Song at the edge of the blade
Choudhary Bluff. They're on Choudhary Bluff. You know this. You've seen it. You've been there, lived it. Defeat and resurgence. You were on your knees, slain, bound, the yellow sulphur all around, blinding bright, ashes and dust drifting lazily...
The armies stand by, a vast horde all around. You are no longer any threat.
Hanaan smiles slowly, down on you. Too large for a man, zombie lord of a zombie horde, the necromancer king has won, and he knows he's won. You were the only one with the nerve to face him, and here you are. Turned. On your knees. One of his.
But that's not how it ends. In fact it's part of the plan. But what is the plan?
Your dreams are always so prophetic. You know how they end from the start, and you spend the entire dream just trying to get back to that end, that start. You never do make it.
It's just like life. You've dreamed it. Now you need to make it so.
Is he really up there?
It's late. Afternoon. Evening. Nightfall? Always so hard to tell this time of year, the way the sun goes down, the fires come up. A bus rolls up to the stop, and you glance in passing. You stop yourself, look properly. The 296. Choudhary.
You get on ask the driver if this one goes up Choudhary Bluff. He said no, that's the 296B. Only runs on saturdays.
It's tuesday. You're not sure you can wait until saturday. You don't feel like there's time... the looming, crushing feeling, like the whole world feels like an impending cave-in...
The feeling passes.
This bus makes the circuit around the Choudhary mountains, the driver tells you. Or maybe you tell him you're fine just making the circuit, for now? He shrugs. You tap your card, sit down by the windows. It's all windows. It's a bus.
The 296 makes its circuit, weaving in and out of forests, mountains, glowing valley towns all lit up for the night as the dusk slowly settles, as you lean against the window watching. People get on and off. There's talk of the fires in the mountains, that if they spread, there could be a problem. There's talk of how they're needed, these fires, after so long without any. Too much underbrush.
Someone mentions the B won't be running either, not while the Bluff is on fire. Did the driver mention this? He did, didn't he?
Mostly you watch the mountains. Not all of them are on fire, but as the sky darkens, it stands out all the more. Peaks ablaze, glimmers of orange above, on the mountaintops, behind the valleys. Distant, but so close. Is that one Choudhary Bluff? Or that one? You don't actually know.
A few times you could almost swear you see some yellow instead of orange. A deep, lurid yellow blanketing...
They have no idea what's up there, these other passengers, these people living in the shadow of the glittering flames. They go about their lives unhindered: the girls on their phones, giggling and sharing their lives; the guy with the all too obvious bag of pot, technically legal, but only sort of; the students working, even on their way home.
They have no idea. How are you so sure?
Who are you? What is your name? Annalaise, one of the elves of old. You don't feel particularly old, though you still carry a sword, in times where it's no longer so practical to carry a sword. You'd consider a gun, but for your purposes, this still makes more sense. For what you fight, it makes more sense.
"You know why there's so few elves left in the world," Jayce says. "It's him. Hanaan. He fears you."
Ed scoffs. "What does he care," the guy says. "Elves. Humans. It's all the same, asshole hates everyone."
"It's the prophecy," Jayce insists. "He fears the prophecies."
The conversation goes on, and around the table, and you mostly just listen, poking your food. You eat with these guys, and Emily, because they're all a little strange. Humans who think a bit like elves. A bit like you. A bit... too much.
"But if Hanaan is even active," Nick is saying, "wouldn't we be hearing something about it? A giant ancient zombie lord who turns the land to sulphur seems kind of hard to miss."
"Not if people want to miss it," Ed says. "News has plenty of other crap to scare people with. Might as well stick to the believable stuff."
"It's real," Jayce points out.
"So?" Ed says. "How many people use magic these days? Hear about necromancy and the risen at all? How many people even see an elf and notice?"
He's looking at you. Rather pointedly.
"People sometimes notice the sword," you say.
"Get carded for it?" Ed asks.
"Usually they realise I'm an elf before that!" you say. You have had a few instances where they didn't until after, however. The looks of confusion, disbelief, embarrassment had been quite awkward.
