Estimated reading time — 25 minutes
Scorching heat; unrelenting dryness. I couldn’t feel anything else; couldn’t think about anything else. This wasn’t right. Even the sensation of heat was more of an observation than an actual feeling; I knew it was scorching without water to moisten the air, but I didn’t feel it so much as perceive it.
My eyes opened to reveal a confusing myriad of swirls and patterns. Everything was foggy and distorted. My sight lazily swept around me to take in a vast vision of brown swirling with blue, and stopped short when a stark whiteness disrupted the continuous two tone kaleidoscope. I tried focusing, with little luck.
I realized I was looking down at something. With that nugget of realization came more questions; ones that were starting to disturb me with my lack of answers. It was hard to form a coherent thought, but some part of me knew that what I was seeing wasn’t right.
The dryness all around me was the most disturbing sensation. I perceived a brittle heat all the way to my core. It seemed like I was made of dryness and lived within the heat, but again, a small part of my consciousness told me I shouldn’t feel that way. As soon as the thought entered my mind, it drifted away, and soon I found myself drifting back to……. to where?
I didn’t know, but I knew that wherever my mind wanted to take me was where I belonged. I relaxed myself and felt a deep, inky blackness begin to overtake me. I felt a great heaviness pull me gently into the dark void, and with relief I let go of any resistance to the tugging all around me. With one last bleary sweep of the unpleasant world around me, I let go.
Agonizing pain suddenly pierced me, like a thousand barbs catching me and yanking me down. With a silent scream, I felt myself plummet from the comforting blackness. I only had a brief chance to wildly look around to see that same damned brown and blue swirl, to recognize the terrible heat, before I was slammed into the white blur I couldn’t make sense of before.
As I searched around me for an explanation, my sight began to clear, and the kaleidoscope sharpened to a sandy earth and blue sky. My sight traveled from side to side, then downward. I realized that I was laying on hot sand, but it was not my body. Or rather, it was not a body, but a skeleton. I could see every bone, laid out perfectly. This brought me no comfort, only a sharpening of the terrible sensations of the sun on my bones and the hot sand filling my every crevice. My mental state began to go into a frenzied panic. I knew then, that I was dead, and I was being forced back into this lifeless, brittle frame.
Suddenly, my gaze darted to the left, catching a slight movement, and I noticed a figure that I hadn’t seen before. A tall, robed figure knelt by my skeleton, head bowed and silent. The robe was a rich, deep red, covering the figure entirely, except the hands which were dark, mangled, and so deeply lined it looked to be made of tree bark. The hood of the robe obscured any detail of the face beneath. The hands peeking out from the velvety folds were stretched out, gently grasping my left femur. Thick, yellow nails protruded from the bark like skin, long and curved. Seeing this robed figure shot a white hot needle of fear through me; I knew, somewhere deep inside, that this figure was responsible for causing me such pain, and for forcing me back to this world. I tried to fight against it, to reclaim my dark peace, but every time I willed myself to relax, to let go, those piercing barbs pulled me right back.
I writhed in agony for what seemed like hours, fighting the barbs and reaching with all my strength for that inky blackness, to no avail. Finally, exhausted and spent, I relented, accepting my fate. It seemed that acceptance was what the figure was waiting for; as soon as I gave up, the robed figure’s head lifted sharply to gaze at my skull. The face, thus revealed, was much like the figure’s hands; grotesquely lined and dark, with the most piercing blue eyes gazing into me. Those eyes……… they glowed.
After gazing at me for a few seconds, the figure nodded once, then released my bone from his grasp and stood. He turned around and spoke a few guttural syllables that made no sense to me, warped and muffled as they were. Almost immediately, another robed figure, this time clothed in light grey, approached my body, coming over a hill and dragging something in a large sack behind him. Whatever it was, it was alive; I could see the marks of struggle left in the sand as it slid by, and I could hear muffled noises coming forcefully from the mass. The robed man in grey came steadily closer, resting the sack at my feet.
He stooped down and opened the sack. A small man tumbled out, landing on his side, before desperately rolling away from the robed figures and attempting to gain footing in the slippery sand, trying with all his might to run away. The grey man easily caught the whimpering hostage by the ankle, dragging him forcefully back into place beside him. A few more grating syllables were spat out by the red robed figure, the obvious leader of the duo, and the shaking hostage was pulled upright.
