The staccato beat of the drum broke the silence of the low marshes. The sun had grown so hot that it felt as if a weight was bearing down on all of them from the pale blue sky. The sun itself was unbearable to look at; it had become white and pale as a molding fruit. Sol raised his hand to block out the sun so he could see the column. There were twenty-eight of them, not counting the mules, marching three wide and ten deep. Most of them had abandoned their shirts to their waists, muskets held close to bare skin.
It was intolerably boring, and all at once tense. They were in the salient into Tsakh, but most of the advance had cleared the greater parts of the Sondi forces there. No, the problem were all the deserters from the frontline and the tuyevayan – the free-guns. Most of them were just lone rabble-rousers or fools, but a fool with a musket was dangerous at fifty paces. Many were Sondi; more were Gveert men who had been routed and decided banditry was a better use of their time than a holy war.
One had shot Õkha, clear in the head before they got to the gunner. Sol flinched as he looked over the ranks and counted again. Kaagh had abandoned the column after.
Sol didn’t blame him. He was fifteen, and stood right next to Õkha when he died.
Sol had thought about abandoning too – or at the very least asking for a different assignment. He asked for it before while he was on the front, and he was given the privilege of retreating to back of the army, catching these deserters and free-guns. And waiting, and praying, and patching bullet wounds, and stopping bleeding. That was his assignment from on high.
Now, the orders were taking them towards Geban. Then, it was called Geban. When they redrew all the lines on the map and repopulated it with Gveert settlers, they renamed it to Kaarji-vzõ-Beryat, for the low, rolling coast. The marshes and river and sea were hardly distinguishable here. Sandbars and thin strips of land held together by the barest of inches and mangrove trees. Cattails and rough grass with white flowers sprouted from the salty water. They were living by the virtue of their rations of rum and ale, and fortunately they had more than enough on their mules to get them there and back.
He had watched this same, small, peninsula that they had been marching down for days now, and Sol was fairly certain that he had seen both the northern and southern edges of it as the road winded on. He also watched it by the hours, when they had camped. They were so close to the sea that Sol could see the tide encroach and swallow up the earth.
He swallowed hard on his rations that night, and made sure his tent was further from the water.
They said that there was a deserter there, at Geban, but all thoughts of that disappeared when they saw the town.
When they arrived, the sun had begun to set in the west, and they were left in the shadows of the trees. They had heard word from all the fishermen along the way that there was a horrible man here who had wrought destruction, but nothing compared to what had happened here. Sol had seen cannonfire. He had the ringing in his left ear to prove it. The village around the tower had been scattered like a child’s toys. Divots in the earth had collected rainwater, and the shattered remnants of buildings sat all about them. A dead sow sat in one, black fur rotting in the orange sun. The crop of wild rice, already sparse, had been scorched and scattered. Amongst them, only one structure still stood tall. It was a tall, aging watchtower, and even it had been scorched and burned in places. The troop moved in cautiously, guns at the ready, all avoiding the tower. It looked sound, but everything else here had clearly collapsed.
A lone, feral dog stood in one of the burnt husks.
The fear came to alarm when a man came around the corner of a low stone wall. He was haggard. His balding curly hair had grown long and wild, his beard and sideburns equally so. His sweaty skin gleamed golden in the darkening sky. He wore no shirt, only a dirtied pair of white pants and misshapen, yellowing smile. He limply held his hands to the sky as the troop yelled for him to give up any arms and to surrender. Their drummer swiftly belted out a roll for them all to ready arms. Another mangy dog followed at his side.
“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” He yelled, “Company at last! Come! Come!”
As the troop quieted, Sol felt something horribly off in the man as they locked eyes and the troop slowly surrounded him.
“I am very sorry that I don’t have food to share with all of you,” he added, “But you can sit at my fire, if you wish.”
The troop looked from eye to eye. Eventually, the captain spoke.
“We’re here for a deserter. The one who caused all this.”
The man’s nose twitched, and his dog whined in tandem.