"Well I don't care if it's a trope," Jayce says. "I really think it fits that Hanaan has been taking out elves specifically because there's some prophecy that it's going to be specifically one of you going to take him out.
"You going to take him out?" Jayce asks you.
You sort of... shrug? A thinking gesture. "I haven't worked out how yet," you say.
Everyone just sort of stares at you for a moment.
"Wait, so you are?" Nick asks, breaking the silence.
"Hanaan's undead are bound to his will," you tell them. "They have to follow his commands, and lose all that they were. I need to find a way around that, to remain myself and in control, even after I'm turned."
"Wat," Emily says.
"You've... dreamed this?" Jayce asks.
"Yeah," you say. "I just haven't seen how. How do I do that?"
Around the lunch table, looks are exchanged. Ideas raised, craziness noted. "Maybe if we knew more about how the magic itself works..." someone suggests.
The city you live in is called Rockfall. Rocks fall, but generally nobody dies. The entire city is in the higher parts of a canyon carved out of the beginnings of the mountains. The foothills. The flat irons. The road in, plains-side, is the sort of passage, almost tunnelled, that makes you want to ride in dramatically on horseback like a victorious hero of old. It's shadowed, echoey, the sound of the river crashing far below making hollow sounds all around.
Usually you just ride the bus. Sometimes you take the train to the airport and the plains cities, but in the mountains it's all buses.
The Choudharies, that strange cluster of mountains in their odd valley nestled away in the heart of the rest, are part of the same range as here but almost three hours to the north by bus. Even from here, however, you can still feel it, that strange hanging sense of dread, niggling in the back of your mind. The oppressive feeling of things to come. Of what is there.
You go to work, go home, coordinate between Rockfall and your other home on the plains. You pick up clothes, books, artifacts. Your mind is not on your work, but still you go, putter, do the basics. You think of Hanaan. Your mind is on that mountain, on your dreams. On the parts you never quite get to.
You eat lunch with your lunch group, but your mind continues to wander. They discuss Hanaan, and you listen. A few of them have been looking into it, into the magic, but it's strange. Old. Souls, and death, and binding. The energy of the spirit, tied to the flesh, or to Hanaan? You try to help them, but magic was never your thing. Mostly you help translate things, and listen, before your mind wanders back to the mountain, to Choudhary Bluff, to the sulphur fields, the decrepit horde, the strange silence of the end.
You're there. Kneeling in the yellow. Unfeeling. You sense the horde around you. You feel Hanaan in your mind, even as he towers over you, in front of you. You feel his will, and know exactly what he wants from you.
"My lord," you say.
You tell your group you don't want to sever the connection to Hanaan, just blunt it. You'll still need to feel his will, just also be able to ignore it.
"Sure," Ed says, dubiously. He's very good at dubiousness.
"That's dangerous," Emily says. "If he still has influence, any influence, you'll have to fight it, all the time. What if he's too strong?"
"I just need a leg up," you say. "A chance to fight at all."
"That might actually be easier to implement," Jayce says.
Ed turns his dubious look to Jayce.
People go on as usual. Everyday lives, nothing amiss. The fires grow. One mountaintop ablaze becomes three. You go to the supermarket and are taken aback by how ordinary it is. You do your day job, and it's business as usual. You return to the Choudharies, take the 296 circuit. Watch the fires, the flowing flames, the flat yellow glint.
Only the drivers seem to notice anything amiss. They seem unnerved, watching the people boarding, looking to the mountains. One asks you, do you feel it? Have you noticed? You tell him yes. You feel it. That's why you're here.
Another comments on the missing persons. It's not bears, she says. It's not just here. It's... everywhere.
It's not bears. You look into it. Disappearances all over, maybe. Maybe not? Many places, they don't even document the disappearances of the highest risk people, or they tell you it's meaningless, when you ask, these people always come and go. You ask for overall numbers, then. They should be consistent, right? They hang up on you.
But you get enough. There's enough from those who will talk to you, from published statistics, shelter numbers, unofficial sources. Not bears. People are disappearing.