Horrified, I watched as the man in grey produced a sharp dagger, beautifully made and covered in strange symbols. With a swift, sure motion, the man in grey swept the dagger across the small man’s throat, cutting off his scream and morphing it into a sickening gurgle. Blood began to spatter onto my bones, coating my feet and legs. The sand below me turned dark with the spreading puddle.
The small man was hoisted by the back of his neck to hover over me until the gurgling stopped, and the blood spurting out of his throat reduced to a trickle. Once he was fully drained, his body was unceremoniously tossed to the side, collapsing and rolling slightly away from me. One sightless eye, coated in sand, stared at me.
Shortly after tossing the dead man aside, both figures began speaking their sharp, throaty language in tandem, chanting in low, sure voices. I noticed that the man in grey also had piercing, powerful blue eyes, brought to my attention by the sudden, otherworldly glow that gradually grew brighter from both figures. The eerie glow emanating from them grew until all I could see of their faces was a bright, icy blue, consuming everything and projecting out towards my waiting body.
After watching them chant for a few moments, I began to feel the strangest sensation coming from my feet. My gaze swept downward and fixated on the transformation beginning to unfold. The dead man’s blood began to move up my skeletal form. Even the blood soaked in the sand below began to migrate up and over me. The blood traveled it’s slow path until it covered every inch. And I felt it all; actually felt the blood coating me, warm and thick.
Dread erased any sense in me and desperately urged me to run, or scream, or go back to being dead; do anything but watch what I was becoming. Once the blood coated me completely, the man in red threw back his hood, revealing spattered, coarse black hair along his scalp that fought for dominance against the dried, bark like skin. He threw back his head and began to emit a high pitched scream, starting softly, then escalating to an unbearable shriek that continued unabated, never stopping, even for him to draw breath. The man in grey stood unmoving, continuing the chant steadily, never breaking pace.
The blood on my bones began to condense and morph, shaping against me and growing thicker. With sick realization, I watched the transformation unfold. The morphing blood began to resemble muscle, then flesh, and finally I felt hair rooting into my new skin and grow outward. The pain from this transformation was sudden and unbearable. As my new body grew, my mind shriveled away from the immense sensations of nerve endings and stretched skin. I felt my gums form and a tongue grow slowly out from my throat to rest in my mouth. I found I could draw breath, and inhaled deeply to scream. No sound but a weak cough came from my throat. I suddenly felt thirsty, hungry, and hot. It was unbearable. I felt new muscles begin to jerk with my crazed urgings to run, to get away.
Once my transformation was complete, both figures stopped chanting and stared down at me expectantly. As they watched, I felt my body begin to move, tightening muscles to slowly bring my arms under myself until I could sit up, then unsteadily gain my footing to stand up straight. I swayed, remaining upright only through the automatic function of my new body. It seemed as though this body did not need my will to be controlled. Curious, I attempted to turn my head; nothing. I tried a few other motor functions, like lifting my foot and clenching my hand. Nothing I willed myself to do came to pass. A new panic began to settle inside of me. Why was I here, and why had I been given a body I couldn’t control?
As if hearing my inner monologue, the man in red spoke to me in his native tongue. Only this time, I understood.
“You, warrior of old, have been given life. I knew you as Dianon. You knew me as Lucin. You were the greatest slayer of my brothers; the day you fell from this world was the same day you led your men into a final battle against us. You were slain on the battlefield, but that did not stop your army from claiming….. victory.” A growl escaped him as he admitted the defeat. Flutters of memories danced through my mind at Lucin’s words, pictures of sand and blood. Lucin’s face, contorted in fury and leading a flagging army flashed quickly through my vision. He stepped closer to me, close enough to feel his breath on my skin and his dark energy vibrating all around me.
” A small group of my sand djinni have survived. ” Lucin’s mouth worked silently as he glared at me. Exhaling sharply, he continued. “After our defeat, we were banished from this land. Our land, and our-our home!” After his sudden outburst, he stopped and stood silently for a few moments, before stepping back and slowly unclenching his fists. I could see the hatred pouring from his gaze, directed at me.
