You sacked a city. You now camp the charred skeleton of the city’s slums as provisions are dispensed. The houses loom large and broken, speckled with survivors. The streets have been chewed up. It’s like you walk through a marching metal giant.
It turns out you haven’t been reading this as much as you should be. Didn’t I tell you to read this when you wake? I leave one scrolls right next to you every night. How hard is it to read them?
Now read closely, Carth: there is talk amongst the Warlord’s forces that the warband has doubled back to hit you in the rear. The Warlord has camped in this city. There are scattered rumors that monsters will chase their foes with great fury and vengeance until they’ve drank their fill of blood. You may have to endure a siege.
You’ve fought in a siege before, haven’t you? I’ll bet you can’t fully remember it, but your muscles do. You feel phantom pains where swords cut you long ago. What glimpses into your own past you can remember are frozen in time, without context. You’d just as well be hearing someone’s campfire legend, for all the sense it made to you.
* * *
After you received your provisions, Aos waved you over to an alley between the bones of an alleyway where she sat with Desmon.
Aos was cleaning her nails with a dagger, stopping every now and then to feed scraps of corn to her dog, or scratch him behind the ear. You didn’t remember she had a dog, did you, Carth? That’s what you get for forgetting to write.
She said that it was you who found the dog during your first raid with the Warlord. He was protecting some girl you met when putting the town to the torch.
I didn’t bother to mention it. Tinker Taker, remember? You told Aos as much.
“I don’t know how you could forget someone like that,” she derided before proceeding to compared her beauty to a few goddesses you’d never heard of. I’ll let you forget some of her choice descriptions. I wish I could. “I’d prefer a few northern horsewomen to a warband of monsters,” Aos said. “If we’re going to die here, they might as well be our final sight: a dozen bare-breasted horsewomen riding for us, tits bouncing.”
Your conversation lapsed and she went back to cleaning her nails. To break the silence she mused, “I’ll probably lose a finger one day. Won’t be able to hold a weapon after that. Won’t be able to fight.” She scratched her dog behind the ear.
“Why not do it now?” Desmon asked, “Get it over and done with?”
Aos grinned. She pet her dog so that its tail thumped against the ground. When she turned to look at Desmon, her grin was gone. “What do I look like to you? A coward?”
* * *
You three have collected your provisions—corn, corn and more corn once again. You gathered in the same alley as yesterday, in between the charred husks of houses. Once you started eating, you wondered if some of the ash didn’t make it into your food. If you happen to wake up with a taste like ashes in your mouth, you’ll have a small understanding of the ordeal it was to swallow that bile.
“War’s a bitch,” Aos said, “What did they do to this food?”
“Might be the seasoning,” you suggested.
Desmon giggled, sending pinkish corn-juice dribbling down his chin. “You don’t season corn!”
“Might be someone thought to use a heap of soil,” Aos suggested. Yellow filled the gaps between her teeth. “Perhaps they needed a light garnish.”
Before you or Desmon could respond, you three noticed a boy staring at you from the other end of the alley. He looked like a skeleton; he’d only a shadow of skin and a face that pocketed deep-sunken eyes that couldn’t remember to blink. His tunic was torn and he was caked with dirt and dust. One side of his yellow hair had been matted down and crusted with dried blood. Whether it belonged to him or someone else, you couldn’t say. He had only one leg and leaned on a makeshift wooden crutch for support.
You never knew people came that small.
Aos shouted at him; and then kept shouting until the boy hopped over to you. She tried to impress the boy with her longsword, but the one-legged boy only held out cupped hands, saying the same word over and over, as if he couldn’t hear Aos.
The word was foreign, though its meaning was discernible. “Food,” he was saying. “Food, food.”
So Aos gave up, laughed and dribbled some corn into the boy’s tiny hands. Desmon called the boy over and closed his small, dirty fingers over the corn. He whispered something you didn’t understand. Then the boy hopped off, plucking the corn into his mouth.
You asked Desmon what he said, ignoring Aos’s rhythmic chanting of, “One leg…one leg…one leg…” as she stared blankly into space.
“I told him to be careful—made sure he knew not to let anyone see his food—” Desmon stopped to smack the back of Aos’s head. “Stop staring!”
“Lord of Bones, that’s a boy with one leg!” Aos said. She turned you then with a smile like a curved dagger. “Some poor soul must have miswung.”
You decided you’d had enough of Aos and went off to forget her. But she and Desmon followed you, reasoning it was dangerous to leave you alone for very long. I happen to agree. Though they bickered through the whole walk until you found a river just outside the town. It looked like the best spot to rest for a while.
You sat there and watched your reflection. You put your feet in the river contemplated everything you’d read from me. Thoughts of a siege rattled your mind. You bunched up your cloak, dark as night time. You wondered what might happen to Desmon and Aos. You thought they had been as siblings to you. Though you weren’t even sure how long or how well they knew you.
