Chapter 13 – Memories of Battle

 

Seventh of Learning 1142

Striker stood silently, bow held steady, arrow knocked and ready to let fly. She paused, inhaled and released both the arrow and breath at the same time. She watched it fly straight into the side of a plump rabbit, which hadn’t begun to suspect it was going to die. Another one of those, and they wouldn’t have to break out rations for dinner.

“What did that rabbit ever do to you?” asked Garne.

“He insulted me by looking tasty. I don’t look that tasty.”

Garne studied her but didn’t take the bait. Striker couldn’t figure out if he was shy or disinterested.’’

Memories of Battle

Ressssen decided it might be timely to chime in. “I think you look quite tasty, but my jaws won’t open wide enough to sssswallow you whole.”

The rest of them shook their heads, except for Merck who was, after all, an outsider.

Striker fell into step beside Garne.

“I hope I don’t make you uncomfortable.”

“What? Oh…”, he laughed. “Not at all. You’re certainly attractive, you don’t need me to tell you that. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression either. I was in a relationship with a team member once. It didn’t end well.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about. I just remember how it felt when we lost her, and…I can’t go through that again. I can’t.”

She could feel the pain and anger driving his words, a mere glimpse of the anguish he kept locked inside. This was a side of Garne that Striker hadn’t known. He seemed largely carefree. Maybe a bit violent, but all adventurers could lay claim to that at some point. Even Borin, their healer, could be driven to great anger under the right circumstances, though she’d only witnessed it once.

“I understand. I’ll try to remember in the future.”

Garne shook his head emphatically. “No. Don’t change your behavior on my account. You’re fine as you are. Whatever issues I have, and I have plenty, they’re mine to deal with. No one should have to change their behavior for me. I’ll be fine.”

A moment later, he threw a knife and neatly skewered a rabbit that Striker hadn’t noticed, distracted as she was by the conversation.

“I suspect this is a dangerous place to be a rabbit,” she said.

Garne shrugged. “Danger is everywhere, whether you’re a rabbit or not.”

He grew silent, and Striker knew he was thinking about his team member. She wanted to ask what had happened but decided against it. If he wanted to tell her, he would. Secrets… they all had them.

She slowed her pace and allowed the group to walk in front of her. The back of the party was her usual spot, using her keen senses to keep half an eye behind them. This was only the first day of what was at least a four day walk, but probably five or six depending on how far they could push the Priest. She considered moving forward to get a better read on him, then decided against it. Let Ressssen handle him. Striker had an uncomfortable feeling that Merck Vanderoth’s presence among them was going to complicate her life in ways she couldn’t yet imagine. And she had a pretty decent imagination.

*

Eric, Dahr and Kalutu were in the anteroom of their quarters. Eric and Dahr were preparing for bed, and Kalutu was standing to the side, watching the two young men. He watched them strip off their clothes and wash up, first pouring water into basins that looked too expensive to trust to any of the young men he’d known previously, and then using a cloth to scrub the accumulated sweat and grime from their bodies. After, he watched Eric drink a cup of red liquid which he understood to be his medicine. There was a lot he wanted to ask, but as tired as his masters were, he wasn’t sure this was the time. He was trying to organize his thoughts, when there was a knock on the door.

Before anyone could answer, the door opened and Chari slipped in. Fortunately, Eric and Dahr had already put on robes.

“Hi,” said Eric, as if he’d expected her to drop by for tea and biscuits.

Dahr was less welcoming. “What are you doing here, Chari?”

“We need to talk. And we need to do it where no one can overhear.”

“About what?” asked Eric.

Chari met Eric’s eyes. “Something is going on. That much is obvious. Things are happening that don’t usually happen at all, let alone all at the same time. It seems to be centered around the two of you, but then you were in my dream during my transition, so I feel like I’m involved too. We’re being trained to be ready for anything, but no one knows how to train us.”

“What do you mean?” asked Eric.

“You’re a Tank, Eric. Dahr is…I don’t know what Dahr is, nor does anyone else. I’m a Warrior. Everyone knows how to train me, but what about you two?”

