Some alliances have unexpected beginnings.
The wind is bitter cold, and we are weary. Even Kodiak is slowing, his arm growing heavy, or so it seems, though it is scarcely to be believed. There is no end to them. This is Hell, this is eternity, they keep coming and coming, there is no end to them, and we are going to fall. We are fighting on determination alone, none of us have endurance left, it is so cold, and it has been so long since we have slept. Martello is weariest, you can see it in his eyes and his breathing, and yet he is perhaps the most determined, his muscles responding long past the point of exhaustion, his fury growing with every swing. His magic is all but spent, only the mage-fire still responds to his hoarse incantations. Kahwen fights as though possessed, you can almost see the glimmer of the divine in his fearless eyes, in the precision in swing after swing. He, too, is fighting past exhaustion, past pain, I wonder if he even feels it, now. BlackAngel is flustered, his swings are savage and desperate, but he alone still smiles, he is the one that glories in this, he was meant for this. Rayel is as a beast; he throws our opponents about like dolls, tearing into them roughly with his edged spears, grappling them and ripping them limb from limb, roaring. He will need medical attention; I fear he has already been touched with the dead ones' plague. My magic can help him, if he lives. And there I am, stabbing and swinging, never stopping, ignoring their claws tearing at my armor and smashing them, cutting them, breaking their skulls and arms with my twin blades.
We are magnificent. We are losing.
I remember. The world was nothing but white. White sky, white beneath my feet, white in front of my eyes. And then my mage's ears whispered to me, and I turned, finding my way. It seemed an eternity, that white, but then I found what my ears had promised, a dwelling. Packed ice, these folk lived in ice? Madness, surely, but then, they were alive and well, while I battled the cold outside and unarmored. I dug my fingers into the hardened snow and dug, at last finding frozen animal hide beneath the white. I pounded on it with my fist.
I had all but given up hope when the door abruptly came open, and a voice said something I did not understand. I simply nodded, and bowed my head, and all but tumbled into the ice-house. And then I felt the fire on me, and it seemed to burn, ah, how hot it was, and bright. But I moved toward it and warmed myself, and began to remove my frozen clothing.
I looked up at my saviors. Three curious faces, two with the look of Asians, the third . . . different. His hairy face regarded me suspiciously.
I touched my chest and said, "Darkangel."
The bearded one tilted his head, then looked away. He took a boiling pot from the fire and lifted it, gesturing at it with a nod of his head, and set it down.
"Who are you?" I asked in the tongue of the Celts. Then in Latin, then Pharsi. Then Greek. His eyes suddenly glimmered.
"Are you . . . a priest?" he said, in halting Greek.
I laughed. "Not a priest. A traveler."
He nodded. "I have traveled. But I do not travel now. This is my home."
I stared at him curiously. "I'm Darkangel. What is your name?"
He grinned broadly, child-like in his friendliness. "They call me Kodiak."
"Kodiak," I repeated. "Does it mean anything?"
"It is a kind of bear," he said. "A giant bear."
"Why do they call you Darkangel?" he posed.
I smiled and shrugged.. "Because the hand of Death is dark, even in the cause of justice. And perhaps because I am as stained as the villains I kill."
He snorted skeptically.
"It is a name given to me," I admitted. "Long ago."
We have blocked off the past. Martello speaks his words of magic, and fire devours the dead ones two and three at a time. But he is having to rest more and more often. BlackAngel and I muster our wills, driving these mindless unliving back with words of banishment. But it is not enough, there is not magic for these creatures, these dozens of creatures.
"I thought you said it would be easy!" shouts Kahwen. "This rankles."
I laugh. "I never said it would be easy. I just said we were the ones for the job."
"We're going to die here," he shouts.
BlackAngel frowns angrily. "Fuck that! I'm not dying here. Kick some ass."
Kahwen smiles wolfishly and let out a warrior's shout. His fury redoubles, and for a moment I can imagine he is not tired, not so tired he is barely standing. Still he swings. His mind is empty of all thoughts but battle, he is one with this chaos.
I shrugged. "I didn't say I knew where I was going," I protested. "Only that I was called."
Kahwen rolled his eyes, and I could tell he was about to say something. But he said only, "Goddammit, Darkangel," and muttered to himself.
We looked out across the frozen wastelands.
"We're in the Arctic," he noted sourly.
I shrugged. "Well, at least the weather's nice," I offered.
He glared at me.
I grinned. "Nice is a relative term."
"I ought to kick your ass," he noted.
I simply smiled. "Come. I think I know where our caller is."
"Who is it?"