“I suppose that would be me.”
“Yes,” said the captain, “If you admit so, then we’re here to take you back.”
“And then you’ll be hanging me, won’t you?”
“We can shoot you here, if you’d like,” said the captain. The captain, Sol had heard, had been to the front for nearly a year before being sent back to the interior of the salient, to lighter duties. He talked about killing like it was a matter of course. Sol supposed that for the captain, it was matter of course; that after nine long months in somewhere like the dark streets of Ambona or the mountain campaigns in Tsetse, killing became a quick solution to ones problems.
Sol only saw those hoary mountains and desert plains for a few intolerable weeks; the constant forward march and sound of gunfire, in Ambon. He trained in the use of mana to serve as a healer, a doctor for his parish. When he heard of a holy war in Sondi, for the good of the Church, he made his preparations and went as soon as he could to the place he could do the most good. That was what they told him, at least. He tried to keep track of the men who died in that sordid, makeshift doctor’s tent. First, he tried to simply number them in his head, and that wasn’t so hard, but the cannons and guns left a ringing in his ear so bad that he could hardly concentrate. So, he made tally marks in his sketchbook between anatomical sketches.
He ran out of space for tallies of the dead after three weeks. The first time he had done the prayer for the lonely, he had cried afterwards. Now, he had done it so many times that it had become awfully rote in a way that made his stomach churn.
He had killed a man, too. During the siege, a Sondi regiment had made a rare counterattack. It was the most terrifying thing that Sol had ever seen. The pagans all wore masks – why, he could not say. He watched them take the streets as they retreated, alley by alley, row by row, spears and guns in hand. He had loaded his pistol, alone at the breach with only a patient at his side. Sol couldn’t recall her name, but she was young; a volunteer who had been caught by a stray bullet. The pagan heard her groaning, and he ran in, arms at the ready.
When he shot the pagan, he wasn’t certain if he had hit him at first. The armor and silks that he wore made it so hard to tell, and he kept standing for just a few moments before he stumbled and fell to the floor. He had caught the poor man in the throat. The sound he made was pitiful. It was the sound of a man’s soul being violently and suddenly ripped from his body by lead. It was gurgling and half-formed and wordless.
Sol didn’t have the time to waste. He hoisted the girl and acted as a crutch, and they survived the night. She was sent back home, and he was sent back here. Maybe killing was a simple way of doing things for the captain; it wasn’t for Sol, though.
He was startled from his thoughts as the deserter finally came up with a reply.
“I’d rather die later than sooner. Would you fine gentlemen sit with me, for tonight? Just the night.”
There was trepidation, from the captain and all the men. They looked around the empty village for any signs of an ambush, but it seemed quite unlikely, and all they had heard was that there was a single deserter. Just one, no matter how terrible he was. The captain, in turn, looked to Sol for guidance.
“Sol? Your thoughts?”
The marsh here was thick and murky, but there was very little space for an attack. They’d have to track through quite a bit of mud and water and harsh sand to bring themselves here from anywhere but the way they came. A few abandoned and empty rowboats sat at the edge of the water, where someone could navigate their way in, but Sol doubted that they’d make a stealthy approach.
“We need to make camp anyways. Here is as good a place as any,” said Sol.
So, slowly, the soldiers separated themselves from their weapons, sat, and began to make camp in the setting sun and constant whine of mosquitos. The drummer set down his drum and leaned on a burnt-up wall. The deserter had made a little home in one of the ditches that had enough of a wall to keep away the water. Sol and the captain started the fire there, and began to set down for the night. The deserter did not move. He didn’t even seem to have a weapon on him; the only real possession that the man had was a sprawling tattoo on his back. The ink had been made into the shape of something – the shapes on the inside looked like text, but it was nothing like Sol had ever seen. He watched as the man gently patted the mangy dog. Sol sat down, warmed himself by the fire, and asked the first question that came to mind.
“What happened here? Did you do all of this?”