That's how a carnival grows.
You faced Hanaan once before, centuries ago. A company of elves, mages and warriors, broke through the horde into the heart of the zombie lord's territory, and broke him from the world. It was a temporary measure, an impermanent fix, and at such cost that you wondered later if it was even worth it at all.
Every step you made, every slightest bit of progress, was paid for in blood, or at least dismemberment. The zombies didn't bleed, they crumbled. But you bled. Your brothers and sisters bled. You thought it rather unfair, that even before you fell you'd bleed, these things wouldn't bleed at all, and only fell when hacked to pieces. They made you really work for it, as you carved your way, literally, through their ranks. Those who fell you simply left behind, because if you ever stopped, you lost momentum. If you didn't make it, it would all truly be for nothing.
And then you made it. Punched through, after what felt like solid days of fighting. Five of your warriors, suddenly four, as another was cut down by Hanaan's personal guard. Three mages.
Hanaan just laughed when he say you. Mocked. All that, and for what? Raised his hands to cast his spell and turn you all right there.
That's when your three remaining mages cast their own spell, turning his against himself, blasting spirit from form, binding him from the world. It wasn't a permanent solution, but it was immediate. Hanaan fell to the earth with a sickening thud, and, no longer driven by his will, many of his horde simply stopped in confusion. A temporary reprieve, but it provided enough time for the mages to then activate one of Hanaan's portals and get what few of you remained out of there, before the horde regained their unnatural senses to react. Even without Hanaan there, they still had his basic directions. They were still incredibly dangerous.
Portals. Hanaan always had portals. A way in to bolster his armies and travel from base to base, and a way out, to step out anywhere into the world.
Nowhere was safe, unless explicitly shielded.
"So basically we put a shield on you," Jayce says. "Elven magic is channelled through godsigns, right? So we put a godsign on you and embed a shield in it."
"But I'm not a mage," you point out. It's mages that bear the godsigns.
"Doesn't matter," Jayce says. "It's the focus of the spell."
"Which of your gods are you, uh, closest to?" Nick asks.
You draw a blank. You'd never been particularly attendant to any of the gods, even in times when people in general had been more into that sort of thing.
"Er," you say helpfully.
"What?" Nick says.
"I don't really... do gods," you say.
"Well, we're going to have to tattoo this thing across your face," Emily says, sounding a bit amused, "so it'd better be one you... like? Should we just print out the lot and let you pick whatever you thinks prettiest?" she asks.
"Would that, uh, be proper?" Nick asks.
"Well..." Emily begins, and then just shrugs.
You try to remember, calling back to when you ever paid attention. There were... a few who stood out. One had even almost seemed there with you, in your bleakest, most desperate moments as you'd fought through the horde so long ago, and indeed, seemed only more appropriate now...
"The dancer," you say. "The song at the edge of the blade. Death. I... forget her name."
"That's not even..." Ed begins, but he's practically smiling himself. "Okay," he admits. "That is pretty funny."
"I know her by her feeling," you tell them, "not her name. She was with us as we fought and fell..." That whole... fight, when you had faced Hanaan so long ago, probably had a name too, but you don't remember that, either.
"You were in an actual battle?" Nick asks.
"Once," you say. "And never again." Not until you have something more permanent, at least?
"Saneth," Emily suggests.
You nod. That's the name.
"Ooo, she's pretty," Emily says. "I mean, her sign..." She pushes a book across the table, open to show the sign of Saneth: an intricate, almost fractal, pattern of interwoven dots and lines. It feels almost as familiar as the god herself.
You touch the sign and just say, "Yes."
You watch the Choudharies. There's more fire now, and especially more yellow, but the people around, if anything, are paying even less attention than ever. Just a thing that's happening. Old news. Your sword, worn on your back, is again more interesting than the fire.
You're still not sure which mountain is Choudhary Bluff. Possibly that low rounded one, with the most lurid yellow crown. Among the others around it are Choudhary Peak, Choudhary Ridge, Coundhary Mount. They're all Choudharies.