"He's called Kodiak," I said. "He lives among these people."
"This better be important," Kahwen grumbled.
"I am sure it is," I said, "else he would not have called to me."
I remember when I met Martello. He was still a young warrior then, barely blooded, and reluctant at sorcery.
"Magic is in the blood of the elves," I offered to the brightly dressed young man who sat across me at the inn-table. He was tall, taller than even most men, but lanky and flexible, and his eyes sparkled with that light that is in the eyes of the Elves, who see beauty as no mortal man sees it.
He shrugged. "There is no honor in it. I distrust wizards. The last wizard I knew was an usurper, and trafficked with orcs," he affirmed angrily.
I nodded, but said, "The first warrior I ever knew well, he killed his own father and toppled the richest empire in the world, bringing war to the land. In the end, the wrath of the gods sunk its burning ruins into the quenching sea. Thousands, even millions of innocents died then."
"What was his name?" asked Martello.
I paused, and said softly, "I forget."
Kodiak's surprised face popped out of the curtain to his ice-house.
"Hello," I said. "I came."
He nodded, and glanced behind me.
"This is Kahwen," I introduced. "He, too, has walked many miles."
Kodiak nodded. "Beast-men have come to our lands. We need them dead, before they kill us."
I nodded, then said, curiously, "I sense sorcery."
"So that is what I smell," said Kodiak.
Things were so simple then. It was a time before Empire, a time when sorcerers had not yet uncovered the lost secrets of my ancestors. A time when demons were few, and sorcerers rarely more than dabblers in the Art. How time moves through the centuries . . . It seems only yesterday.
BlackAngel has his arms up-raised. All around us, the dead ones wander in confusion, searching for the ones they will kill. We are invisible, intangible. Like ghosts, I reflect. But then I turn my thoughts from that.
"How long can you hold it?" I say.
"Long enough," BlackAngel answers.
"But you will need to sleep soon," I say.
I see in his eyes that he agrees, but he says nothing.
"We need to move farther up the pass," I say.
"This has all been a mistake," he says. "Every last thing."
I smile. "Do not give up yet, my friend. I will rest now. When I wake, we will move again."
I look at Kodiak, who rests fitfully in the snow, and Martello, who sleeps deeply. Perhaps too deeply, in the cold. I touch my fingers to him and give him warmth, light and fire from the heart to warm his cold bones and blood.
I grinned at the brutish, but sensitive tribesman. Rayel shrugged.
"Then tell them I am a story-teller," I said.
"They will not believe you," he said with a shrug.
"Then come with me," I said.
He tilted his head. "And go where?"
"I had a dream," I said. "I dreamed of a friend of mine. I think he is in trouble."
Rayel growled. "Trouble?"
I grinned. "It'll be fun. Besides, the weather is nicer down there."
"I dreamed of a hundred orcs pouring out of a mountain," Rayel said, suddenly.
I stopped. "That is much the same dream I had," wonderingly.
I wonder if stopping was a mistake. My body aches, worse, if that is possible, and the snow continues, unrelenting, as do the dead ones. Rayel and Kodiak carry BlackAngel, while I, Kahwen, and Martello do our best to thwart the clumsy, but unslacking dead ones, their eyes burning with red hatred and their corrupt claws black and rotten. BlackAngel's sanctuary has bought us precious time, and caused the dead ones to scatter, thwarted in their mindless, hungry search for us. At first they merely attacked us, because we moved and lived. Now, we know, they are hunting us. It is frightening. You can see it in their eyes, eagerness, where before there was nothing.
We were concerned about victory at one point; now we care only about escaping with our lives.
I myself ponder the damnation that may await me in the next world. When will the gods lose patience with me? I ask myself. Always I ask myself that. But for now, I will not think of it. Think only of fighting, and the words of my spells, and my feet, for we must keep moving, ever moving.
"I am feeling stronger," says Martello. "There is a spell I might attempt, if only could we could rid of these damn creatures."
"If we could get rid of them," I noted, "we would simply leave and be done with them."
"We can't do that," he admonishes, a little shocked.
I grin. "I know. But it's comforting to pretend otherwise."
"Can you buy me a few minutes?" he asks.
I look at Rayel. He flashes a snaggled grin. Kodiak shrugs.
"Kodiak, you guard Martello and BlackAngel," I hear myself say. "Rayel, Kahwen, and I will try to slow them down."
"If you fail?" asks Kodiak.
I grin. "Then pray that vengeance is swift."
I gathered them. Martello, Rayel, Kahwen, BlackAngel. Martello's magic gave their feet the power of miles, and in but an hour, they were all assembled. Kodiak and I looked up from our fire by the ice-wall.