Although I did not remember my former life, the more he spoke, the more I felt a sense of memories. Memories so deep, they almost didn’t break the surface of my mind. Almost. I knew for certain that my misgivings were correctly placed. If this robed monstrosity hated me so much, why go through this trouble to bring me back to life? It couldn’t be to congratulate me on my former victory.
After a moment to gather himself, Lucin spoke again, “We have lived on the edge of the world for hundreds of years now, barely living, forced to survive like rodents. I have dedicated much of that time to finding you, Dianon. It took me many years to find all of your bones, more to find the ritual needed to bring you fully back to life.” His gnarled hand traced slowly down my face, sliding unpleasantly over my skin and ending in a cruel grip on my shoulder. Softly, his head lowered, Lucin spoke to himself. “So much time… so much sacrifice.” His hand released and he stood back, arms wide spread as if to show me his prowess. ” But now, I have achieved this, the greatest testament to our power, and have raised you as flesh and blood once again!” As he finished his self congratulatory speech, the man in grey began to emit a coughing, throaty sound. After a few seconds, my mind recognized the pattern as… laughter? Lucin glanced at his companion, silencing him immediately, then resumed.
“My companion rejoices, old warrior. Xicora rejoices because of what you are now. Yes, you have been given life. However, it is not under your control anymore.” With that, he quickly mimed a symbol at me. Suddenly, my body lurched forward without my consent and began to walk towards him. Without speaking, the two djinni turned and began walking along the hot sand. I felt the heat scorching my bare feet, felt the sun beating down on my naked back. I felt the sand lodge in every crevice, and grit form in my dry mouth. But I couldn’t speak, couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t even slow down. Rage and panic engulfed me. What did they want with me? I knew next to nothing of my own memories, only what sparks Lucin’s tale had ignited. My mind was an almost empty cavern, useless to me now.
We walked along the endless sand for days, never stopping, never resting. It seemed my new body did not need basic nurturing, such as water or food. I didn’t need it, but I surely felt its absence. My throat burned constantly from the air. My entire body ached and burned from the physical strain of walking under a desert sun. Yet, I continued on, mindlessly following Lucin, the owner of my cursed body.
Thinking of his name soured my tongue and caused tiny sparks of memories laced with anger and steel to flit through my mind. I couldn’t grasp them long enough to fully remember who I was, but I could feel that Lucin and I were, in fact, enemies. I knew he did not lie about my reputation as a slayer of his kind; I could feel the urge to kill, to purge, this creature from the earth, even without knowing exactly why.
Eventually, through the endless wavy haze that surrounded me, I snapped from my distracted musings after detecting a dark mass up ahead. As we drew nearer, I could see that it was a mountain. A single mountain, of the darkest black I remember knowing, surrounded by sand on all sides. Approaching the foot of the mountain, Xicora stepped forward and touched the mountain’s base with a strangely shaped amulet hanging from within his robe. With a massive boom, the mountain’s base slowly ground its way open to reveal a giant cave.
The cave was sparsely lit with torches, but what I noticed first were the orbs floating deep within its black maw. As the orbs traveled closer, I realized with a sinking feeling that those orbs were twins of the terrible orbs belonging to my malicious travel companions. These must be the surviving brothers, then. Hundreds of those terrible eyes stared at me, all filled with hatred. Again, I wondered wildly what they had in store for me. Neither Xicora nor Lucin had spoken to me, or even acknowledged me, the entirety of our miserable walk.
Lucin turned to me from the great cavern and finally broke his silence. “Do you see, Dianon? Do you see what we have been reduced to? What was once a thriving race is now a straggling band of djinni that struggle to live from one day to the next. ” Describing their sad state, Lucin swept his arm across the opening, pointedly watching me the entire time. ” This is your doing; and so, it will be undone by you. Follow me and see what is in store. Hmmm. Not that you have a choice about it.” With that, the strange symbol was mimed once again, and like a puppet on strings I followed obediently behind Lucin’s walking form. The stares of the surviving djinni clan drew closer, close enough for me to see the same variation of bark like skin covering each robed figure, each wearing either a light grey or dark brown robe. Lucin wore the only red robe I could see. Xicora walked behind me, hissing occasionally if one of his brothers got too close. I assumed they wanted me unharmed, though that brought no comfort.