He was silent, still smiling that same, raw grin. He seemed an older man, not old enough to get out of sorts in terms of memory, but an older man nonetheless. Perhaps his father’s age, if he had to guess.
“Mm,” he said, “Would it change how quickly you have to kill me if I told you?”
Sol looked to the captain. The captain shrugged.
“If you killed everyone here, destroyed this entire village, I see no reason not to kill you on the spot. If you say something otherwise, I might not have to kill you.”
“Then,” said the man, “I’ll tell you three stories.”
“But which one is the important one?” Asked the captain.
“The one I’ll tell before I die,” said the deserter, “But I’d like to draw it out, if I can.”
The captain shrugged as he came to warm himself too, having retrieved his ration of liquor from his pocket.
“I frankly don’t care whether you die today, tomorrow, or in twenty years. What I care about is my job. Tell your story, or don’t. Be hanged there, shot here. It’s up to you.”
The deserter didn’t seem to care either. He simply kept smiling on, his pink tongue and wet teeth shining against the firelight. He leaned back, and his dog curled into his lap.
“Have you ever been to the Ofrat Desert, either of you?”
Sol looked to the captain, and shook his head. The man slowly reached into his pocket, and produced a tiny glass vial sealed with a metal cap, a little longer than one of Sol’s fingers. Inside, sand swirled and shone.
“This sand comes from Ofrat. It’s a infertile, hideous place. No water, no food for miles and miles and miles. Just rare scrubs poking out of the dunes, or else plains of rocky soil where nothing grows, except for camels and the occasional oasis or river where you can find actual life. And it’s hot, too – hot enough to wick the water straight from your sweat. Wasn’t always like that.”
Sol had heard of the place. That it was a blasted plain even the hardiest of the Sondi avoided. He had met prisoners of war who told vivid tales about the Miqa tribesmen who traveled with nothing but the seasonal rains, their camels and the clothes on their back. Equally vivid were the stories of lost cities out in the dunes; ancient monuments of hubris created by the Three Immortals when they tamed the land and gave it their twisted sense of law. Sol didn’t put much stock into any of those stories, much less the ones about the Immortals. They were most likely powerful witch-queens, or perhaps dynasties of such, or even powerful liches, not gods made flesh. If they had any divine power, it was false.
Nonetheless, the man continued on.
“It used to be that most of it was an oasis. Green and beautiful, hardly a desert. In those days that pagan religion, Kenin’s teachings, were just getting started. One of his disciples was Taran, though I suppose you would call him Tarã. He was a model of the Kenin thought – well-formed and disciplined, a philosopher and a warrior all at once. He had a small kingdom to himself, and they prospered under his leadership, for he had mastered himself, and bound nine and ninety more devils to his name, and had given many of them clay-form. He also was a master of the art of sorcery, and many other mundane arts, and he had learned to take many forms.
Taran, having achieved a great deal of mastery, used it to build his kingdom. He had his nine-and-ninety devils build his great palace, and wooed twenty wives, and won no less than twenty battles of arms, and won no less than fifty great battles of wits with his court philosopher, all by his thirtieth year.”
“Impressive,” said the captain, sounding thoroughly unimpressed. He too had leaned back into the low slope, his cap drawn low. Only the outline of his chin and the barest hints of a nose showed of his face. He had sat his pistol in his hand, not cocked, but ready if the deserter were to try to run.
“And so, one day, a man came to the palace that Taran had built. He was a beggar-knight of some kind, an itinerant warrior, and he begged at the palace steps for Taran to let him in. Now, it’s said that Taran was a quite wise man, but his servants did not share all of his wisdom, and they turned the man away. The man, of course, was no mere man; he was Parjat, judge of all the dead and lord of war, and when he had been turned away so impudently, he shed his man-form as if it was a cocoon. His first war-form stood fifteen cubits high, and bore a hammer with a head a whole cubit wide. He smashed down the door and yelled:
‘Who is the lord of this palace? Who has denied me my godly rights?’”