It was a good question, and no one had an answer for it.

She turned her attention to Dahr. “As for you, we know you’re holding back from us. I figure there’s a good reason for that, or you’d at least tell Eric. And I think you haven’t because of Eric’s reactions when around you. I think the three of us need to trust each other.”

“I can’t tell you my class, because if I do bad things will happen,” said Dahr. “George told me this. It’s not like I don’t want to tell you.”

“What do you mean bad things will happen?” asked Eric.

“He said it would be the end of everything.”

“Telling us your class would be the end of everything?” asked Chari. “How exactly does that work?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Dahr. “No one has ever heard of my class. It’s one of a kind. No one knows what it is or does. I don’t even know my own skills.”

“What are the odds of two brothers getting unknown classes, almost at the exact same time. Or sharing a familiar for the first time ever. Sheba showed up at the palace and said we need to be trained, all three of us. We’re in this together. We have to start trusting each other.”

“But Dahr said that bad things would happen if he told us his class,” said Eric.

“You remember the amazing things Dahr was doing with magic today. I don’t believe that was Dahr at all.”

Eric looked thoughtful. “You think it was George.”

“It was,” said Dahr, and they all looked at him.

Dahr’s demeanor had changed. He was no longer tired. No longer a boy. In fact, even though he wore the same body, Kalutu didn’t think he was human at that moment.

“It’s George, isn’t it?” asked Eric.

“In the flesh,” replied Dahr/George. “Just not my flesh. In fact, I don’t have flesh at all.”

“We need answers,” demanded Chari.

“You’re the feisty one. Too bad you pledged your service to Sheba. You and I could have had a lot of fun working together.”

“Who are you?” Kalutu demanded. “What hold do you have on Prince Dahr?”

“I’ve claimed him. Sometimes a person chooses who he serves, sometimes it’s chosen for him. Sheba doesn’t seem to mind.”

Eric didn’t look impressed. “Royalty usually gets to choose who they serve.”

“Usually is not always and anyway, when I claimed Dahr he was still a servant, not a noble. In any case it’s done and can not be undone.”

“What do you want from Dahr?” demanded Eric.

“Access. Only that. Dahr isn’t just important to me. He’s important to everyone. Didn’t Sheba herself tell you that my presence in Dahr aids her cause?”

Eric started to reply but forced himself to stop and think. The being, whatever or whoever it was, was correct. This was part of Sheba’s will.

“Better,” said the creature in a voice that was very much Dahr’s and yet very much something else as well. “Listen to me, because there isn’t much time. Dahr will remember this conversation. He can trust the two of you and share everything he knows. But he has made a promise to me, and you both must keep this promise as well. My identity and his class must be kept secret. If you can agree to that, then Dahr can tell you what he knows.”

Eric nodded immediately, but Chari wasn’t convinced.

“What’s to stop us from agreeing and then revealing what he told us anyway?”

“Consequences. I told Dahr that everything depends on this secret. If you reveal it, your actions will cause the end of life as you know it. Are you willing to take that risk?”

Chari shook her head, both in denial and disbelief. “That makes no sense. How can knowing anything bring about the end of life.”

“The universe, the world made of worlds, is more complicated than you know. There are events that must happen, but in order for them to happen, people must not know why they are happening. Knowing will affect their actions which could change that which must be. Once people know Dahr’s class, he will become a target. If he were to die, then what he needs to do can not be done. Dahr is the only one that can do what needs to be done, for he is the only one of his kind. Do you understand now?”

“But if people don’t know his class, how will finding out the name of the class change anything? No one has ever heard of it, right?”

“No one had ever heard of Defender before the first Defender, and yet, people were able to figure out things about it without being told. Humans are particularly adept at putting clues together to solve puzzles. Most of the sentient races are. We are racing against time. Even if someone heard the name, and grew curious about the class and detained Dahr, it could spell failure for his mission.”

“What mission?” asked Chari.

“You are not ready to learn the nature of the mission yet. Someone is missing. He is on the way, but his arrival will take some time.”

