Still – Aaron Kite July 13, 2010 Often, I'm reminded of laying there, on the battlefield.

I was face down at the time, the slick mixture of dirt and cold blood pressing wetly against my cheek. I'd chosen the spot too hastily, I quickly came to realize. I'd reacted too strongly to the sharp clanging of swords, surrounded as I was by the furious battle cries and wailing death knells. Really, I should have held things together longer, looked for a better spot . . . but in my panic I'd simply found the nearest clump of fallen soldiers, read aloud the small scrap of parchment the magic users had given me. I drank the bitter, dark-green potion I'd been keeping safe, draining the phial in a single gulp. And then I fell face down in the mud, and I died. Mostly, anyways. Being face down was important because of the likelihood of carrion crows, and not allowing my eyes to be pecked out of their sockets seemed like a good idea. Still, I found myself cursing my lack of foresight, for soon I didn't even have the persistent thrumming my own heartbeat to distract me. My entire world became the sensation of cold, clammy muck seeping into my mouth and nose, trickling slowly down my throat. I only had to put up with it for a while, I told myself . . . a few hours at most. A carnagestrewn battlefield like this was where most of the Lich fe'shala – The Withered Hand – did their “recruiting”, replenishing their forces with the casualties of our own, the blackest of magics enabling them to use our own dead against us. Each battle we fought yielded a fresh crop of potential soldiers for them, dozens of vacant-eyed and lifeless bodies, ripe for the taking. It was the reason humans had been losing this war. It was the reason I was there in the first place. The mud was trivial enough, actually, considering all the other things I'd been prepared for. The sensations of body death, paralysis, the rites and rituals used by the undead, the process of reanimation . . . all were things I'd had to frantically commit to memory in just a few short days. It was a hasty, reckless plan . . . but feasible enough that several importantlooking cowled figures had somehow managed to find time away from the front lines just so they could drill the precautions and information I'd need into my head, making sure that no

matter what happened I was more or less prepared. When the tumultuous noises of battle had receded and the first sounds of corpse looting could be heard, I began to wish I'd been better prepared for the undead's morbid sense of humor. “That's not a hat, Makhara,” I heard one say. “What's not a hat?” an amused, gravelly voice asked innocently. “Geeze, if you're gonna keep wearing that thing, I think I'll go stand by the wagon.” “Bah. You're no fun,” Gravel-throat sniffed. A sodden “plop” was heard a moment later. “Oi!” I heard a different rusty voice yell some distance away. “I wonder what this one died from, hey?” There was a chorus of crude chuckles. A moment later, I heard the faintest jingling of chain mail, followed by the sound of a throat clearing. “Oh, hello! This is my first battle!” a raspy falsetto mocked, “Am I doing well? Is it over? I can't see too well, on account of my head's wayyy over there, and over there, and-” Howls of coarse laughter filled the air. “Enough o' that!” a nearby voice growled. “That one's useless, obviously, so stop playing with it and keep looking.” “Aye, sir! No more playing, sir!” the voice said, followed by a quick, ringing jingle and a succession of sickly thuds. There was renewed laughter, and scattered cheers in addition to some appreciative clapping. I was torn between wishing I could turn my head to see what was going on, and being utterly glad I could not. “I said that's enough.” the commanding voice repeated, though this time with the barest trace of laughter. “Jester tryouts were two nights ago. You, you . . . over that way. You, over here with me. Rest of you, fan out. Stab, then inspect . . . we don't want a repeat of last week. They say we can do up to thirty tonight, so I wanna see those wagons piled high. And remember – check thumbs and fingers first! If they can't hold a sword, they ain't much good to us . . . even if they've still got a head.” And so it went, the ghoulish scavengers combing through what remained of the brave forces which had comprised the King's Sixty-First infantry, the hundreds of lives that had been thrown away in a useless skirmish just so that I might have this opportunity.

