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A Warrior’s Shadow

August 24, 2014

I’m definitely sad that this story didn’t get picked up.  Out of the three stories that make up this grouping (The other two being Monstrous Races and Hanging Threads), I felt like this may have been strongest and most unique.  Anyway, I hope you all enjoy this one.

A Warrior’s Shadow

By Mark T. Hrisho

Air rattles through my chest and I am suddenly aware.

My throat is dry, my lips are cracked, and as I struggle to move my body, my muscles scream in protest. Soft choking noises escape my mouth and my eyes break open to reveal a gray crow filled sky above.

Their cawing fills my ears, and I can’t help but watch them circle above.

One breaks off and descends in a rapid spiral toward me. He lands, and I’m only dimly aware of his tiny talons scraping against the hardened leathers of my armor.

Why was I wearing armor?

The crow pulls at something beneath him, and for a moment I think he is holding a worm in his mouth but it doesn’t writhe like a worm should. It’s a scrap of flesh, thin, limp, and graying at the edges. As I take another deep breath, the cold air stinging my raw throat, pain floods up from my chest and I realize the crow is eating me. I scream wordlessly and with terrifying speed my hand catches the bird by the neck. A loud snapping noise follows and the crow hangs dead in my hand. My breathing quickens and my eyes focus, not on the lifeless corpse but the fingers that hold it. They are twisted and bony. What flesh remained was rotting away, covered in mold and dirt. I could hear the fingers creak as they let the crow fall onto my chest.
With a sickening crack I push myself up to a sitting position. Looking down I see my whole body is coated with dirt and mold, my skin rotting away and my belly pressing hard against thin leather armor punctured by broken arrow shafts. My neck pops as I look around, taking in the pile of dead men surrounding me.

They were all soldiers…

No, I correct myself, we were all soldiers.

Why was I still alive?

Looking down at my rotten and trembling hands, I realize that I am not still alive. I have risen, like a monster from a bard’s tale. Such creatures, they…

I was no saint, but I was not deserving of such a fate.

My trembling hands find each other and I clasp them tightly. “Lord Lorheem, far above me in your temple of light, I beseech you, have mercy upon your pitiful son…” My voice comes out in a wheeze and my dry tongue stumbles over the words.

“Your pitiful son…” I try to continue but I can’t seem to remember my own name. My throat tightens and I feel as if I’m about to cry but the tears never come, “Your pitiful son…”

“Pytor…”

The name comes to me through the fog of memories long gone.

My name was Pytor. I was from a village hundreds of miles distant, in the foothills of the Frosty Mountains. I had family and friends…

“Have mercy upon your pitiful son Pytor, and accept him into your warm embrace. If not for his sake, than the sake of his wife and his children…” My eyelids fluttered, but my vision remained clear as I thought of my beautiful wife and my three darling children. Two boys and a girl, or two girls and a boy.

What sin did I commit that I could not remember my own children?

I sit, surrounded by the dead and the crows that feast upon them, for what seems like hours but may only be minutes. It’s impossible to track the passage of time in this horrible gray world. I wait and I wait for Lorheem’s light to break through the clouds but instead I am left alone with nothing.

There had been a town not far away. We had stayed there two nights ago… or was it two weeks ago?

I lift myself up, balancing upon the pike I was buried with, and set off for it.

Towns had Churches, and in a Church I would be able to atone and find peace…

#

Even though I walk for miles, my muscles never tire, and even though my throat is dry, I never thirst.

The town is deserted, and the gray skies over head seem to wrap it in a perpetual blue light. As if the whole world is trapped in a never ending false dawn that it will never be able to wake up from.

Just two days ago, this place had been so full of life. Families and children bundling their lives onto backs; carts, mules, and their own. We had marched through, the stalwart stony defenders in the day but laughing men away from their wives and mothers at night. The men from my village, I remember them, laughing and calling my name.

‘Pytor!’ They had cried, their bodies shaking and their hands slapping against their knees.

I had been known for my bawdy stories. The one about the Goblin Chief and death by snee-snee. The men from further north had never heard it before. It was about three men traveling through the Frosty Mountains and…

My lips move silently, trying to mouth the words to the joke but no sound comes out.

“Death by snee-snee,” I say, the words blown away by the breeze before I can try to capture what made them funny.

I pass through the town square, and I can’t help but notice the broken fortifications and abandoned swords. We must have lost the battle. Perhaps that was why Lorheem was punishing me. Maybe I was the reason our line had collapsed, and I was cursed to live for all the men I had gotten killed.

My shuffling steps come to a halt in front of the heavy wooden doors of the Church. Above them rests a wooden carving of the sun, the symbol of Lord Lorheem’s power and strength. I extend my hand out to the bronze handle and wonder if he will even let me step into his house.