We walked down the length of the cave, eventually breaking off to go down a carved tunnel to the left. There were no markings or details that I could see; only an endless dark tunnel. Eventually, I began to see a bright light emanating from what I assumed to be our destination. My curiosity began to override my fear of the unknown as we approached the light. At least I would know what was planned for me, and would question their intention no more.
As we passed through the opening, my eyes quickly adjusted to the new light, and I swept my gaze across an enormous room deep within the mountain. What I saw caused my curiosity to drop like dead weight, replaced by a new, sharpened sense of dread. In every corner of the massive room, filled to the brim, were skeletons.
The skeletons stood upright, standing row upon row to the furthest reaches of the cave. Each skeleton gripped a short sword in one hand and a small, circular shield in the other. Each bony neck had a strange collar inscribed with the same symbols that I recognized from the dagger Xicora had used in the desert. Other than standing upright and gripping their equipment, there was no sound, no movement, to indicate that these skeletons were anything but lifeless monuments. Yet, I could sense a dark energy projecting from the crowd of bones; I knew they were standing upright from an unseen force. I knew they were alive, somehow. The collars must have enchanted the bones to imitate life, as the dagger with its strange symbols gave me mine.
Staring at the swords and shields, I felt a tugging in my mind, one of recognition. I knew these weapons. Concentrating hard on the thought, I suddenly realized the connection. Those skeletons belonged to the fallen men in my old army! I recognized the mighty lion embossed on the shield and the distinctive curve of the short sword that was unique to my people.
My fear escalated, as did my rage. What unholy abomination was Lucin playing with? Why had he raised my fallen companions, and why had he taken the time to fit me with new flesh instead of simply reanimating my bones? I could clearly see that this was within his power. Once again, as if perceiving my thoughts, Lucin turned to me and unveiled his intentions.
“Dianon, do you recognize these bones? These were your men, who fought and died with you.” Striding over to the first row of skeletons, Lucin roughly grasped a soldier’s head, shaking it slightly. “They do not know themselves; they have no thoughts. Their only objective is to obey me. You, however, are special. We needed your flesh to be revived, not just your skeleton.” Releasing his grip, Lucin gave me a malicious grin, then continued, “You see, before our banishment, we were herded to your prisons like lowly cattle. We watched as your funeral transpired. They erected a statue dedicated to you, their noble hero, standing tall and proud on a mountain of my fallen brothers.” His grin faded as he looked into my eyes. ” Dianon, I will never forget that sight, and soon, neither will you.”
Turning, Lucin slowly walked up towards the entrance to the tunnel, throwing his words over his shoulder, not bothering to acknowledge me. “Tomorrow, you will lead your army once again. You will march into your great city, where they regard you as some personal deity.” At this, Lucin threw back his head and barked a short, guttural laugh. “As if such a thing were possible! Tcha! Your people were always great fools, believing in nonsense and rejecting any clan that was so bold as to oppose their ignorant religion.” I could see the fury mounting once again, and Lucin’s words began to tremble. “That’s why….. you slaughtered us. Because we worshipped the earth and harnessed its power, instead of bowing to your stupid, p-pathetic, mythical gods!” Lucin took a deep breath, wiping spittle from his chin. Breaking his aloof posture, he turned back to face me, speaking slowly and deliberately.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. They will watch you march into their sacred city. They will beg for mercy as you murder every last one of your brothers and sisters. They will scream with agony as you burn them and their kingdom to the ground.” He sneered, lifting his hand to direct a yellowed nail at me. ” You will kill them. You will know what you have done, with every swing of your sword, but you will not stop. And the city will know it was their sacred hero that destroyed them.”
The rage swelled within me like a tidal wave, churning and fighting for release, but outwardly I remained as silent and calm as Lucin willed me to be. The small amounts my mind had been able to glean from the quicksilver memories, instilled within me a deep love and loyalty to my former people. We were called Adinines, that much I knew, and I had been our fiercest protector. It went against everything I felt to kill my people, but I couldn’t yet find a way to break Lucin’s hold over me. If I could remember our religion and the gods we served, I would have beseeched them, but I could not form their names from my ragged memory.