"You said this was urgent?" asked BlackAngel.
"Yes," I said. "We've been through a lot together. There is something not right with the world right now. Somebody has to do something about. And I think we're the ones for the job."
"This doesn't sound good," said Kahwen, glumly.
"It'll be easy," I grinned.
Kahwen raised an eyebrow.
"Well, easy is a relative term," I defended.
"My home is plagued by demons," said Kodiak. "Hundreds of them, walking dead, crawling out of the Earth. Those they kill become as they are."
BlackAngel smiled. "Hundreds? Do they burn?" He grandly indicated Martello.
Martello grinned and clenched his fists eagerly. "Ye-es! Fire!" he shouted enthusiastically.
"Undead," I said.
BlackAngel nodded. Kahwen shrugged.
"Then we are agreed?" I asked.
Kodiak looked at the five of us. "All in favor, raise your left hand."
And each of us raised his hand.
"All right, then," said Kodiak.
Rayel and Kahwen are like human castle-gates. Their shields are battered, but still hold, having been reinforced by Martello's magic. They stare grimly at the host that marches on us. Half of what we were, but what choice have we? We must buy time, and so that is why we are staring into the eyes of walking corpses tearing at us. I am standing just behind them. Every hand that reaches around a shield, I chop, hacking at the deadly limb until it falls from its demonic owner and becomes still. Kahwen and Rayel shove the creatures backwards as though holding up a wall. As it becomes desperate, I concentrate, and call upon what magic I can to hold the creatures at bay. Rayel has not said a word in an hour, but only grunted fiercely, he seems like a beast, his self forgotten in the red haze of battle. His rage is his strength. Kahwen has picked up his flail, and swings it like a threshing handle, smashing our attackers indiscriminately.
Rayel falls to one knee.
"Rayel!" I call.
He roars angrily and fights all the more fiercely, but fallen, I see that he is vulnerable, and I already see red flowing from his shoulder. I grit my teeth and dive into them.
I am Death. There is nothing but the quivering of the air as I swing, thrust, smash, jab. I cannot stop moving, not even a second, there are too many of them. I feel their claws tear into my armor. I will not last long. But then, I look up, and I am standing around a pile of crumpled corpses.
"Good job, Darkangel," says Kahwen in amazement.
I grin shyly. I back up and concentrate on my wounds, not only healing them, but cleansing them of the dead ones' dreadful curse. I lay hands on Rayel, too, soothing his dangerous wounds and cleansing his system of the disease before he, too, becomes one of them. I glance at Kahwen, but the warrior-priest has already healed, if he was wounded.
The dead ones have closed again. Our moment's respite is gone as once again Kahwen and Rayel become a living wall, and I frantically harry the dead ones he struggle to overwhelm us. They climb over the shields, like rats crawling on a fallen horse . . . I growl angrily and nearly throw one with the force of my swing as it connects. "Die, you dead bastards, die!" I roar with my hoarse voice.
And suddenly the wind stirs.
And then the world is on its side. The air and snow are one and the same, and the wind that howls around me was stronger than any natural one, and yet I am not swept from my feet. Nor Rayel, nor Kahwen.
And then as quickly as it began, it has stopped.
I look up, disbelieving. But is has happened. The dead ones are scattered, blown about into disarray. Separated. Vulnerable.
"Thank you, Martello," I laugh.
Rayel jumps up and down excitedly, like a puppy.
"We have work to do," I note grimly.
We hurry up the pass. It is a long way, but we run fast, we are excited. There, Kodiak and Martello are standing, both smiling. BlackAngel is rubbing his eyes and sitting up.
I grin. "Are we ready?"
Kodiak nods. He inspects us. "Kahwen and I will be in front. Martello will be behind us, throwing fire. Darkangel and Rayel, you . . . well, you will do what you do. BlackAngel, follow as best you can."
Rayel and I grin. We are eager.
BlackAngel yawns. "I'm fine. I'll stand by Martello."
And our little company starts down the path. Four dead ones crawl up the path toward us. Martello raises his hand, mumbling in Latin and gibberish, and gestures. Fire flies from his hand and burns the first two instantly, they become burning masses like firelogs, and fall. The other two continue, unafraid, mindless. Martello continues to chant. Suddenly, the dead ones scream and charge. Martello hurls fire again, hits one, it explodes instantly in flame, but the other one is still coming. It slams into Kahwen's shield, who beats it back. I scurry around him and bring my sword down on the creature's back, folding it around my blade with a resounding crack. Rayel brings his spear down on its neck, and its head falls to the ground, and it is destroyed.