Sol had heard this kind of story before too. Not this one in particular, of course, but he had listened to the pagans on occasion, tried to piece together their language and their writings. These sorts of legends tended to go the same way. The gods were greedy and evil; they tormented and tortured mortals until brave heroes showed them justice. It was a strange way of thinking of things. Sol himself knew that the Godhead was providential. People had done Sol wrong; the Godhead, never.
At least, that’s what he kept telling himself. He remembered the girl who he had saved that day, and it felt unfair. Not unfair in the sense that the pagan had a right to charge them in that abandoned home in the dark of night. It felt unfair that he had not had any chance to have a just divinity backing him. And it was his city after all; his country that he was rightfully defending, and that girl – she was so young. She didn’t have to be there, but she had shown up because it was the right thing to do. Because she had been told it was the right thing to do. He felt less and less sure of this holy war every single day.
He felt his face twitch, and his ear still rung, harmonizing with the buzzing of the mosquitos.
“So, Taran came down from his bedroom and said, ‘The lord is I, Parjat. What would you have of me?’
Parjat turned and said, ‘In eye-form I and my fellows have seen your palace and its many wonders, and it is the envy of the Heavens.’”
That was the other bit of theological oddity. The Sondi put much emphasis on the Heavens; the stars; the untouchable and unchanging. It felt self-evident to Sol that divinity was in the land. He could feel the soil beneath his feet, shape it with his toes, touch it with his hands. Why would a fair Godhead put the divine as something so untouchable as the stars?
It was then that he reminded himself that the Sondi did not think the divine was obligated to any kind of fairness. He read between the lines, though. Mastery – ātra – was their way of bringing justice to a world where the divine could not be relied on, and ancestors and heroes were their new worship. It was blasphemous and wrong, but it was understandable.
“‘Parjat,’ he said, ‘You are without honor, coming here, deceiving my servants, and showing your envy. If you intend to wage war against me, I will show you all my great powers that have come from mastering this world.’
Parjat, of course, was a fool – this is agreed by everyone who tells stories about him. In his rancor, he immediately began to wage war against Taran with his great hammer. They fought through the court, through the halls and to the great garden, where they both came upon a pomegranate shrub. At once, Parjat pointed to the tree and said, ‘Behold! This is the envy of all the Heavens – no fruit is so sweet as the one that comes from this tree, even the ones that bring us immortality. If you tell me how you have grown this wondrous tree, then I will battle with you no longer.’”
The man began to pick up his pace as he went. He gestured excitedly, shadows dancing on the wall behind him as he spoke. Even the captain, jaded as he was, seemed momentarily entranced.
“Taran told Parjat ‘You, ruinous master of the universe, have nothing to learn here. You have not learned in the twenty irmbe since the universe began any measure of care for your creation, and you will never learn all the secrets held in a pomegranate.’
He knew this would only anger Parjat, and it did. Parjat immediately took his creation-form, lithe and nimble, and danced and stamped on the ground. Where he danced trees sprouted up, and soon there was a forest there in Ofrat, with dangerous wolves and crocuta and all manner of beasts to hunt Taran. Parjat then said as Taran began to flee,
‘Watch, look upon all I have made to defeat you.’
Taran immediately took the form of a rabbit, and ran from all of these beasts into one of the highest trees, and yelled down to Parjat, in a swelling sense of pride.
‘You have made all these things, yet you have not made a single seed of a pomegranate.’”
The man said it with such flair and a smile that it was hard not to imagine the ancient rabbit-prince. Sol chuckled a little.
“So, Parjat became even more angry, and took the form of a great conflagration, and he scoured the forest and turned it and all the animals to stone. He drove great gouges through the earth and shattered the palace walls to dust. The forest of stone still stands to this day.”
“Hm,” said the captain, “Nonsense. There’s no such thing as a forest of stone.”