You churned through your empty head for some god to pray to, but nothing came. You reread what I told you about lightning lords long before and you realized that you didn’t—or perhaps couldn’t—believe in such things. Gods? Fate? Comforts. Do you think this is happening for a reason?
You didn’t have time to contemplate this, for you heard Desmon shouting and Aos rising to her feet. You three rushed back to the ravaged town.
“The enemy is here!” Aos said. From just over a hill, you saw banners snapping and metal clanking, pikes and swords peeking over the apex.
“Get ready to fight, Carth,” Aos urged you. She shoved you forward. “Move! Let’s go!”
And you did. You fought the monstrous warband. That’s whose blood is smeared on your sword. And you’re using red ink—or has it dried to brown by now? Has it taken you this long to realize you didn’t hang on to any spare berries last night? All you need is a thin stick to write with. Crude, yes, but it gets the job done.
* * *
I know you won’t remember the battle. But I must relay what I can while I do. I’ve given it thought and decided that these are memories we cannot let go:
Do you remember when we discussed taking up arms against monsters? This was what I meant when I said that. We fought against the monsters, garbed in steel and leather.
The leaders of the Warlod’s armies fought like something out the legends we’ve overheard at our campfires. They seemed to have the strength of half-gods and heroes as they slung their spears down on the enemy.
Their movements were taut; bronzed biceps growing as they hefted their weapons—and when they threw them, they did not seem concerned with the arrows hurtling toward us. They seemed almost lazy—after all, they were our leaders, and had made it this far. They seemed to know they wouldn’t die here.
The same could not be said of soldiers unnumbered, too young or unpracticed, or infirm. The ones could not raise their shields in time, pierced by arrow shafts, or spears, or swords; and littering the fields with eyes like their leaders—like half-gods and heroes. Eyes that did not seem to see.
We lost the battle all the same, fleeing the city with what few survived the onslaught.
Now you know you’re a warrior, don’t you? Only a warrior could hear that he had killed so many and not even bristle. You feel it don’t you? I feel it to. The nothing inside you when learning this news. That’s why you’re a soldier. That’s how you survive.
* * *
You were ambushed, Carth. It was only a small skirmish, but there’s more that I want us to remember, now. Though I can’t give you much—do you think anyone truly remembers fights clearly? Or do only you and I suffer from this affliction?
You need to remember Aos dragging a twin away from his brother’s limp body, leaving the corpse on the road for the carrion crows.
She herself would be dragged away later when she saw that her dog had suffered the same fate.
You need to remember Desmon spearing an injured horse—and the cavalryman whose leg it had crushed. He looked at you, then. Even through your fog of shattered memories, you knew what that look meant. And you know it now as you read this.
You and I both know how these men felt. I suspect we all know. We’ve all learned the guilt that comes with being alive.
* * *
Remember this if you can:
A field of grass bowing under your progression, crunched underfoot and cut apart before it could twine around you.
A village of stone-and-mortar homes.
White-knuckled hands wrapped around longswords.
The glint steel against the sun.
Scattered shrieks and raising shields.
Your hand, red and wet and holding a longsword plunged up to the hilt into a wide-eyed monster. Only a boy. A no-tusked, pale-fleshed boy.
Aos saying, “Couldn’t be helped.”
Aos saying, “Carth?”
Aos saying, “Talk to me.”
* * *
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 travel with a woman named Aos and a man named Desmon. Do not concern yourself with the torn patch of boiled leather on you breast, nor the ones on your companions’, nor the looks that the empty patch may garner. For an index of items, places, people and locations, refer to the scrolls next to this one.
* * *
There are strange heads in this place. I don’t like it. You’ve been traveling for days through a black burn of ash and glass. Aos and Desmon keep insisting you’ve been eating every day—that you’re just forgetting (as usual). But dry lips and an angry belly tell you another story.
You were all wandering, yesterday, along a street whose stone had been battered to sand, when you saw the wolves’ heads: furless, with fresh flesh and dried up eyes that were wrinkled as raisins.
A mile farther one you found more skulls. Rabbits, deer and squirrels. These were not skinned like the wolves, but they’d only a shadow of sparsely furred flesh, stretched thin over their skulls like a shadow to cover wide eyes and teeth that seemed peeled back in something of a snarl. Tongues lolled about in the wind.
“We’re getting closer,” Desmon told you. “We’ll be at Sanctum by the end of the day.”
“Where’s Sanctum?” you asked him.
Desmon shook his head. “How often do you update your scrolls, Carth?”
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “Just keep moving. We’ll be there by morning.”
I will update you again when we’ve found lodging in Sanctum.