Lucin sent me another quick grin, full of twisted, sadistic joy, and turned to Xicora, who had been silently standing guard behind me, lest any of his brethren be overcome with rage and try to harm me.
“Let us go now, and prepare for our journey, Xicora. Our new commander will spend the night with his comrades.” Another quick symbol was made, different than Lucin’s usual “follow me” command, and my body was sent marching towards the stagnant skeletons, taking my rightful place as commander, front and center. As I settled in place, Lucin, Xicora, and the straggling brothers who had not yet dispersed, left the great room, making their way back through the carved tunnel. As I stood stoically, my body obediently awaiting its master’s next order, I began to concentrate on what memories I could. It was the only thing I had any power to do.
The next day arrived with Lucin’s return to the silent, oppressive room. Before commanding his undead army, I watched as he looked across the mass of makeshift soldiers. His skin did not seem to allow much elasticity for emotion, but I did detect a certain satisfaction, even excitement, coming from his demeanor. He raised his arms high and mimed an intricate sequence of symbols, much longer and more complicated than I’d seen him do before.
Suddenly, I heard creaking and popping all around me; a hideous orchestra of skeletons preparing to march into battle. I felt my muscles contract and pull, forcing me to perform a mocking salute to my captor, then smartly turning me to face the entrance of the tunnel. My feet began a steady tempo, marching me straight to the waiting Lucin, then halting me a few feet in front of him. Xicora stepped forward from the shadows of the tunnel, holding a gilded set of armor on one arm, and on the other, a short sword and slightly battered shield.
This was my old armor; I could feel the pull of recognition and pride as I gazed on the ensemble. The nostalgia I felt was heavily outshined by the panic and frustration that seemed to be constantly battering my thoughts. I could not, would not, kill my people. I had to find a way to stop Lucin.
Despite my inner protests, at a small mimed gesture from my captor, my arms rose to grasp the armor, placing and fitting it on my body with ease. It was armor fit for a commander; intricate patterns of ivy and roses bordered the chest piece, topped off with a ferocious lion’s head caught in mid roar embossed on the chest. The rest of the armor, while not nearly as intricate as the chest piece, still held an undeniable air of quality and beauty, lined simply with gold and made with fine leather. Even my sandals had tiny gold ivy leaves travelling up the cords, mimicking its living inspiration. Adinines wore no helmets; it was a religious gesture that I recognized as deference to our sun god, though the name of the god and the story behind the gesture eluded me.
After straightening and tightening the armor until the perfect fit was made, I reached out unwillingly to accept my old weapons. I felt the cool weight of the shield resting on my forearm, felt the depressingly reassuring grip on my sword. I was finally ready to march.
Lucin looked me over with approval, sarcastically complimenting my attire. “You look exactly like you did on the day of the great battle, Dianon. Your adoring people will have no trouble recognizing you at all. It will be wonderful to watch them welcome you home.” Chuckling softly to himself, he mimed a final string of symbols, turned, and began his journey through the tunnel.
My body followed without hesitation, and behind me I heard the clattering steps of my fallen comrades, once more marching with their leader into battle. We traveled through the dark tunnels, turning only once to walk the final pathway to the entrance of the mountain. We waited patiently for the cave’s mouth to open, courtesy once again of Xicora, who seemed to have an extra spring in his step today. Once the cave opened, I took the lead, marching firmly out into the scorching sun, my body’s compass assumingly headed for my beloved city, Marthona. I almost wished I did not remember such things; each additional memory caused me more pain. To defile my city, my people, was unthinkable.
Lucin, Xicora, and the remaining clan of djinni followed close behind their army, talking quietly amongst themselves, but never acknowledging me or the skeletons marching along obediently. Once again, as with my previous journey, we did not stop or rest. While I still did not seem to need any nourishment to continue living, the agony of thirst, hunger and constant heat was so acute that at times I nearly forgot about my predicament.
Weeks passed, and still we marched on. I tried with all my might to remember, to think of a way to stop this. While I accomplished small victories within my memories, they were insignificant to my problem, and too far spread for me to view them as any real progress. I remembered that I was in my 46th year the day I died, and I remember having no wife or kids. The life of a soldier, I suppose. I recalled small pictures of my old life, fast and fleeting, never solid enough for me to fully grasp. Smells, colors, the shape of temples and the taste of fruits were what I could take from my efforts. Not enough; not nearly enough.