You get off the 296 at the stop that would connect up the Bluff, were the road not closed. You walk around the gate, head up the empty road on foot. You carry your sword, still sheathed, in hand, ready to draw.
The night is full of bugs, mostly. Crickets chirp. Owls hoot. There's a normalcy to it that's almost unsettling. You're not sure...
You get higher into the trees as the road winds it way up, and it gets darker at first as you leave behind the city lights below. But the stars never quite come out, either. There's too much glow. Too much of that infernal orange (yellow?) glow...
The crickets stop. You stop too.
You're in your other home, in the plains town, going through boxes. You find some old clothes, reminding you of old times. There was so much time, then. What happened? Now there isn't even time for laundry.
Out the window, the mountains are a long line on the horizon, dark against the gloaming dusk, but for the vague orange glow hovering over the Choudharies. How vast the fires are, that you can see them even out here.
You're dreaming. You're always dreaming. Sometimes the dreams are out of order, sometimes they're not true. Sometimes they're real, and the dream progresses, and once it's all there for the given part, you can finally move forward, play it out. Do you even need to do that anymore? Once you've dreamed it, is it not real?
All the dreaming is real. All of reality is dreaming. You just need to find the way forward, let it be, let it come. Play it out. Play the part.
You listen. You watch. The dark is eerie quiet. A shuffle in the bushes. A twig cracked. Silence. You draw your sword.
Hanaan's undead retain much of their living characteristics, but becoming tougher, dryer, more monochrome. There's a gauntness to them that's unsettling enough, but it's always the sound that creeps you out of the most: a sort of crackling scraping as they move, as if all their parts were screaming at the wrongness of how they now had to function, but quietly, as if also afraid to be found out.
The two approaching around the way, out of the woods, they don't even seem to notice you at first. Their armour is dirty and indecent. The glow of the fires up the mountain paint them strangely...
One of them points at you. They both approach more directly, but still so unconcerned in their manner.
You draw your sword. It's a heavy weight in your hand, balanced, and yet... not. It's an instrument of unbalance, and you feel that weight through time and place...
One hundred and fifty swords and staves, assembled at the start. You were so excited to be chosen, to be... included. You're not so excited now. There's a vague sense of terror, underlying the quiet preparations... and also certainty. Need.
You all need this to work, because why else are you prepared to die for it?
Are you prepared to die for this? For your dream?
In your dream?
Is this your dream? It's all fragments. You wonder if...
You hardly feel it as Ed marks the initial spell on your face in marker. You expected it to be cold, or... something, but the touch is so light you only really believe it fully when you look in the mirror after.
The tattoo of the godsign itself, however, you definitely feel. Every dot and swirl pierces, every fragment of Saneth, as it goes through, cementing the marker spell in place, obscuring. Making real.
That was the plan, right? Put the spell down in fleeting shape, and lock it in with the godsign itself.
You don't really feel any different, after. You expected... what did you expect?
In the gloaming dark, the fires' orange and yellow's glow call to you across the night. The end is soon. The dream come round at last.
"Saneth," you whisper. "Walk with me now." The godsign is a strange sensation, tattooed across your cheeks and forehead. It's almost... heavy.
They offer to go with you, the lunch group. All of them: Jayce, Ed, Nick, Emily. Even always silent Harold stands up at the mention, though he still says nothing.
You tell them no, it's too much, such a sacrifice.
We've been doing this, they tell you. We understand, we've been figuring out the details for weeks now. We want to see it through.
It's too much to take from you, you tell them. Your lives. Your souls. You have more to live for than this.
Do we? And what if something doesn't work? You'll need a fallback. A fix.
What if it doesn't work? We'll need something for a fallback. A fix.
There's noone else.
Better we be right there.
You hack the two undead to pieces, that small patrol, right there on the road. There's no particular reason to - nobody should be up here anyway, and there will be more patrols regardless - but you do it anyway. Because you can. Because you're there. Because they're there. Because they probably would have attacked you anyway. Because it just feels good.
