The Great Conflict, and the world, has ended. Magic is forbidden so that the world can heal. I believe it’s stolen your memories, too. Which is why you and I are keeping this journal. You, reading this tomorrow, and me, writing this today.
Remember this if you can:
Your name is Carth. You are a warrior, aged boy. You are in the service to the Warlord’s clan in his mission to restore order to the Realm. Ask daily for your payments. For an index of items, places, people and locations, refer to the scrolls next to this one.
* * *
You were almost speared during your bath in a river near the village of houses you burned yesterday. There were a few others rolling and splashing about in the river. I can’t say how long you’ve been with the Warlord, but I suppose you don’t have much time for baths. Either that, or there’s some leftover magic in the water that could mutate you.
You finally had a chance to scrub away the grime choking your skin. Being freed of it brought a grin to your face. You, to your limited knowledge, hadn’t known the sensation of clean skin, and the feel of it was almost overwhelming.
Your ears were so full of water, however, that you didn’t hear the trample of horses’ hooves until the shouting had started. I suspect your ears filled up because your head is so empty. If you don’t have memories, you could at least fill that had up with water. “Cavalry!” Someone shouted. The word echoed down the line of bathers, uttered through various translations. You were shaking the water out of your ears and eyes. All around you was black mist–like soot curling ever-downstream. Men were reaching for their gear. Spears, pikes and sheathed swords. No one bothered to put on armor. If an company of mutated monsters had found you, you were all as good as dead.
You had just drawn yourself, naked, to the banks of the river as the mounted men reined up.
Their commander’s skin was blacker than his horse’s fur. So dark it was almost purple. There were three others, two flanking and one behind him. You tilted your head at the commander.
He was reaching for his own blade when you threw the point of yours yours up to his horse’s head. “Stop this!” you shouted. “Lay down your arms!”
The men about you grimaced and winced. “Are you in charge here?” the commander asked.
For all you knew you were–so you told him, “Yes!”
“Then what in the name of all gods do you think you’re doing?”
You looked down to the river and then back at him. “I’m…taking a bath?” you said it like a question. You had no idea why this would upset him.
Naked, armed men laughed at that. It was an honest truth, if a little simple. Then again, you’re simple so there weren’t many answers you could give.
“You’re upstream of the watering place!” He fumed, “Do you expect my horses to drink from the same water you lot have been washing your asses in?”
This might shock you, Carth, but being naked and dripping wet in front of black riders in full raiment does not inspire much dignity. But you clung to what little you could and said, “Do you know who you’re speaking to?” Or something just as stupid. You didn’t even know who you were. Why would they?
“At your word, I’m speaking to the leader of this company—though I can’t say it shows at the moment.”
“If you’ll give me a moment to dress myself, mayhaps I can make a better impression.” There were scattered smirks down the line of naked men. There was a grating noise like someone holding back laughter.
The commander rolled his eyes, “Once you put on your armor and your fine regalia, I’ll start calling you commander and captain. Until then, have your men lay down their arms before I decide they’re greater fools than you! Now stop fouling my horses’ drinking water—you’ll make them simple!”
You grinned. Perhaps it was the fact that you’d no idea the danger you were in, but a joke crept up on the fringes of your mind.
You had overheard warriors’ complaints while you bathed. You had taken a mental note of names and places I’ve since written for you in your index. “A thousand pardons,” you said. “I’m fresh from Ükardhi, far south.” You hoped you were pronouncing that right. “I had upstream baths there and never a problem with those lot turning simple from drinking the bathwater.”
You had begun to laugh. The mounted man’s mouth twitched as he tried not to join in. And then he was laughing, too.
Later you would discover that this man was named Desmon. One of your two friends.
You’ve got two friends, see: Desmon Harcourt (a black rider: the large, rippling container of barely-sheathed muscle), and Aos Varangyan (the yellow-haired woman with a latticework of scars and a longsword that she seems to magic in and out of her hand).
It was Aos who told you this by the cookfires at night. “Why didn’t Desmon say something?” you asked. “Why put on such a show in front of everyone?”
“You were naked and pretending to be the captain of a regiment!” Aos sniggered. “Everyone wanted to see how that would play out. He would have been passing up a better opportunity than the if the Warlord discovered the monsters’ hideaway. Can you blame him?”
You decided you couldn’t, and laughed with her.
When the laughter died down, you noticed that Aos’s smile did not reach her eyes. She took a long pull of her drink. It smelled like honey. “Are you okay?” you asked.
“I just wish your brother could’ve been here to see it,” she told you. “It’s been a hard week for all of us.” Her hand fell on your shoulder and then tightened. “I’m sorry.”
You needn’t concern yourself with that, Carth. I’ve fixed your records. No need to worry.
* * *
I have a fun surprise for you, Carth: you know how to ride a horse.
I know this because you tried to flee your commander just after waking. Burn your blood, you’re an idiot!
You awoke yesterday and tried to run away after seeing a gigantic man with fingers as wide across as your palm and a belt stuffed with swords that looks like small knives pinned against his massive frame.
Unless I’m just being hyperbolic. Not that you’d know.
How were you to know this man was in service to the Warlord? There was just a many-weaponed man standing over you in a tent, and you had no idea how you got there.
So You did what any sane man would do at the sight of such a creature. Once every ounce of courage had trickled down your leg you hopped up on horseback and booted your horse in the ribs. The commander sent men after you and you were almost executed for desertion—until your friends stepped in to explain.
Other warriors, you see, were dragging you back to one of one of the Warlord’s commanders. Desmon and Aos were not far behind.
Look at your legs, Carth. See those scratches and scrapes on all down your shins? That’s from that incident when the warriors dragged you down the road. Proof to you I’m telling the truth.