There was the occasional call for assistance, sometimes followed by the sound of a fresh corpse being loaded onto a waiting wagon. Mostly though, I'd hear chuckles and remarks on various expressions on the faces of the dead which they found amusing, or crude theories regarding how two or more bodies might have ended up in precisely the position they did. Very occasionally, there was the muted, feeble cry of a survivor being discovered, followed by a gurgle or a retching groan, which was nearly always followed by peels of laughter. Then, it was my turn to be inspected. A sword point was thrust into the small of my back, piercing a kidney in the process, and the core of my very being shrieked in agony. I'd been warned about this possibility. A crippling pain like I'd never known assaulted my mind despite the cadaver-like condition of my body, tearing through me like brush fire. Inside, I was screaming as loud as I could, gibbering and writhing around in tormented agony, flailing uselessly in response to the white-hot anguish that seemed to come at me from all sides. My body, however, remained perfectly still. Through the red-fringed haze of torment, I felt a pair of bony hands roughly turn my lifeless body over, producing an even greater amount of pain as they did. A moment later one of my eyes was pried open by a hand with dirty, yellowing fingernails . . . a gobbet of sickly green something falling with a moist plop against my cheek and into my eye. The stabbing sting of putrid filth barely even registered next to the excruciating suffering I was still experiencing from the wound to my lower back. I wasn't able to control where my eye was pointing or move so much as a muscle, and so I found myself staring at the patch of sky right next to the balding, rotting forehead of the ghoul who was inspecting me. It peered curiously into my eyes after inspecting my neck and torso, its brows furrowing and causing the skin there to creak like old leather. “Hey Cap'n, come look at this,” the diseased, rotting apparition wheezed. A second, mostly skeletal figure appeared behind his shoulder a moment later, peering speculatively at me. “What about it?” “How'd this one die, hey? Not a mark, 'cept for the poke I just gave him.”

A few moments of silence later, there was a derisive snort. “Look there – green around the lips. Poison - probably killed himself rather than face us,” the Captain sneered. “They wanna make things easier for us, it's no skin off my butt. He's whole at least. Pick him up and put him in the cart.” “What am I, your slave?” the nearby figure scowled quietly, cloudy eyes inspecting my neck as he turned my head from side to side. “Would you like that? I could have it arranged.” My handler swiveled a look of intense hatred behind him before turning his attention back to me, head lowered contritely. Muttering softly, the grotesque parody of a man crossed my arms over my chest and turned me back to one side before hoisting me up into the air and onto a bony shoulder in one swift motion. The lumbering, shoulder-borne trek to the wagon was its own unique hell, each step causing new pain to blossom in my lower back and other areas of my body, until I was finally heaved contemptuously onto the wooden bed of the rickety cart. The landing caused my torso to twist, rousing my kidney to new heights of agony. The pain wasn't receding in the slightest. I mentally recited a pleading prayer for the gods to take pity on my tortured mind, grant me the strength to weather this torment. A second body was roughly deposited on top of mine, followed by a third, at which point I began praying for oblivion instead. Somewhere along the path our wagon was taking, I'd managed to convince myself that this was hell – that I'd died and been sentenced to spend all of eternity suffering unspeakably at the bottom of a corpse cart, unable to move or even cry out. Any traces of thought regarding what I had come there to do had fled from my mind - had I been in a position to barter I would have traded everything I'd known for the sweet solace of death. Not likely, I knew . . . my ability to die had been stolen from me the instant I'd read the scroll aloud, back there on the battlefield. I pictured myself reading the magic parchment as we travelled, impotently screaming at the recollection of my past self, begging him to stop reciting the words, as if through sheer act of will I could go back in time to that very moment and undo the horrible mistake I hadn't realized I was making. It seemed like months spent laying there - shrieking noiselessly in the bumping, rolling wagon - despite the fact that it was still daylight when they'd begun to unload us.

At no point in the whole process were they careful, or gentle. Once they'd cleared away enough dead to get to me, I was picked up by two pairs of hands and tossed through the air, allowed to connect with the rough, stone floor in a way which might have snapped my neck had I actually been alive. Inside of my slack, unmoving body, I continued to scream uselessly. Eventually, I'd been thrown, kicked, prodded, and roughly shoved into the place they wanted me. I found myself in a quiet, dark room lying on my back staring at an uninteresting part of the ceiling, dimly aware of other corpses lined up on either side. The new position I found myself in was a blessing, and I'd have wept in gratitude if I were capable of it. The pain had lessened by about half, which by itself had felt like a divine miracle at the time . . . like a teaspoon of water being poured down the parched throat of a man dying of thirst. It was almost a mercy that the pain wasn't taken away entirely - the dull ache occupied my mind enough that I didn't end up spending hours laying there, worrying myself or becoming nervous about what might happen during the ritual. It was, the warlocks had said, impossible to outright know what would happen, but the theory was sound. The Withered Hand needed fresh dead bodies - ones that the soul had recently torn itself free of - in order to infuse the shell with a spirit from the other side. They couldn't possess live bodies, and they couldn't animate dead that had been allowed to sit for too long. In my case, a spirit entering my body might bounce right off, as if I were encased in an impenetrable bubble. That was the theory, anyway. Being one of the last to be unloaded, I was one of the first to be processed. This time when I was moved there were four pairs of hands picking me up, all wearing gloves. After several grunts of effort, I was laid upon a flat slab of cold stone, crystal focus stones and arcane symbols lining a steel ring suspended about eight feet above my chest. The position of my arms and legs were fussed over for a few minutes. The ritual itself didn't involve dozens of dancing figures, chanting monks, or large complex-looking devices built over a lava flow. A low, nearby voice merely said “Avil dei fei achalla!” All of my pain and agony ceased at once. Besides becoming giddy with relief, I found I was suddenly floating . . . occupying the