The pieces fall to the pavement, still moving. You curse them. Try to shield them, just to see what happens. There's no way to properly put Hanaan's undead to rest, only render them useless. But maybe now...
You touch your forehead. You don't even have the godsign yet. That happens later...
You continue on, up the road. You need to be more careful.
"It's not just you," Jayce tells you. "I mean, the shield will be on you. But you'll also be able to use it on others... I think?
"Even though you're not a mage, with the godsign on, you should still be able to direct this magic," Ed explains. "To... apply it."
"It won't be like casting a spell," Jayce goes on. "But you'll be able to direct your will at it to..."
"Which is exactly like casting a spell," Ed cuts in.
You look at them a bit dubiously. None of this makes a whole lot of sense to you even regardless of the specifics of the functionality. Just to keep them from arguing further, you say, "So I can shield people?"
"The others... you... the other undead," Jayce says.
"It'll be temporary, and probably not very many at a time," Ed says, "but yeah. They should return to their former selves."
"Or possibly stop functioning entirely," Jayce points out.
"Maybe just start doing what you want instead of Hanaan," Ed suggests.
"In other words we have no idea," Nick says.
"Ah," you say. Now they're speaking your language.
The city of Rockfall is surprisingly noisy in the night, between the echoes of the cliff faces, the river crashing through the canyon below, and the college students with their endless parties. Plastic cups everywhere, scattered across a city that should be a catastrophic flooding waiting to happen. And yet it never does flood, the river stays far below, crashing through the rock, always crashing.
Only the plastic cups flood the town, sometimes by the truckload. A prank never to be repeated, according to the dream. Worst flood in history. Cups.
You pack, badly. You're horrible at packing, but you're moving out, now, so you need to pack up first, get all your stuff out of your place here, move it back to the other. Is it still 'moving' is you're not going anywhere? If you're just... leaving? Or is this more a case of 'putting affairs in order'?
You forgot to tell your housemate you were going, before she left for the evening, went on her own trip. Rendered herself elsewhere.
You leave a note, and go.
You scream. It's all you can do, all you can manage, all you want amidst the total overwhelming horror.
You... try to scream. It doesn't work. Nothing comes out. It's all backwards, but there's no forwards, no concept of what even would be correct, just total overwhelming wrongness. You're trapped, alone in your mind, in a body wrought wrong, and there is only nothing, nothing, nothing. Only the wrongness.
Mouths that see.
Eyes as maws.
You scream, though it doesn't come out quite right - a sort of rasping tonal gasp. You stop yourself. Look around. The sun is shining, the trees rustling in the breeze. Kids are playing. You're in the park by the river where it comes out of the canyon, below, the base of the foothills. The horror is just a fleeting feeling, the wrongness...
The memory of the wrongness doesn't fade. You try to wrap your mind around it. Put together wrong. Waiting only to die?
You stay on the road as long as you dare, avoiding subsequent patrols by ducking behind trees as you hear them come. The occasional rock. You're not sure why you attacked the first one. You probably shouldn't have.
They're noisy, easily avoided. You still your breathing as they pass, then hurry on.
As the trees begin to thin, you make your way through tumbled boulders and loose scree instead, following game trails, scaling the more stable bits, up, up, up.
The night becomes day. Even the sky is on fire, dark and gleaming. The few trees remaining are crumbling embers, growing sparser as you walk between them. And then it's only rock around you. Rock... and ash, and yellow.
You crouch down between a cluster of boulders, hidden amidst the horde. You peer out over the rocks. The zombies are in clumps and clusters, sitting and standing around, wandering. The ground is on fire. The ground is lurid yellow, caked and crumbling. The air is thick with a strange fog, choking, cloying. Not quite oily. The opposite of oily.
The greasy soot you're wearing as a hat itches on your forehead. You scratch at it vaguely, streaks of yellow and black...
You watch one of the groups as they march past, a clump of zombies, armoured, held together in wrappings. A waste of swords all impaled in them already. A clomp. They're talking amongst themselves, leaning heads together to share some...
You can't quite make it out.