Chari stared at him, as if trying to divine the truth by force of will alone, but at last she nodded. It wasn’t a reluctant gesture, not a resigned one. Chari had thought about it, understood and made up her mind. She would not reveal Dahr’s class to anyone.

“I have one final question,” said Chari.

“Ask.”

“Why did you take over Dahr’s body when Lord Ormund was trying to teach us magic. What did it accomplish?”

“Ah. Lord Ormund is a fool. He’s talented enough, for a mortal, but he’s full of ambition and self-importance. He thinks he’s on the verge of great power when he is only scratching the surface. When a man like that sees someone he deems to be little more than a boy holding such power, it teaches him an important lesson. Some lessons are more fun to teach than others. I took pleasure in showing Lord Ormund he is not all he thinks he is. But he was not injured in learning that lesson.”

Chari’s stare hadn’t wavered, but she nodded as if satisfied, then Dahr’s body relaxed, and he was back.

“Woah,” said Dahr.

“Are you all right, Dahr?” asked Kalutu.

“Yeah, I’m okay. It just feels weird when I play host to George. Even weirder when he leaves me. It’s like I was more than I am, and then I’m less again. It’s strange to feel so powerful and then lose it. Though if I’m not mistaken, some of it remains behind. I end up knowing things I had no way of knowing. Like I’d learned something but can’t remember where I’d learned it. Sometimes, I don’t realize it right away, and then suddenly it falls into place when something reminds me of it.”

“That sounds useful,” said Eric.

“It’s not really. It’s not like I can control it. I get little hints of things that I probably shouldn’t know. I don’t think that George is intentionally leaving information behind, it’s more like part of what he knows relates to what I know, so I retain just a drop of it.”

Chari looked suspicious. “That sounds like something you probably shouldn’t know. You should hear how you sound.”

Dahr nodded. “Yeah. That’s the thing. I don’t know what information was in my mind before and what was added by George’s presence.”

“Is that a part of your class?” asked Eric.

“I have no idea. All I really know is that I’m a Level 1 Nexus. Remember, you can’t tell anyone. I mean it.”

“Do you know what that is?” asked Chari.

“No, I don’t. And I don’t know any of my skills either, except for the ability to summon a familiar. I think we were fortunate to get Kalutu.”

Eric shook his head. “I don’t think fortune had anything to do with this. When George bound you to him, he knew what he was doing, and so, I think, did Sheba.”

The four stood looking at each other, weighing the words Prince Eric had just said. Spoken like that, it was obvious. Whatever was happening, it was beyond them. They didn’t have enough information to disobey the beings that had accepted them into their service. As such, they would have to obey in ignorance, trusting that the higher beings wouldn’t lead them astray. For the humans in the room, that might have been easy, but Kalutu had never been touched by a god, and he wasn’t as certain as the others that all greater beings always had humanity’s best interests at heart. He didn’t share this information however.

The three young royals had quite enough to be thinking about.

*

Eighth of Learning 1142

King Terrence sat on his throne, looking vexed. Lord Ormund, the overweight, boisterous and very capable mage stood beside the slighter, more reserved form of Leata, the chamberlain. Almost all kings had male chamberlains but Terrence didn’t hold with that sort of nonsense. There was a clear best person for the job, and he had chosen her.

Lord Ormund had already described how Dahr had upstaged him. To the king it seemed he was more annoyed at being made to look foolish than by the impossibility of the act itself. Dahr had cast a spell with no incantation? A spell that was beyond one of his own court mystics?

Leata was speaking now, and he listened to her report on the boys’ education. King Terrence thought she’d finished, but she added one final detail.

“Dahr asked why the undead need farmers.”

“What did you tell him?” asked Terrence.

“I asked him where he’d heard they have farmers. It’s preposterous I know, and I probably wouldn’t have brought it up at all if not for the experience Lord Ormund related. The boy knows things that he shouldn’t know. And undead farmers? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Nor have most people,” said the king softly. “The undead indeed do have farmers. They are not, however, what you might think they are, though how Dahr could possibly know of them is beyond me. People don’t speak of it. Those that were there on the front lines though, some of them will remember.”