The door opens with a groan, and my feet carry me over the threshold without any resistance.

I bow my head and take a deep breath.

I can hear sobbing.

Looking up, my eyes take in the carnage of the small Church. Bodies are strewn about the room, their throats and chests torn apart by savage hands and teeth. Never before had I seen men and women killed in such a fashion. It was as if someone had painted a depiction of the Underworld and by some nefarious sorcery, the painting had been made real.

In front of an overturned casket, at the foot of the pulpit, sat a man whose hands were stained red. He was dressed in fine clothes and his sobs filled the church. It was only as I approached that I noticed how gaunt he seemed, his skin tight against his bones, and mottled by spores of green and black. His hair and nails were long, and despite his sobbing, no tears fell through his thin fingers.

“Hello?”

His head lifted with an audible crack, his mouth and jaw ringed with the same shade of red as his hands. “I… I did it… I don’t know what happened… I awoke and I did it…” He shook his head back and forth, each shift producing a soft pop, “I didn’t mean to but they kept… screaming.”

“Who were they?”

“I… I don’t know…” His eyes went wide as he finally took me in, “You… you’re like me.”

“No, I… I am not like you.”

“Cursed by Lorheem for transgressions against him. A sinner beyond redemption.”

“No… No, I was a good man. I had a wife and children, three boys, and we lived on the banks of the Tyrn.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I don’t know.” I looked down on this horrible creature and my grip tightened upon the pike in my hands.

“Please,” he gestured feebly to the weapon, “I don’t want to live anymore.”

My hands cracked against the pike, and I felt strips of flesh fall from my knuckles.

“It is a sin to take one’s own life, and I have already sinned so much. These people. These poor people.” He turned his dry eyes up to look at me, and with another cracked wheezing breath he spoke, “It is righteous to slay monsters that slaughter the faithful. Perhaps he will forgive you.”

I grip the pike and lift it up, centering it on the man’s chest, “Forgive me.”

“Only Lorheem can forgive you now…”

I drive the pike through his chest and I’m surprised when he doesn’t scream. His decaying face simply cracks a smile and he slumps over before his eyelids droop down. Whoever the man was, I take solace in the fact that he is now at peace.

Again, I wait for Lorheem’s light and it doesn’t come.

I turn my back on the man beneath the pulpit and return to the gray world of the town square. There I settle upon the steps of the Church and wait for a sign.

I don’t know if I wait for hours or days before a man walks up.

He walks with purpose, each step producing a soft clink as his arms and armor bounce against each other. At his belt swings a bronze sun and even though the clouds remain above the square, it seems to glow with sunlight. He stops several yards in front of me and shakes his head.

“May Lord Lorheem have mercy upon you, Shade.”

From his belt he pulls a sword, it too seems to glitter in sunlight that doesn’t exist.

“I am not a shade,” my throat is still dry and my voice still a soft wheeze. “I am a man.”

“No, you are the memory of a man who makes his body move in a mockery of life.”

“But I have a wife and three girls. We lived at the border of Aster and Wyndham.” I stand up and unsheath my own sword. The same I had used to slay the monster in the Church. “I don’t want to die.”

“You are already dead, and in time your memories will fade because they are not real. They’re merely glimpses of a life that was.”

“Silence! I will not listen to such lies! I love my wife and my girls and I will not be killed before I see them again!” My tireless legs launch me down the steps and my skeletal hands swing the sword up in a strong swipe.

The Church Knight says nothing as he brings his shining blade down against my own, bright orange sparks flying as the blades bounce against each other. He strikes my blade hard again, making the steel shake and shudder in my hands but my grip remains strong.

Holding the heavy blade with both hands I throw his away and move in close. I rear the blade up over my shoulder and go to stab where his pauldron and breast plate link. He dances away though, extending his sword in front of him to ward me off. I twist my hands back so the sword runs perpendicular to my chest and charge at him.

He moves to block my blade, practically punching his edge into my own, and at the last moment I swing my sword so it runs parallel to his. I chop down and bury my blade into his neck, crimson pouring out of the wound like a waterfall.

The Church Knight’s eyes lock with my own and he gurgles out his last words, “May Lorheem damn you to the Underworld, Shade.”

“May Lorheem have mercy upon your soul,” I return as I yank my blade free in a torrent of blood. The knight falls and I sheath my sword, only dimly aware of the warm blood coating my rotting flesh.

Air rattles in my chest, and I know what I must do next.

I must find my wife and children, my boy and girl. We didn’t live far from here.

My feet carry me without ever growing tired and even though my throat is dry, I never thirst.

The knight’s words still ring in my ears, even as it starts to rain all around me. He said I was but a fading memory of a man and even though I know he was wrong, I sometimes wonder about the things I remember.

Was there really a man in that Church?

Yes.

His name was Pytor.

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