We reform. Kodiak and Kahwen continue to pace down the path. As we go, Martello breaks up the groups of them with his fire, and we finish. When we find lone dead ones, we simply rush them and tear them apart as though we were a pack of starving wolves. So it goes, for more than an hour. Dozens of the creatures are destroyed.
"I sense . . . sorcery," says BlackAngel. "No, I sense something else. Something . . ."
I tilt my head, then I nod. "You're right," I say, and we say nothing more. The stench of it . . .
Martello sighs, and gestures for us to stop. He lays his hand on each of us, and casts his magic. I can see him tire, but it is a weariness of his special powers, not the body, and I know that his sword will be as swift as the rest if need be. We continue.
There it is, the cave. They continue to crawl out, a new creature emerging by the second.
BlackAngel and I raise ours hands and begin to chant. The creatures suddenly take on a strange, terrifying new animation. Our enemy has sensed us, and he is afraid. He is dangerous.
Dozens of them. So many there are. But our voices become a roar, a shout of defiance. BlackAngel and I are glowing now, our bodies surrounded in gleaming white fire as we work our magic. Martello bellows and begins to hurl fireball after fireball. And Kodiak and Rayel dive into the mass of those creatures. They are possessed by that animal rage, that fearless madness that makes them all but unstoppable. They are ripping the creatures apart, with their hands, even. Kodiak's heavy broadsword is severing everything that comes near him. Rayel, almost mindless in the grip of his berserk, is impaling the dead ones on his spears and then smashing them together, then beating them with the cudgel he carries at his waist, pummeling them into broken fragments. In that glorious moment, we are Destiny speaking its judgment on the dead ones.
He comes from the cave. He has the shape of a man, but his skin is blue as the color of storm-sky, and his eyes like white lanterns. He flexes his wings.
BlackAngel and I let out pained cries as we finish our magic. White light explodes around the cave. It is collapsing now, falling like a mud dam when the flood breaks and all is swept away . . . The gateway has been closed.
BlackAngel and I draw our swords and rush on the master of the dead ones, moving together, like hunting dogs. Martello has blasted it with fire, but the creature is unharmed. It is itself casting some strange spell. Kahwen shouts in alarm and throws himself on the creature, bringing his flail against its chest. It staggers, but swats his shield with one clawed hand and destroys it. Kahwen stumbles backwards and falls. Rayel dives onto it, bringing his spear with all his weight behind it in a savage charge, striking its chest. Blood, black blood, trickles from its wounds. Dead ones lurch toward his back. BlackAngel and I rush on them smashing the creatures into pieces. We turn, and see the master of the dead ones rising into the air.
"No!" I scream. "Come back, you bastard!"
And then I see Kodiak's arm move in a flash. Something flies through the air and collides with the creature's face. The creature falls, it is bleeding. We have hurt it. We are upon it. Claws are reaching for me, I dance away, blocking parrying, swinging. I hear a terrible slash, and see red spill onto the white snow from Kodiak's leg. I bring my sword down on its arm, trying to pin it. It is inhumanly strong.
Kodiak raises his sword, then brings it down. His sword cuts into the creature's chest, and it expires. I stagger aside and wheeze from exhaustion. Almost as an afterthought, I stand over the demon's blue-skinned corpse and mutter an incantation. The creature's unholy body disappears in a belch of black smoke and blue fire.
We turn and stand ready. But the dead ones are fleeing. Their master is slain.
"Well done," I say.
My brothers and I all collapse to our knees. We tend to each other's wounds, and then we begin the business of escaping the cold. We are marching.
"What about the rest of the dead ones?" asks Martello.
"Tomorrow, at dawn, we go hunting," I say.
"But first," pronounces BlackAngel, "we find someplace warm to sleep."
"That rankled," says Kahwen.
"I've been through worse," BlackAngel and I say together. We glance at each other and nod knowingly.
Rayel is simply walking. The battle is over, and he is drained from the fighting. Kodiak trots alongside us, strangely energetic. Kahwen and BlackAngel simply pace easily behind, content to be victorious. And I, I am weary, but pleased. I simply smile, though I know we have much work ahead in the coming weeks, tracking down the remaining dead ones and their unholy offspring.
As we walk, Martello begins to mumble a strange verse, in the tongue of the Elves. And as we walk, the miles seem to vanish, and before we know it, we are standing outside of Kodiak's humble little ice-house, and we are all safe and happy. For the time being.
©1997 Robert J. Grady