same space as my body but somehow unconnected to it. I could “see” the room in clean, crisp detail, while realizing that I wasn't using my eyes to do so. In fact, I managed to rise up a little bit and steal a quick look at my own eyes, the once bright blue orbs that were now clouded over with the milky haze of death, the rest of my face peppered with stray bits of dirt and other filth. “Kaafli shi dozalladimbu!” the low voice continued, the speaker waving a very seriouslooking wand over my body as he did. “Keesha doi frokallah!” I got this strange sense of something being opened, and a small circle of light appeared within the metal circle above me, expanding until it met the runes that had been set upon the very edges of it. Returning to the exactly the same position I'd been in, overlapping my horribly abused body, I remained as still as I possibly could. If I'd been breathing, I would have held my breath. A blue-white and glowing snake-like creature, looking much like a moray eel if it had an underbite and could grow a loose mop of hair, emerged from the circular portal. The serpentine spirit wriggled through, cast around for a few moments as it took in its surroundings, and then froze . . . It looked at me. I'd never seen anything like it before in my life, and yet somehow I knew from its expression that it was astonished. We stared at each other, neither of us moving an ethereal whisker. Relaxed, almost bored chanting continued to issue forth from the mouth of the cloaked undead who held the wand, his mortal eyes unable to see the tense, otherworldly confrontation taking place. The spell was continuing, and would probably wrap up in fairly short order, I realized. The snake-like spirit seemed to come to that realization as well. It hissed mightily, and threw itself at me. No impenetrable bubble appeared, nor did my attacker harmlessly bounce off of me – the spirit's pointed teeth dug into the glowing flesh of my spirit-arm, its tail striking at my chest like a bullwhip. So much for that theory.

I reached up and out and attempted to ward it away from what I sensed was my “body” in this strange spiritual plane. Relying on nothing more than instinct, I grabbed its head and pulled the thing's questing teeth away. The angry, glowing eyes of the apparition narrowed balefully as it lashed out at me, striking again and again, each desperately vicious attack causing a certain amount of spiritual discomfort, if not actual pain. I started studying its strategy. It was trying to move me. The rising crescendo of words being spoken grabbed my attention, and I recognized a word or two. Ignoring everything else, I lay myself overtop of the unmoving corpse that had been me, occupying as much of the same space as I could. The snake spirit attacked furiously, lashing out and biting and wriggling desperately in an attempt to shove me aside, frantic to move me or somehow slither into the space I occupied. It paused a moment later, looked up to the glowing circle above us, and then undulating quickly towards it. The chanting stopped. So did the toothy snake spirit. It howled and split into three pieces, which then split into dozens of smaller chunks. Finally, it exploded into small specks of light too numerous to count, all of which began to fall towards the earth reluctantly like the dying, crackling embers of a campfire. At the same time my bones seemed to cry out to me, each one calling out insistently and expanding until they were the only things in the entire world. Moments later I was back in my body. Pain free, and feeling extremely strong. I gasped and began to choke a little as my chest filled with air for what had to be the first time in hours. My back arched as the rest of my spirit clicked into place, and I gave a little cry as the entire world went “pop” at an impossible volume. And then I was sitting on a cold slab, looking around the room I was in with a sort of fuzzy combination of physical eyesight and the spiritual vision I'd been experiencing a few moments ago. The cowled figure with the wand looked puzzled. “Odd,” he said, inspecting his wand briefly before tapping it a couple of times on the stone surface, as though it had misbehaved in some strange way. He turned to address me,

