. I'll never know for certain. I only wish I were able to smirk, however, as it's the first thought since my waking to yank me momentarily from the sullen, depressing, predicament I find myself in.
The vessel holding my helpless conscious mind staggers on through air choked with smoke. A wind whips up to whisper against my upright form, perhaps in feeble offense to my sudden animated presence. A tableau of carnage unfolds before my line of sight. My phantom body’s slow unhurried pace with the occasional swooping limb used to dislodge hurdles of all manner in my path gives me plenty of opportunity to witness that which I'd prefer not to, a sight of seemingly endless nightmarish proportions. What was once a grassy serene plain is silent but for the sounds of shredding flesh coupled with the shrieking caws from carrion birds disturbed by their brethren or clusters of vermin from their abundant free-for-all buffet. Bodies are strewn haphazardly about with appendages torn from their sockets some with orifices splayed widely open. I can see shining black eyes peering out from many claimed as residence by nature's scavengers, all in glorious kaleidoscopic Technicolor. Torsos, arms and legs arranged as if in a mocking jest, an unholy umbrage to any individuals’ hopes, dreams and struggles. Crimson graffiti in an alien text adorns discarded armor tossed against pyramids of dripping heads, torn genitalia entangled in filth being fought over by the hungry carrion scavengers. All this covered in a fine, constantly shifting, blackened netting of flies feasting well.
I remain disoriented. Is it morning, or the late hours of the evening? I have so many questions with no ability to ask nor be given an answer to a single one. Frustration doesn't even begin to cover my emotional state. My phantom limbs shamble onward. A steady, sluggish, unhurried pace with no care for what's trampled underfoot, no recognition nor respect for the fallen, the dead mean less than dirt, mere obstacles hindering progress, nothing more. I ponder upon a destination, does this host I’m entrapped in even know or is it running on instinct alone? I can't help but muse again on the possible driving force beckoning us on or for what purpose and for whose desire? If I were able I would gladly pray to the Gods, if only for the luxury of closing my eyes to the horrors in my view. It was a madman's gruesome tapestry that burned my senses making me want me to scream in torment yet lacking the means to do so.
My vision was suddenly jarred alive by a screech of metal against something indicating I’d been hit by something. A twisted corpse leered up, greeting me with stiffened arms as I plummet toward it. As my host momentarily loses his footing my eyes fall toward my midriff. A length of wood, a spear, is visible. Positioned at an angle, it's sharp point slips further into the carcass only inches below awaiting my embrace, my own weight aiding in its and our descent. I see my body pierced, grievously so, a projectile blow appearing from out of the shadows (which could have been avoided if only I had full control of myself). I feel no pain, however, add this fact to the checklist, a solitary check on the side of the positive. With a nimbleness that surprises me my host manages to place my feet closer to the spear's point of entry into the deceased, it seems to burp in offense as its ribs shatter in a sickening wet crunch, only then thrusting up at the same time snapping the offending object penetrating my gut in twain. If I had control of my hands I would have applauded.
In the next instant what remained of the spear was plucked from behind flickering past my sight as it was tossed away. I’m able to follow its flight as it lands with a thunk and an audible, “Ugh!,” of shock and surprise from its unsuspecting recipient. The splintered projectile's angle had abruptly affixed a figure in a small ragtag group (most probably scavengers) against a smoldering tree trunk. The same gathering were seemingly disinterested with their backs to us. Not so much now, after all their intended target was thought eliminated and thus no longer a threat.
With mouths collectively agape the spastically quivering figure's comrades turn. We’re on them in an instant, the fair distance covered in the blink of an eye. My phantom limbs surprising me with their dexterity and reaction time, again if able I would cheer then applaud. I must be in shock, of course, it's to be expected. I've awoken in a body, held captive and controlled by some other. Before the duo have a chance to defend themselves their limbs are clenched then torn asunder, crimson decorates a wide radius of the inanimate and those feasting unaware upon them. The two bodies slump atop each other, eyes wide as they gasp their last. In a final combined majestic plume they have exited this plane of existence.
The insignia on my armor is indistinguishable, as too are the vibrant colors, the vivid reds and blues of my home, the Royal stronghold, the largest and most prosperous City in the realm, Saranquestina. The city’s crest, spread wings of a falcon with the proud golden city beneath, that surrounds the royal coat of arms is no more than a faded image, much like my memories. Flashes of this and that disrupting my thoughts, I have a hard time keeping them all straight, orderly and making any sense. Several clasps of my armor have disintegrated and are broken apart resulting in many sections hanging askew. Chain mail showing through with a rusted stain in ragged patches beneath.