“Do you think he overheard soldiers talking about it?”

“Maybe, but he certainly didn’t overhear how to cast that spell. No, I think Dahr’s source of information is far more powerful.”

“His hidden god,” Leata realized.

The king nodded. “I think I need to have a chat with the boys. Leata, send someone to fetch them. I want to talk to them as soon as possible.”

The chamberlain moved off to follow the king’s instructions. The mage, realizing he had been dismissed, bowed and backed away before turning and leaving the throne room. The king glanced at Treya’s empty throne and wished she were here, but she was with Princess Chari and Queen Rhea breaking their fast. Ah well, she’ll turn up eventually, though he could use her council now.

It was all getting away from him. Dahr summoning a familiar, casting complex spells without training. Unbelievable. Only Sheba’s reassurance took the edge off his growing nervousness. She had talked about world changing events. World changing events that his sons would be part of. What could he do to protect them that he wasn’t already doing? Should he even interfere? Should he not trust the goddess of honor to see them through whatever was ahead of them? They were men now, after all, even if Dahr was younger than that normally took place.

Was his lack of faith the reason he hadn’t leveled in so long? He’d been Level 19 for ages now. It wasn’t unusual for people to have a level cap, a natural ceiling they could not surpass. And in truth, reaching Tier 3 was extremely rare. Level 19 was a high level by anyone’s standards, but Terrence still felt like he wasn’t good enough. And then Sheba had visited him in the throne room. She had come. She had shown him favor. And he no longer believed he wasn’t good enough. He should trust his goddess. He knew that. And he didup until the mention of the undead. Why had Dahr brought up undead farmers?

King Terrence thought about the goddess’s warning, about the mention of undead, about Dahr’s strange powers and started to suspect they were all connected. The Undead King had been silent for a long time, or rather, news from that realm had been hard to acquire and the rare tidbits he had received told him nothing out of the ordinary. Was the Undead King preparing for war again? Had he rebuilt his armies? Did he have some new strategy or weapon?

Terrence didn’t know why he thought this way. Perhaps it was his own personal experience with the undead, brought to the surface by what Leata had told him. Maybe it was only his nerves getting the better of him, but King Terrence had learned long ago to trust his instincts. Regardless of the reason his thoughts had turned to Xarinos, it wouldn’t hurt to give the boys at least some information about the Undead War. After all, Dahr had been conceived during them.

The strangeness of everything that had passed felt like a great weight on the king’s soul. He leaned back on his throne and closed his eyes. He was tired. Tired of being out of control and not knowing what was going on. And yet that was what the goddess required of him. He breathed in deeply and slowly released his breath. He continued to repeat the process, until Leata returned with his two sons.

He had found some balance while awaiting their arrival, so he smiled now as they approached and knelt.

“Get up, both of you. It’s time we had a talk.”

Eric looked up expectantly, but Dahr looked unhappy.

“Don’t worry Dahr. I won’t ask you anything that will get you in trouble with your god.”

Dahr nodded, relieved.

“I did want to ask you about a comment you made, however. Tell me, what do you know of undead farmers?”

“Nothing really. Only that they exist.”

“Can you tell me where you heard about them?”

“I have visions. I saw one during a vision, but it was in passing.”

“Visions? Do you have them often?”

“I don’t know if it’s okay to talk about them,” replied Dahr, hesitantly.

“It’s fine. Let’s talk about something else. Since you’ve seen undead in one of these visions, let me tell you a bit about them.”

Both of the boys leaned forward expectantly. King Terrence sat back on his throne and stared off into the distance, remembering. How could he begin to explain the fear, the tension of waiting, the pain of seeing so many good men fall, the mad vicious attacks that came without warning. The need to live just one more day so you could take the fight back to the enemy. There were no words. No words. Yet his sons stood waiting for him to speak. They expected him to share this festering wound on his soul. They expected him to prepare them for what was to come. He prayed with all his might to Sheba that whatever was coming, it had nothing to do with Xarinos or the Undead King. He didn’t know how long he sat there, haunted, scared to even begin to speak for fear of the nightmares returning. Finally, the king drew a deep breath and heard his own voice as if from a great distance.