gesturing to the door behind him. “Welcome to the Lich fe'shala, soldier. Everything you will require is down the hall.” I nodded, not knowing if I could speak, or if speech was even expected of a new recruit. I didn't want to appear strange or out of place, anything which might tip my hand too early. I was in my body, just as we'd all predicted I might be. I could pass as one of their own. I was in. All of my suffering and pitiful prayers for death were forgotten. Not once had we had such an opportunity to deal this kind of blow to the undead forces that were systematically slaughtering us. Now, we had a chance, and I was determined not to let it slip through the collective fingers of all humankind. The tide would turn tonight. Exiting the room, I walked down the hallway, footsteps uncertain. There was another corpse which entered the hallway in front of me, looking to be even more uncertain on its feet than I was. After watching it a brief moment, I began to stagger a little on purpose, attempting to emulate the figure as closely as possible. It leaned against a wall, looked back at me and scowled. I scowled back, unsteadily lurching forward. I heard a scuffling noise behind me, and I turned in order that I might scowl at whatever it was. The tattered, blood-soaked figure I saw had half collapsed against the doorway and was in the process of picking itself up. It looked at me and scowled, muttering something inaudible. I scowled once more in return, which caused it to sneer in response. New recruits were a merry bunch, obviously. I pressed forward, deliberately stepping awkwardly down the hallway towards the next room, a ramshackle armory. An authoritative figure appeared to stare at me for a moment, despite his eye sockets being completely empty. After studying me a moment with his non-existent eyes, he turned behind him and grabbed a steel breastplate that had been scorched black on most of one side. After holding it up to my chest, he scowled and threw it behind him with a clatter, bony hands lifting a chain shirt from the floor instead. He tossed it to me. “Out of luck, big guy,” he said to me, his voice sounding like two bricks being scraped together. “Chain for now – no plate'll fit you. Come back 'n see me when you've gotten rid of

some of that crap.” He lifted his chin to indicate my chest. I looked down at my body, which was pale and beginning to show the first signs of wanting to turn green, then looked back to him and nodded. He thumbed a gesture that I should keep moving, turning his eyeless gaze upon the next shuffling corpse in line. I kept moving, sliding the chain shirt over my head onto my shoulders. The next undead greeted me cheerfully, almost familiarly. “Chain, huh? Hard luck, that,” the swarthy broad-shouldered ghoul said in an strangely upbeat gurgle. “Got something that might make you feel better. Most of the fellows get swords or maces, but I figure a big guy like you might be able to handle something more. Been saving this one, I have . . .” His grime-streaked grey hands disappeared under the counter he stood behind, appearing a moment later holding a magnificent jeweled axe so big that it could easily have been mistaken for one of those splitting mauls the northern woodsmen carried – the kind that could fell saplings like they were nothing. I couldn't believe my luck. Even before the battle, I'd been wondering how I was going to get my hands on something capable of delivering enough force to cleave Lichmaster Resh's head from his body, or at the very least cut the thick chain of the amulet from around his neck. He was the focus which maintained the spiritual foothold they'd established on our plane of existence, a combination of his will and the glowing jewel that threw cobwebs of light in all directions, according to our scouts. The very survival of the undead army he commanded depended utterly on him. “Yeah, beauty in't it?” He held it out for me in both hands, palm up. “That'll do a nice job on someone's head, hey?” I took it from him, feeling my fingers gripping the braided leather handle with a strength I could never have mustered in life. Hefting it with little effort, I grinned. “Oh yeah. This'll ruin someone's whole day,” I smiled, my now sepulchral voice sounding foreign to my own ears. We both stood there for a few moments, laughing for very different reasons. There was little else I was equipped with – things like provisions and bandages and water were unnecessary for the dead. I was told which unit I would be attached to and where I'd find them, and that was that. There was a lot of sitting in the front of what I presumed to be

the great hall, most of the new recruits keeping to ourselves while the legion of seasoned troops occupied the back. I sat, and avoided talking to anyone. Anxious hours passed. And then came my chance. Music played. The order came to line up, and the speed at which everyone did so was impressive. There were roughly three dozen of us new recruits standing single file, facing forward. We were about to be addressed. Lichmaster Resh appeared before us, his usual fortress-like armor abandoned in favor of ornate robes. His amulet was not tucked away under layers of steel, but was instead bared against his chest proudly. The mere sight of it would have quickened my pulse if I'd had one. Thirty feet away from me and walking slowly down our ranks, he spoke to us. “My brothers, you have been summoned here because we stand upon the edge of a historic moment! For nearly ten years we have struggled against our cousins, the humans, in an attempt to wrest this land from their unworthy hands. My bretheren,” his blue-gray face bore an expression of satisfaction, “I tell you that we are close.” Cheers erupted from all sides, and I raised my voice and axe to join them. Still walking unhurriedly down the line, he raised his hands in a gesture which called for silence, and got it instantly. Twenty feet. “Each day, our numbers grow,” he said, his voice loud and confident, his gait unhurried. “Each passing moment we get stronger. The humans know, as I do . . . they cannot win. At each turn they've been outfought . . . out-maneuvered . . . outnumbered!” More cheers erupted, and the echoes from the vaulted ceiling threatened to shake my chest apart. Maybe the undead actually got impressed by overblown cliched speeches like his, I didn't know. He was ten feet away now. The grip on my axe tightened enough for leather to creak, and I quietly noted the clearance on either side of me. “Soon – very soon – all of this land will serve as an outpost for us and all of our kind!” He stepped within arms-length, directing his words to the desiccated soldier standing next to me. “The plague of humanity will soon be no more! None can stand against our might! None can-” His words caught in his throat as he looked directly at me for the first time. I don't know