My face is uncovered, the lower part of my helmet missing, the strong angular lines of my ancestry absent replaced by hanging strips of flesh and a tattered dank pit where my nose once was. Liquid crimson and chunks of darkened dried grue hang from my dislocated mandible. My situation only gets more horrific by the moment, what manner of beast have I become? Bleached bone stares back at me, dark cavities displaying naught but rot and virulent pustules. Darkened sockets struggling to hold in place opaque lifeless orbs fractured by the unmistakable signs of blinding cataracts but even worse... an absence, no spark of life, my soul is gone.
How can this be? For I am still here, in residence like the wax of a candle unable to control the will of the flame's wrath, am I to dissolve to nothingness when my usefulness is through? Why am I here, the vicious cycle of query starts again, am I a prisoner in purgatory for sins I may have committed against another?
We stagger on, my body and mind separate, leaving the detritus, a pile of inhumanity, behind. The questions gain momentum swirling like a force of angered nature. I cannot think of anything else. My agitated thought pattern is suddenly interrupted by my wife's beauty, her face. How many days, weeks, months, years has it been since last I held her in my arms? Her striking visage blocks out all else. I would break down in tears and surrender to whatever holds me in sway if only to see her one more time. What has become of my family, do they lay twisted, lifeless and broken in rubble or have they become a center piece in an epic deviant feast for the ravenous hordes? I banish the thought unwilling to dwell on such things. My mind again begins to wander as scenes of unfathomable atrocity threaten to burn through my derelict retinas.
I take solace in a single thought above all the others. A decision that the War Council unanimously passed, the notion that the fairest of the sexes, mothers and daughters could not march to the battlefield. Though there was still Cassandra. An anomaly, a warrior who could best a great many of my legion with any weapon or in hand to hand combat. Thank the Gods on high that she was granted respite from the horrors of this battlefield, instead she was granted the command of the City's defenses. But what has become of her? What of my homeland? Her wicked smile, her brunette tresses, her slender physique, her warm flesh quivering in orgasm against mine. Perhaps the reasoning behind my state is presenting itself, am I being punished for my lustful actions? An act, admittedly more than just one, of selfish foolishness? A secret that could well destroy an Empire. A married commoner, turned knight, fraternizing with Royalty. It would not be stood for nor supported in any way. Regardless of the fact that her Father and I were very close friends. Forget it, concentrate, for there may well be nothing or no one to apologize to nor confess your sins to. Face it you're in no position to do anything about it anyway. Wait it out.
I continue to struggle with what it all might mean when we abruptly come to a halt. The landscape had become a blur, nothing registering as important nor of any overall use to me. I have no idea for how long or for what distance we had traveled. My body appears to not need rest only sustenance. The unholiest of acts, the consumption of blood or something even more grisly yet taken from the barely alive and unwilling to help us on our course to only the Gods knew where. The sun had faded into nothingness in the distance, an immeasurable amount of times, only to rise again in front of us. I didn't even begin to count as lost as I was, adrift, in the torturous depressing meanderings of my own useless calculations and past life recollections. My host lifts our head up leaning back slightly to take in the whole sight. Aghast and dumbstruck I witness what I thought was long lost. The walls of the City, crumbling but still upright, tall and still proud despite all the carnage bordering it. Several banners hang with little to no enthusiasm, long lengths of shredded, faded fabric flap to and fro in the vicious winds that whip around a collection of armor encrusted bones of my brethren hundreds of feet below.
Saranquestina’s main gate juts up from the earth like a stubborn tree root several yards away, a ragged hole sighing where it once pivoted to allow entry into the City. Ancient carved wood groans loudly in protest at the dead's combined weight scattered atop its breadth. The noise startles a scavenging mutt, seemingly in paradise, muzzle deep in a pile of glistening innards. The air is thick, cloyed with menace, acrid with smoke and the unmistakable aroma of death. A subtle noise (raised voices followed by the clash of steel?) garners my steed's attention and pulls his frame inexorably toward the promise of life and something nutritious to line our putrescent gut. Rounding abstract clusters of toppled carved rock and jagged timber constructs marked by telltale signs of a successful invading force, we stand before the main thoroughfare.
What were once manned by guards are now desolate but for the gutters lined with stagnant filth and various skeletal forms laying in graceful repose picked clean of flesh with only tattered remnants of cloth remaining. Strange that there are more fallen at the gates than in the City itself. Had the City been successfully defended? If so where was everyone? Why do I detect an air of malevolence? My form staggers on unsure, its former confidence no longer evident, its carefully placed footfalls, one directly in front of the other. Does it sense danger? Is it searching for something? Does this vessel have the capacity to fear?