“We caught him deserting,” one warrior said, “Tried turn cross the river, back there.”
Aos stepped in, “He can’t remember much. He’s simple, really. Watch.” She turned to you and spoke slowly, thumbing back to the big man with gray eyes like two chips of dirty ice. That’s called an commander, Carth. Repeat after me: com-man-der.” she sounded out for you. “Don’t forget to write it down.”
But you will. It’s what you do best.
* * *
It has come to my attention, Carth, that you do a lot of marching. Your legs feel sore right now, don’t they? Take comfort: I promise they’ll hurt worse tomorrow.
Today you marched through a strange place. Pebbles had wormed their way into your sandals, but any time you stopped to try to remove them, others roughly shoved you forward.
The whole day, you marched, trapped inside a box of men, weary and footsore, trekking through red mists and flashes of glowing purple motes. You were told that the first battle in the Great Conflict began here. The one that ended the world and created the monsters. Rocks bubbled and steamed with heat, and pieces of crowd were fused with the outline of swords.
You marched down the length of a river, choked with magic and thick as molasses. The heat baked you so much you worried your cloak would be set alight.
Desmon and Aos have assured you that this isn’t the case.
You did not stop marching until you were on the other side of the field, beyond the rocks hissing steam the far-off grass that braided itself. Near the evening it began to grow cold, and your box of warriors marched past mud pits filled with grasping hands with fingers broken at strange angles.
Things only got stranger from there: The molasses-thick river picked up spread, but the faster it went the more hands you saw rising up, holding candles that were not affected by winds; gullies and small ponds filled with faces smothered in lacquer masks. Toward the end of the field the grass turned to sand, and each step unearthed thousands upon thousands of teeth and fangs and cracked, black jawbones.
As you crested a hill and cleared the field, a chill whispered down your back and I swear you saw a pair of eyes followed you. You were told not to question it. Never question what you see in the battlefields leftover from the Great Conflict.
That night you huddled into your cloak during the nighttime cold. You kept to yourself, watching various factions under the Warlord’s command speaking in various tongues you couldn’t understand. As you listened, you gathered some names that these creatures used often to refer to themselves. It was as if they were one entity.
When you read this tomorrow, you should find a river just over the hill. You wondered if it had a name. Were you marching toward its source?
Where were you, anyway?
You decided to ask Aos.
“On the road,” she grunted, which you understood well enough, but you could see that for yourself. But it didn’t exactly answer where you were going.
You asked, and she told you that you were chasing a warband of monsters. You needed to intercept them before they found a colony of survivors.
As I write this, the warriors rise for breakfast. You’ve been allowed a short rest for the moment. You observe.
The Warlord’s company tramps down the road for miles. Such a great gathering of folk, isn’t it? You wondered who could possibly oppose this force? Surely there can be no larger gathering of warriors.
You’ve got a long sword at your side. You don’t think you know how to use it, do you? Draw it out of its pouch. Feel that wood-and-bone handle? Feels like a handshake between old friends, right?
You’ll use that sword that kill the monsters. Folk say that creatures like them are mutants with large tusks and vomit-colored flesh.
And you’re all too eager to join the Warlord chasing them. Do you even remember why you’re fighting these thing?
I do. But by the time you read this, you won’t.
But you’ll take up arms against them, anyway, won’t you, Carth? Who knows—maybe victory will make the pain go away.
I know the answer.
You’ll have to find out.
* * *
You’ll never guess what you did all day! You marched. Shocking, I know.
The Warlord’s army camps tonight as I write this. They’re split into groups in accordance with their tribes; all of them huddled by separate cookfires, devouring their rations. Others spoke of gods, their speech littered with curses. It was utterly baffling. These people cursed lightning lords! Masters and creators of storms and stones! For such powerful things, you wondered what good it does curse them.
And would they be saying such things during a thunderstorm?
You tried to ask Desmon why you want to fight the monstrous warband. He answered by thrusting a scrap of meat in your face, red juice dribbling between his fingers. “Eat,” he said.
You snatched up that strip of meat and tore at its stringy tendons. When you finished it you wiped your mouth with the back of your hand and half-growled, “More.”
“You’re hungry,” Desmon said. “That’s good. You must keep eating much, boy. Keep up your strength.”
He gave you more just like you asked. Strips of meat thick as tree bark with patches of crisp burn. It tasted like horse. You’ve probably still got some stuck between your teeth if you’re curious.
Then you slinked off to write this letter to yourself. A man was about to put out his cookfire when you caught his arm. “I need to write,” you told him and he seemed to nod his assent.
Maybe he knew you—not that you’ll know.
You huddled up and scratched out a note. Aos had chided you for leaving your berries uneaten, but you’ve got to get ink from somewhere. A thin stick and some berries is enough to give yourself this message.
You heard men in the distance tell their legends of half-gods and heroes. I’ve written a few of them down for you in your index. My favorite is the one where a lightning lord must attend a wedding dressed as a bride in order to retrieve his magic sword.
Desmon and Aos had asked you for own legend. They wanted to know if you could remember anything, or if you could recall enough to event one. So You sewed together scraps of memory, mixed with other legends you heard tonight and gave them the legend of Tinker Taker—he was the first to claim Grayfell as the First Holding of some long-forgotten empire.
He was a reaver before that and had spent six days on stormy seas. On the seventh, he spied the timbered fortifications of Grayfell rising up like an obscene gesture along the coastline. “If there’s a meal on the table and a fire in the hearth,” said Tinker Taker, “I won’t be setting foot in a longship for the rest of my life.”
And there was. And he didn’t.
You’ll notice how the legend doesn’t tell you what happened to those who made the meal and lit the fire. We’re going to do the same—understand me, Carth? There are some things that are best left forgotten.