“When the undead attacked Death’s Doorstep, the entire world united against them. Everyone understood the threat, so each kingdom sent as many troops as they could. The force arrayed against the Undead King was unprecedented. Enemy kingdoms that hadn’t spoken in years fought side by side against the greater threat.”

“I don’t understand,” interrupted Dahr. “What was the threat?”

The king’s eyebrows rose in surprise. With all Dahr seemed to know, this gap in his knowledge felt odd to say the least. “When you bury something on the Plains of Xarinos, it doesn’t stay dead. We didn’t understand at first. Every time they attacked us, we lost people and they lost people. But their people came back and ours didn’t. Until they did. The Undead took our corpses and buried them. And when they came back, they were changed.”

“Changed how?” asked Dahr, fascinated.

“When you’re at war, even if you’re king, you can grow close to the men you’re fighting with. One of my favorites was an archer named Kerren. He was a fine shot, and as brave as any man I’d ever met. An optimist by nature, Kerren never expected to die, but he did, when the undead over ran our fortified position through sheer strength of numbers. We were driven back, forced to retreat, but not all of us made it out.

“The undead were everywhere. Many looked like normal people, but others…”

“What did they look like,” asked Eric.

“Things that were once people. Areas of their body missing or gouged out. Covered in scars from wounds that healed after they were dead. Missing eyes, or ears or even part of their face. And yet some looked like any other warrior on any other battlefield, but that just made it more surreal. They were all dead, and they came for us.”

The king blew out his breath as if he were in physical pain. “Kerren had stayed behind to cover our retreat, but he had waited too long. When I’d risked a look back he was surrounded. I watched as he was stabbed over and over again. I saw him fall. He fought till the very end, but there were so damned many. And when he finally was too weak to lash out, the undead left him there bleeding out on the ground. I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t go back for him. All I could do was flee so that his sacrifice was not in vain.”

The king closed his eyes, the memories draped across his consciousness like a death shroud. He kept his eyes closed, as he pictured what came next.

“I slowed to help some injured soldiers escape, and that was my undoing. One of the undead threw a javelin and it pierced my side. I stumbled and went down. The world was chaos around me. I tried to get away from the fighting, to get to safety but I crawled off an embankment instead and fell out of sight. It’s the only reason I’m alive today. I lay there for a long time, bleeding into the parched ground, half alive, barely conscious. Then the battle ended and the undead withdrew.

“Our soldiers came back later to burn the corpses, but there were none. The undead had taken them. Apparently taking corpses had been the reason for the attack. They weren’t trying to gain ground. They were building their own forces at our expense. How can you defeat a foe that gets stronger as you get weaker?”

“How did you?” asked Eric. “It seems impossible.”

The king opened his eyes, shifted his gaze to his eldest son and nodded.

“It took a long time, but remember, it was every kingdom in the world against them. As we discovered their tactics, we were able to drive them back to their land. But only at great cost to ourselves and only by outnumbering them twenty to one. We won the battle, but we couldn’t take it back to them on the plains, where we’d all just fall and come back as the enemy. No one wanted that.”

“I saw him again, you know. Months later, on the battlefield, fighting for them. My friend, Kerren. There was fighting everywhere when we saw each other. He was just a few feet away from me, holding a bow as he had so often when he was alive. He looked at me, and there was something in his eyes. He didn’t attack me, and I didn’t attack him. We just stared at each other.

“It’s not what you think,” he said, and he sounded so much like himself that I stopped and listened.

“What’s not?

“The undead. We’re not the threat you think.”

“We were two old friends stopping to chat in the middle of a storm, but we never felt the rain. The battle raged around us, but nothing attacked from either side, as if destiny had a hand in protecting us so we could say a proper goodbye.

“I looked into his eyes. I had seen him die, but here he was, having a conversation as if it had never happened. He was so much like him. I wanted so much to believe he had survived, but Kerren hated the undead more than anyone. There is no way he’d ever fight for them. He’d lost too many of his own friends in those battles. To see him defending them now… I was horrified.