One morning, as we marched dully and dutifully to our doom, I felt a sharpening in my mind. I searched with my eyes, straining to see, for I feared that we were nearing my beloved city. My heart sank as I caught glimpses of white shimmers and fluttering color; I knew this to be the very first sight of my city’s walls and our flag soaring proudly from the top of our garrison. I was running out of time and nowhere closer to figuring out how to stop this madness.
As we neared the city of Marthona, slowly watching the great white stone walls grow taller and more vibrant, my memories began to trickle in, slowly at first, then as a great tidal wave. My life, from my first memories to my last, came flooding back to me , filling my mind to the brim. I remembered growing up picking fresh grapes from our family vineyard. I remembered putting on my common soldier’s armor for the first time at my 15th year, and my first battle, when I discovered I had no fear of death. That was how I rose to be the commander of Marthona’s army; I did not fear, and I did not lose. I felt my soul swell with the knowledge of my old life, rejoicing in my precious memories. Lost as I was in nostalgia, I did not notice Lucin suddenly appearing beside me, considering me with his icy gaze.
When he finally spoke, I would have jumped if it were in my power to do so; I was so engrossed in my recollections, I don’t think I would have noticed walking into my city’s wall until I bumped against it. “So, you finally get to gaze upon your precious city, Dianon.” Lucin sneered, ” Take it in, cherish the sight, for after we are done, it will never regain its glory.” Finishing his dark speech, he walked ahead of me, fearless now that he had any army to protect him upon entering the city. I was once again, guiltily this time, drawn back to my predicament and the realization that I had little knowledge from my new memories to aide in preventing the destruction of my city.
We were nearing the opening of the garrison, the bridge lowered for travelers. With no warning, Marthona’s peaceful residents would not have enough time to raise the heavily fortified bridge before we invaded. Lucin and his clan had led us through a well known but disregarded blind spot on the landscape. The reflection from a metallic stone that littered our eastern desert hid most, if not all, movement. From a watcher’s perspective, any moving object would camouflage into the silver specked haze. It had been a constant thorn in my side when I lived before. It agitated me to have a bind spot, so when I became commander I issued regular mounted patrols in the area. Nothing was ever spotted in the twenty years of my commandment; perhaps that was why the watch was seemingly abandoned after my death. Marthona did not know many times of war; we were a clan of traders and farmers. It seemed that time had been lenient to my people in the years following my death, if our unknown invasion was any indication.
Onward we marched, closing in on the open gates with determined strides that I fought against. All my memories, my thoughts, did nothing to shed light on my city’s impending doom. I had no new knowledge on how to counteract this magic; from what Lucin had explained, this was apparently a ritual that took decades, if not centuries, for him to accomplish. This was magic that I had no previous knowledge against. Still, I fought, hoping against hope that somehow my will would overpower Lucin’s, and then I would be free to exact my revenge against him.
I remembered why we had eradicated the djinni. Dark energy, black magic, had slowly been traveling its way to our peaceful gates, with rumors of human sacrifice, pagan rituals, and an increasing number of displaced settlers who had been driven from their land by the djinni’s hand. Knowing that it was a matter of time before we became infected with their evil, I led the attacks against Lucin and his kind. I followed them as far as we could go, and then some. I killed every djinni I saw, without mercy or tolerance. On the day of the great battle, we had pursued the last of the djinni for months before they finally faltered enough for us to attack. I remember the satisfaction I felt at seeing the ragged remains of their clan. I felt certain that the absence of their kind, and the magic that came with it, would cleanse the earth and bring peace. I wished now, with all my being, that I had been successful in my mission.
As we approached the bridge, calls rang out in alarm, and I saw my former people begin to alert the city of our invasion. It was much too late; we crossed the bridge as the first distress horn sounded throughout the city. I was the first to cross the threshold into the town square, panic settling in my chest like a knife.
People scattered in fear as we approached, and they gazed upon my face. I saw recognition spark through them. Most of the running stopped, though soldiers still raced to their posts, glancing wildly over their shoulders to look at us. Women, children and men alike all gazed at me in wonder. Fear mingled with awe, and even joy, at my presence. A few children were even so bold as to take a few, unsure steps toward me, stretching tiny hands to tentatively brush against my shield. As they saw I was real, smiles began to form on their faces.