The deserter shrugged again.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in a storm when it crashes down on you. It’ll crash down all the same. And the forest is as real as any storm. At any rate, Taran was quite displeased with all this foolishness, so he went and took up the form of a mighty ocean, and doused the fire with himself. When he changed back, the salt of his tears for those that died in the palace became sand, but still the pomegranate bush stood. He said to the god, now a mere mote of flame, ‘Look, Parjat – you have destroyed all these things, and yet the pomegranate bush still stands.’
Parjat did not listen to him, and he continued on his tantrum, taking the form of an enormous boar that stamped down the mountains and shattered their peaks. The whole land had been ruined by all his raging, and still stood Taran and his poor little pomegranate tree, a single speck of green in the desert.
Taran shook his head and sat by the tree, and waited, letting all his soldiers and wives and children come to him. He looked out on the god, still destroying everything that he could see – which wasn’t very much, considering the poor eyesight that Parjat had. It was then that he spoke up
‘He still has yet to undersight the simple fact that a pomegranate shrub can only be grown with time. Gods may make with haste what takes man ten-thousand days, and destroy it all twice as quickly, but they cannot change the world as I have.’
Taran then took up his war-form, and drew an arrow to his bow, and shot it sixteen leagues, straight through Parjat and his many forms. It crippled him, and he wailed and wailed. He swore that he would never wage war again in the world of men, and that furthermore he would curse any man who waged war to be cast to the depths of Shevēsh, where their souls would rot. Taran, though, knew that he had caught Parjat through his eye-form and that he could save his warriors from damnation. He told them all to don masks whenever they went into battle, so that at their day of judgement at the gates of Heaven, they would not be recognized. Sure enough, his ruse worked, and to this day the Sondi wear masks into battle.”
The man leaned back and sighed. Sol pursed his lips and smiled a little on the inside. There was a reason for them to wear masks. A strange reason, but a reason.
“Alright!” Said the man, “One more story, and then I’ll tell you what happened here, and then you can do with me what you will.”
The captain merely grunted a response, seemingly unamused.
“This one is a Miqa story. Very old. It goes that Hana the Strong was a woman warrior, who traveled far and wide across the Ofrat and wooed herself a husband, Tsetibon. In those days they still had great cities in Ofrat still, and towns as well.”
The captain grumbled and said something about it being bullshit.
The deserter glared at him¸ the whites of his eyes glowing like jewels in the firelight. Before long, he continued.
“Think what you will of what I’ve seen.”
“You’ve seen these cities?”
He twitched and went very quiet.
“Yes. I have,” he said, “There, in the very outskirts of the desert, where there was enough water to serve them and their livestock, there were such cities. They stand tall as any other grand city, though long abandoned to ruin, to an inheritance of dust. They came to be and died in a span so complete and long ago that by the time the Three Immortals rose, they were long gone. Do not presume that I am some madman or simpleton-”
“Frankly,” said the captain, “I’ve seen little to indicate that you’ve done any of this.”
The captain gestured broadly to the destruction and waste around him.
“But please. Continue with your little nonsense tales. If it’ll satisfy your heart to buy yourself time, then please, do so.”
There was a tense silence as the captain fingered his gun and the deserter continued to glare at him. The dog whined. Eventually, the deserter huffed and backed down.
“Where was I? Oh, yes, Hana. She was a mighty woman-warrior indeed, and she wooed the sweet and comely Tsetibon. Soon enough, she found that for the first time in her life, she was satisfied, tamed by her marital bliss and worried for the child that was slowly growing in her belly; and so she gave up on her life as a warrior for a while. However, it was not to last. You see, Tsetibon’s mother, Tek’i was a cruel and wicked thing. Some say a witch, some say a goddess, some say a sorceress. All the same, when she saw the curve of Hana’s stomach, she was furious. She came to Hana’s and told her so, and cursed her. She said:
‘So long as you live, you shall bear your child in the basin of your belly. It shall grow and grow, and in time it shall turn to die and turn to stone.’”
The captain spat into the dirt.
“First trees of stone, then babies of stone. I’m done with this fellow, Sol. I’m going to make my tent. Watch him for me.”