“My answer to the last words he spoke to me was a sword through his throat. I set him free. It was the least I could do. We won that battle, and I made sure to burn the body so they couldn’t bury it again. Undead farmers don’t grow food, Dahr. They grow soldiers. They tend to the corpses they plant into the ground, nurturing them in ways known only to themselves, growing a loyal and dedicated army.

“It’s true we did eventually end the war, and that the Undead King never dared attack again, because he knows we’ll all gather against him. By the same token, we can’t take the battle back to him. It’s an endless stalemate.”

“Couldn’t we just portal an army into the heart of Xarinos?” asked Eric.

“No,” said the king. “Even if a mage ever penetrated far enough into the undead kingdom to study it enough to form a portal, the power to teleport enough men through would be far beyond a single man.”

“But there are many mages that can portal. If they were coordinated…” Eric stopped speaking when King Terrence shook his head.

“It’s irrelevant anyway. Portals don’t work on the plains, nor do scrying spells. Whatever protections the Undead King employs, they are equal to our efforts to break them. No one has ever seen inside the Undead King’s castle. We’d be entering enemy territory blind. Even if we outnumbered them, we would be at a serious disadvantage. The supply lines alone…it would be impossible. Eric, we’ve had our best strategists working on this for nearly fifteen years. If there was a way, they’d have found it by now. As for you, Dahr, I don’t know why your god showed you an undead farmer, but I fear the Undead King is preparing for war.”

“Why would you think that?” asked Dahr, eyes wide.

“Because you were shown a vision of the undead, and Sheba has told us the world is going to change and danger is coming. It disturbs me. I was lucky to live through that war, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose either of my boys to another one.”

Dahr looked doubtful. “I don’t think that’s it.”

“Are you sure?”

“No. My god, he…he’s not very big on details. He keeps a lot of secrets. Even his name. I just have this feeling.”

“What feeling?”

“A war won’t target me and Eric specifically, and though I can’t say for sure, I believe that whatever is coming is coming for us directly.”

The king leaned forward. “Then I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’ll post a team of guards on you all day and all night.”

Eric shook his head. “You can’t stop this father. Dahr and I have to do this. That’s why Sheba asked us to be trained.”

“You can’t expect me not to try and protect you.”

“Training us is protecting us. It’s what the goddess asked of you. Nothing more.”

The king’s face hardened, but he didn’t reply immediately. He scrutinized the two boys… no, young men. He had to keep reminding himself that. When he spoke, his voice was laced with resignation.

“Very well. I’ll make sure you get the training you need. Just let me know if there’s anything else I can do. I just wish we knew when all this will begin.”

Dahr smiled, wryly. “It’s already begun.”

The king sat up straighter. “When? How do you know?”

“It began the moment I entered Eric’s initiation. I know because I was there. Because my nameless class tells me it is so. I know whatever is coming isn’t going to sneak up on us. It will demand our attention.”

“You sound so sure,” said the king. “Is that you talking, Dahr, or is it your god?”

“It’s me, father. But I still know. Ummm, is it okay that I call you that?”

The king drew a breath. It was the first time Dahr had ever called him father. He felt a surge of mixed emotions, too many to sort out all at the same time. Surprise, happiness, pride, guilt both for straying from his marital vows and waiting so long to acknowledge Dahr as his son, discomfort…he wanted to look at the reactions of others in the room, but he only had eyes for his younger son. His son, who he had all but ignored for so many years. He fought back the surge of emotions and nodded.

“Of course you can call me that. You’re my son after all. What else would you call me?”

Dahr smiled relief, and when the king glanced at Eric he saw a broad smile on his older son’s face as well. The others in the room schooled their reactions, though the king thought Leata approved. Though he wanted to savor the moment, the king let it pass. There was too much to do.

“Leata, start their next lesson. Push them as hard as you think you can, then push a bit more. If training is all we can give them, training they shall have.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

She bowed briefly, turned and made her way from the throne room, only stopping briefly at the door to make sure both of the princes were following.