Unable to speak, unable to move, I stared wretchedly forward, as I had been commanded. “PLEASE”, I screamed inwardly,” please help me! Gods of our Sun, Gods of our Water, Gods of our Labor and Land, please aide me! I do not wish to cause the destruction of your subjects; my people! PLEASE HEAR ME!”
I heard no answer, I felt no divine intervention; I was forgotten and ignored by my gods. I willed myself with all I had to turn around and leave, to stop what I knew was coming, but it made no difference. Lucin, damn his soul, made his way past the stoic skeletons to stand beside me. I could see that people recognized the looks of the djinni of old, and horror began to appear on everyone’s face. They stared at me, betrayal and fear apparent, thinking that somehow, I had collaborated with Marthona’s greatest enemy. Their most cherished hero, the subject of songs and legends, and whose feet they knelt at yearly to offer their thanks for the protection from the very enemy now at their doorstep, had turned on them. Lucin gazed around with a fierce hunger in his evil blue eyes, and addressed the city with a booming voice.
“People of Marthona! Gaze now upon your doom. For he who was once your greatest hero, has become your destruction. Look now, at your fallen hero, and despair!” With a crazed, grating laugh, Lucin mimed a final command, and sealed my fate. My skeleton army followed me into our final battle; the clattering of their bones drowned out the city’s screams.
Screams still echoed in my mind, long after the last citizen of Marthona fell. It was a young boy, no older than sixteen, shaking and begging for forgiveness. As my heart shattered, I dealt the fatal blow, watching his head roll down the bloody cobblestone street, face frozen in terror. I had eradicated my beloved home and its people. The citizens thought they had done some injustice to my memory, and begged for mercy endlessly. I suffered no attacks to stop me through the first dozen people I slaughtered. They tried to fight us, eventually, but how can you kill what is already dead?
The skeleton army I led felt no pain, nor fear. They did not alter course or fall back. My body never faltered, and although I felt the pain of my people’s attempts to fight back against me, such as an arrow that remained embedded in my back, I could not halt the destruction I wrought. I hardly noticed where I walked or what commands Lucin directed at me now. My mind had broken; my will was no more. I had no thoughts, no sense in me but the echoes of screams and visions of death.
All I could hope for was the release of this prison. I had done what Lucin set out for me to do; surely they had no further need of me. I held on to the thought like a lifeline. My damned body marched throughout the city, methodically searching for hiding survivors. I found none; my former training had served Lucin well.
Finally, I was back to the entrance of the garrison, awaiting Lucin’s next move. Though I had no knowledge of this ritual or how he might release me back into death’s embrace, I assumed my skeleton brethren and I would be released here, leaving my corpse to rot again and the skeleton army to further bleach under the sun, or be returned to the black mountain if the ritual had to be conducted there. Wretchedly, I waited for Lucin and his clan to make their way back for further instruction.
Lucin slowly walked along the cobblestone street, looking around him with a sense of overjoyed disbelief. I knew he savored this moment, and hated him with all my soul. After an eternity of watching my sworn enemy bask in the destruction of my people, Lucin made his way to me, and spoke.
“Dianon, I thank you for the great service you have provided today. Truly, you have made this a wondrous day that my brother’s and I will not soon forget.” A sickening chuckle slid from between his grinning teeth. ” Such a pity that we will not have the same physical reminder of our victory that your city has held dear for so long.” Sighing happily, Lucin elbowed me arrogantly against my ribs. ” Didn’t do them much good though, eh?” Shaking his head with laughter, he made an effort to regain seriousness. He stepped away and began to lift his hands, saying “Now that we have been avenged, your purpose is done. You will go back to whence you came.”
Softly, Lucin spoke a new spell, and immediately I felt my soul begin to release. My body crumpled to the ground, and the vision of Lucin’s smug face faded slowly from my mind. I sighed in relief, waiting for the blackness to erase my existence and the memory of this awful curse. Peaceful darkness overtook me, and I began to sleep eternally once again.
No, no, NO! The familiar pull of barbs yanked me from my hard won peace. I didn’t need to guess who was responsible this time, but I frantically wondered what I was doing back. Why didn’t Lucin just leave me to rot?