He promptly stood and began to wander off into the night. The deserter shrugged, and continued
“Well, at least he won’t be bothering us anymore.”
Sol nodded in agreement. He wasn’t exactly friends with the captain either. Sol reached into his rucksack and pulled out his notebook and his charcoal.
“Do you mind if I sketch you? I’m an artist, and I’ve been intending to bring back images of the war to my home.”
Originally, they were to inspire people. Now he had made so many sketches of blasted-out hovels and blasted-out men that he could hardly stand to look through the book. This deserter was more than a little touched in the head, but he seemed to be refreshingly put together compared to most of the people he had seen.
“No, I don’t mind.”
Sol began to sketch the outlines of the deserter’s face as he continued.
“Hana was mighty and powerful, but she had been humbled at last. She begged at the feet of Tek’i and asked her, ‘Please, for the sake of your grandchild, what could I do to change this?’
And so Tek’i was merciful, and said, ‘You must prevail in three trials to prove your wisdom to me – then and only then shall you birth your child. First, go to the river Ts’e, and split it in two. Then, find me a jewel that does not come from the earth, and give it to me. Lastly, go to the shrine at Tangu and fill the ritual basin with water with nothing but the cup that lays there. Do these three things for me before five years have passed, and you shall birth your child.’
Now, Hana did not like this, but she saw no other choice. She knew the answer to the first trial long before she arrived at the river. She waded into the water until she reached the deepest point, and thrust her sword into the center, splitting the river in twain. Tek’i was displeased, but she could not dispute Hana’s method, and so she moved to the next trial.
Hana also knew the answer to this trial. She traveled all the way to the ocean, and dove as deep as she could until she found a single oyster. She pried it open with her bare hands, and took the pearl from within, and presented it to her mother-in-law. Tek’i was now a little worried, of course, but she was certain that the last trial would vex Hana.
And vex her it did. When she arrived she found the cup was no cup, but a long funnel, and the shrine was at the top of a high hill, at the base of which was the well. Hana tried time and again to reach the top of the shrine before the water ran out of the funnel; she tried balancing it so that the water would lie in the middle; but nothing worked. By then, four years had passed, and she had little time left, and she despaired at it all. For once in her life, her fate was truly out of her control. So, she prayed to all the spirits of the Heavens and Earth, and they answered her.
On the last day of the fourth year, it rained, and at once Hana knew what she had to do. She walked to the top of the shrine with the long funnel and set it to the ritual basin in the shrine, and let the funnel’s head come just outside into the rain. The rain filled the basin, and the curse was undone.
Of course, that was not the end of the story. Hana’s babe had been growing all the while in her belly, and so she could not be born normally. Hana, being ingenious, then invented surgery to remove the child from her belly, and since that day she has been the one who looks over all midwives and surgeons in the Heavens.”
Sol struggled to capture the man’s eyes. He had this wild, abandoned look to him that defied all his attempts to put it to charcoal.
“And you?” Asked Sol, as he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper, “What’s your story?”
The deserter sighed, and looked towards the horizon.
“It’s not one with a happy one.”
“No one has a happy story out here. They tell them, but they don’t get to call them their own,” said Sol.
“Fine, then. Do you remember Engar? Little Gveert town on the border, before the war.”
“No,” said Sol, “What happened there?”
“I grew up there. Twenty years ago, there was no sign of war. You could walk right over the border, and you’d barely even notice. Not that you could notice, it’s mostly scrub and brush around Engar, but you could walk. And then the noblemen and the missionary men started coming. At first, just a few. Then, more and more. Back then we didn’t like our Sondi neighbors, and they didn’t like us, but we respected them. We knew they were powerful, and they knew we were powerful, and everyone knew that fighting was the last thing that would make anything better.
And more men came. Settlers and merchants who would cross the border and build houses there at the direction of the lords. This would have been when you were still sucking your mother’s teat, boy, pay attention!”