what it was that he saw, but his eyes narrowed with anger upon seeing it. “What the devil?” he whispered aloud. I sprang forward. Summoning every bit of newfound strength I had, I struck. The savage arc of my swing swept to my right, not even slowing down as it clipped off a generous portion of my neighbor's skull. I bellowed in furious anger, which lent my arm even more superhuman strength as my axe, angled slightly, came down upon Resh's neck. I could feel it sink deep into aged tendon and bone with a “thuck”, accompanied by the faint ring of metal on metal. The weapon buried itself deep in his torso, the handle suddenly the only thing visible. His face was ashen, and he looked to be in great pain. His neck and spine appeared intact, his head upright. I looked at the amulet. Overreaching, I'd severed half a link of the thick chain that held it. Panicked, I attempted to pull the axe from his body, ichor-spattered blade squeaking against severed bone as I worked it free. A bump hit me from behind and I threw an elbow at it, yanking the axe upward and out. I stepped forward, axe already raised for a second swing. Something grabbed my shoulder, and I shrugged it off as a hand attempted to wrest the axe from my grip. With a mighty cry I heaved for all I was worth, sweeping it overhead at my nearly helpless target who had fallen to his knees while clutching at his ravaged chest. Black liquid oozed from his half-open mouth as he knelt, dazed. Hands rushed up. My axe blade was halted mid-stroke. Dozens more of the skeletal hands joined the ones which held my struggling arm. Soon my entire vision was filled with limbs and hands, all grabbing me and pulling me back. My weapon clattered to the floor. Minutes later I became aware of dozens of hands keeping me frozen in place, arms firmly held out to either side. I could see Resh, who was being attended by a thin figure in a white robe. Pain no longer graced his features. The impossibly large wound was already beginning to close. The amulet remained secure around his neck, its cobwebbed light glowing mockingly. In the silence of the hall, he stared at me with a baleful look of hatred mixed with

contempt. “Cut him up,” he rasped through blood-flecked lips. A wave of shouting bodies crashed forward, a flurry of weapons cutting the air before me. Pelted by blow after blow, I felt bones breaking inside me and the cold soul-numbing feeling of failure. A sword blade lodged into my head and jerked reality sideways, leaving me floundering with nothing but the dim spirit-vision like I'd had earlier. I saw rather than felt one of my arms come free, and then another. Hands like vulture beaks clamored inside of my chest and tugged until rib and muscle and other things came free with a sinewy snap. They smashed what remained of me until I could no longer recognize me, leaving no piece bigger than a man's fist. After a while I could feel that they'd stopped, though I could no longer really see, or hear, or feel. Still magically tied to my bones, my awareness had receded to an area no further than the end of each skeletal fragment that used to comprise my body. I sensed myself being moved around for a long while afterwards, and when it stopped I could sense around me earth made slick with what remained of my blood, although I may have imagined that last bit. I can't pin down exactly when I stopped experiencing things, but I think it was somewhere right around there. And that was that. As I dwell on these events I sometimes wish for the sensation of cold, wet earth against my skin once more. Or even pain. It would be a nice change from all the nothing. Existence without sensation, trapped as I am in these aging fragments of weathering bone. Did we win? Was humanity wiped out? I can't say – it's not like I can find out. The only real thing I have left are my recollections. Isn't much else to do but remember as I lay here patiently, quiet and still. And so, of all the moments which make up my final memories, I'm often reminded strongly of that time on the battlefield, lying there, unable to move. Simply waiting, as I am now . . . though it's hard to say what I'm waiting for exactly. The spell which keeps my awareness locked inside my broken body hasn't faded at all these many years, but it's not like magic can last forever. Can it?

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