My eyes opened once again, and I saw Xicora standing close to Lucin, watching my face with satisfaction as Lucin ended his string of symbols. A low, growling whisper came from the stoic face, holding Lucin’s attention. A small smile grew on Lucin’s face, causing panic to flutter through the tattered remains of my mind. What other task could they have for me now? All I wanted was the black void to erase my existence. I was so close to a peaceful end, with no memories to haunt me of this day. So close, yet I could see the intention fading from Lucin. I waited in agony for an explanation.
My misgivings were confirmed with Lucin’s next words. “Ahh, but my second in command protests, Dianon! Xicora believes that we may still have our monument to remember this day, and requests, no, insists, that this be so. Well, I cannot deny my brothers their victory; after all, your people claimed theirs, no?” Grinning fully now, Lucin raised his hands and mimed a series of symbols. Rather than feeling the release of death, my body turned smartly and made its way back into the center of town. I approached the monument Lucin spoke so lowly of, only now raising my eyes to look upon it. I had staunchly refused to look at it until now, not wanting to further cause myself pain of remembrance. I could see that Lucin’s description was accurate; there I stood, proud and heroic, standing tall with my right foot strategically placed on an unfortunate djinni’s head, apparently splitting the skull with my heel. The monument was quite large, depicting a small mountain of slaughtered djinni underfoot. All around the monument were the scattered remains of the most recent offerings, ripped and bloodied.
To my horror, I did not hesitate or stop at the monument’s base, but climbed quickly up the side of fallen djinni until I reached the top to stand beside myself. My body adjusted to mimic my statue, minus the raised heel. I panicked inwardly, with a sinking feeling of just what Lucin had planned. Looking down, I watched my skeleton army, once again hard at work. Only this time, they were dutifully picking up dead citizens and piling them on top of each other at the monument’s base.
Over and over, they stacked the bodies, reaching my feet and obscuring all depictions of the djinni. Finally, a skeleton carried one final body, an older man, to place directly by my feet. At this, I watched in mute disgust and self-loathing as my right foot raised high, then smashed forcefully into the dead man’s skull. The result was a sickening imitation of the gold plated hero next to me; my heel stopped just inside the skull, creating an accurate and terrible imitation of my former victory.
Lucin gazed up at me, a look of supreme satisfaction on his face. The look was reflected on each of his brothers’ own lined visage. They had all gathered to admire Xicora’s brilliant homage to their victory. He didn’t bother to speak to me again; we both knew my purpose up here. Lucin turned, and led his brothers through the town square. I watched helplessly as the last of them crossed the bridge into the desert, followed by my former skeleton companions.
This is where I stay; this is my curse. I remain, now and always, a man of flesh and blood. I need no food, no water, to sustain me. I watched and smelled the rotting of my people, screaming like a mad man for no ears but my own. The memories don’t leave. I live every day in the knowledge of who I once was and what I’ve done, and all I want is death. Lucin was true to his word; my city never regained its glory. No new settlers, no brave explorers, no life has ever crossed my path. I am alone and eternal in this hell.
I stopped counting the days long ago. All I know is time enough has passed to erase my city from this world. I watched the endless sand rise and cover the ruins of my city, coating me and my fallen people in gritty layers. I am forgotten and forsaken, alone in my misery.
Still, in the midst of my pain and Lucin’s victory, there is one thing he didn’t count on. The dark magic that keeps me alive and holds me in place is changing. I can feel the power coursing through me. My body is frozen, but my mind is not, and I have eternity to harness this magic and figure out how to use it to my advantage. The darkness, it grows in me, overriding my angst, even in my hopelessness. I feel…… powerful. I know if I can concentrate enough, the power will be mine to wield, and then, I will have my revenge. The thought alone fills me with new purpose and a fury that won’t be tamed. Lucin waited hundreds of years to accomplish his goal. I will wait as long as I have to as well.
For now, I remain. If you ever gather enough courage to face the cruel, unforgiving desert lands of this earth, and happen upon a lost city, covered in sand and forgotten by time, look for me. Release me. I’ll be waiting.
Credit: Allison, also credit requested for Katherine C and Calamity Crown, who volunteered as Beta readers and aided me with my story.