His voice was suddenly harsh over the sound of the cicadas and mosquitos and chattering night birds. Sol put down his charcoal and tried to meet the man’s gaze, but he insistently stared at the horizon – stared towards Gveert lands. Sol didn’t know how, but he felt as if he were to draw a straight line out from the deserter’s eyes, he could follow it all the way back to Engar, and beyond that to the Great Channel, roiling in the far north.
“Yes, it was out there. It was out there that they convinced me to hate them. It was so funny, too. Back in those days, there was a sister town to ours, just over the border. And I once fancied a girl from there as a teenager. But as I grew older, they warned us away. After all, it was only good for our virtues that we stay well out of the hands of pagans, and if they should try to put a hand on us, we ought to lop it off.
And we did, when the war started. Who knows how – it doesn’t matter at this point. And Saints was I glad to join and kill the people I hated. Glad. Glad, glad, glad. It was almost fun sometimes, that rush when you loaded your musket as you heard the pagan’s charging on horseback.
Do you know where Engar is today?”
Sol shook his head slowly.
“Nothing. It isn’t even a dot on a map anymore. I came back on leave after being injured, and it was gone. All gone. On account of a daring maneuver by a general vo Geban. Of Geban. So I went and found all the tools for my revenge. I learned sorcery; I tapped into the black arts of witchcraft; I brought every power and bullet and ounce of strength I could to fight the mighty fortress that had produced such a formidable general. You see, I had learned not to fear death, because the devil had taught me ways of seeing things differently.”
He was quiet when he finally looked Sol in the eyes. For a second, there was a connection; an idea transmitted without words that Sol himself couldn’t believe.
“You don’t mean-”
A lich. A ghost bound to the shell of a body.
“I never got around to finishing the procedure, but the devil still served me well, and sorcery and all those things. I did to Geban the same thing they did to Engar.
And now I’m here. Trapped.”
Sol stared at the man intently. He shimmered over the heat of the fire like a mirage. Something sunk in his gut as he realized that he was no longer looking at a human being.
“My desire for vengeance is sated. I am as empty as a clay pot. And I need you to free me. I can’t do it myself.”
With one long, bony finger, he pointed to the remaining tower.
“It’s in my mouth. Pull it out. Please. Please. I don’t want this anymore. I don’t think I ever wanted it in the first place.”
He sounded so desperate. It was the sort of desperation that felt totally and utterly believable.
Sol stood at once, and walked to the tower that the other soldiers had let alone. Every other step, he looked back to the deserter, who returned his look forlornly. He slowly walked inside, and the stench of decay filled his nostrils and coated his tongue at once. In one lonely corner of the room, covered with flies and decay sat the rotting corpse of a man. A mottled dog whined and stood careful watch over it, even though it had clearly been chewed in many places. Off to another was a small stack of old books, some labeled in Sondi, others in Gveert. He covered his mouth and nose to keep from vomiting as he approached the cadaver. He recognized the face.
Trepidantly, he kneeled and touched the rot-soft flesh of the deserter’s lips, then parted them and found the deserter’s tongue. There, he felt something else – a hard piece of metal.
Sol exhaled the stench from his throat, and yanked it free.
Nearly four years, one war and several unpleasant boat-rides later, Sol Ukhros vzõ Duvã awoke to the sun streaming into his room as he had for a long while. The city had begun to bustle; he had fallen asleep drawing again. Most were of people he had observed in the city. Some were from his old days in the war. His study and bedroom had become his personal sanctum over the years, and in spite of its cramped quarters, he had come to appreciate it. He had filled it with books and sketches and oil paintings over time, and he felt satisfied with the decor that had once been so sparse. He stretched, yawned, and put on a fresh pair of pants.
Then, he heard a yell from downstairs.
“Sol! Temari wants to have a word with you!”
He sighed, cracked his neck, and prepared himself for business. It was always something with Kallin.
One thought on “The Chaplain, The Captain & The Deserter”
this was a fun interlude