The storefronts are decimated. All manner of crafted wares scattered in the street, stringed jewels entangled in worthless trinkets all discarded like refuse, the alluring promises from visiting street vendors no longer an abrasive score of mixed dialects adrift on the wind. A plethora of memories of my childhood gallop fleetingly atop my emotions clearing in an instant as my body abruptly turns. I spy movement down a nearby alleyway, a flash of color, a vibrant hue of red I will never forget. One I believed I would never see again. Apparently the same movement has spurred interest in my mount changing my field of vision only slightly as we inch forward. But why so cautious? Again the whisper of the same stunning hue of red, this time losing itself around a corner. Footsteps now, echoing, growing quieter with every step. I can only wonder if we are being lured someplace and for what purpose? I have no way to warn myself, I can only follow our (calculated) progress with a growing sense of curiosity. My host body decides to follow, I can't help but ponder the fact that we're being summoned whilst at the same time being informed to be ever vigilant.
A limb appears encased in dirt and dust, my own, striking out into the inky abyss. My hand retracts pulling back into view a wrinkled neck in a tight grasp. A body ravaged by sickness and shaking in fear comes into my view though still obscured in partial darkness. My mind reels as if in slow motion… I know this person.
As my fist closes accompanied by a sickening snap of fracturing cartilage I register too late the identity of the life ebbing away within my gloved hands. This form is feeble in stature, not at all like in months prior. Standing ramrod straight the King I remember was an imposing figure, his regal bearing demanding attention. The man I see now is cowering, twisted and hunched, a mere bundle of bones with ill-fitting, loose colorless rags hiding in the shadows. But from whom or what was he hiding? Sapphire blue eyes widen in alarm dissolving my wandering concerns instantly. Warmth spreads out from under a swath of hair. His slack mouth falls open as a single word squeezes from his trembling lips, “Peter?”
An accusation, a question, five pleading letters, the last word spoken by my King, my friend, as his life is stolen by my own, now foreign, hand. I will my hand to let go, every fiber of what remains of my being screaming, demanding release, alas I fear it is too late. I have no power over the appendage, the metal of what remains of my armored gloves complains noisily as the pressure increases. The Regal flesh loses its pink hue, a pale blue pallor staking claim in an ever widening domain. The light has long since departed his eyes. My hand tightend crushing more than merely the existence from one I had considered as close a friend as I ever had. I watch unable to put an end to the madness. My king is dead, dammit! He's dead! What next?
A nearby soft voice whips my head around in a dizzying motion. The King's lifeless torso discarded tumbling to the dirt floor, forgotten. The voice is one I have missed. The face just feet from my own is my wife's. Her high cheek bones, emerald eyes that burn in concentration, cheeks I've held so tenderly as our lips met a thousand times and more. Her mouth set in a wicked grimace, an expression of hatred and utter loathing inflicts as much mental damage to me as the weapon that is currently embellishing its wielder's fury upon me. Distraction holds me captive, emotions send lightning bolts into the darkness that is beginning to fully engulf me. The bludgeoning caress of steel embeds itself yet again, pushing us back, this time in the narrow space between my under arm and armor.
My vision spirals as we collapse. I catch sight of my aggressor as our movements come to a jarring conclusion against a stone column. Cassandra stands over me, her weapon flashes as it plummets in an expertly controlled downward arc. I witness my phantom body shudder in a spastic seizure creating a dust cloud from a few feet away. I blink as the two female forms close on my position. One stumbles revealing a widening crimson grin upon her neck. Cassandra grins maniacally as she wipes her bloodied blade across my slain wife's faded garments. I could swear that a drop of moisture fell from my eye as that same wicked blade descended to cleave my next thought in two.
I wrestle my way out of my daze, one I do not wish to leave. The sun welcomes my first gaze overpowering and bright overhead in a cloudless sky. Though not in any way as obnoxious and worrisome as the sounds of steel crashing against steel, against grain, across flesh. Weapons clash close enough to shake the earth in which we stand, the sweat of exertion flings in our direction. I can taste the aroma of battle thick in the back of my throat. The carnage is closing in on us fast.
“I managed to pull you from the front lines Sir, you took a nasty hit. For a second there I thought you were a goner for sure.”
“My gratitude. One of these days I'll find a way to show you how much that means to me.” Accepting my comrade’s outstretched arm I manage to rise. My stance unsteady, I wobble somewhat, unsteady and still very much dazed and unsure of my whereabouts.
“Have our lines been breach…” The question cut off falling on deaf ears.
My savior disintegrates into a dozen pieces at my feet, transformed to crimson paint across my armor, splattered in a shower of grue that covers my masked eyes, the shield obscuring my view completely. I wipe at my face with sluggish movements attesting my weakened condition. My limbs feel foreign, truthfully I've felt more coordinated whilst “hammered” drunk. Still unable to see a God damned thing I reach to remove my helmet. With its weight in my hand I look up directly into a blinding curtain of blazing green light moving steadily towards my position. I turn away then immediately back swinging up and out with my helmet. It careens through a light shield connecting with a crunch!
I haven't enough time to congratulate myself as in the next instant an earth shattering explosion tosses me aside weightlessly. I have an instant in which to thank the Gods for an unexpected soft landing before darkness engulfs me again.