Ringing filled the ears of the squire, every muscle in his body beating like a drum. His eyes flashed open as panic seized his lungs. The words of his knight Sir Labroaig commanded him: breathe.
He forced himself to sit upright, the din of screaming men and brandished metal overwhelming his senses. He felt himself for injuries and felt fresh blood splatter against his tunic. The gritty sensation in his left hand of blood pooling in the dirt caught his attention. Sir Labroaig was dead. His body was split neatly in half as if it were a fruit cut by a master’s knife.
The squire could not help but let out a desperate whimper as he scrambled to his knees, wiping the blood onto his tunic more intently and heaving himself onto Sir Labroaig’s chest. What now remained of his duty as his squire was the collection of his remains. He started to undo the armor, a task he was more than familiar with made harder by the fact that he had never had to attempt this on someone not upright. Never on the still bleeding corpse of his mentor and friend. His words echoed in his mind: “Cherish life. Protect it above all else.”
What was it that killed him? Sir Labroaig was a warrior of unparalleled skill and expertise. He had trained many squires into knights themselves and given everything to defend the small kingdom of Cybele against invasion. He was even protected by a witch’s talisman that is said to prevent curses from affecting him so long as he did not flee battle. No man alive could possibly have inflicted such a vicious, clean strike against him.
As he wrapped the arm of his knight around his neck to hoist his upper body up, he witnessed a distant flash of fire billow into the sky like a blooming flower. He felt the heat even from where he was, and soon after, the stench of smoke and burning. An explosion just like this one was what knocked him out in the first place. The hairs on his neck stood upright as he saw the figure on horseback emerge from the flame.
This was the empire’s ultimate weapon of conquest. These were the forces that Sir Labroaig had warned him of — to avoid at all costs — the Intermagia Riders. They were men on horseback able to wield magic as a weapon on the field of battle. Killing one would earn any knight of Cybele the highest of honors, but if even Sir Labroaig fell before them, then what hope could he stand? Vengeance will have to wait until he could get Sir Labroaig’s body back to camp.
There was no sign of his horse or the horse of his mentor. It must have run off from the attack. No matter, the squire decided, if he had to carry his body back himself, he would. He took a deep breath, and began to walk away from the battlefield when he felt his knees give way. He collapsed onto the ground, cursing himself, when he felt a second tremor. That was no fault of his. The earth itself was shaking.
It was stronger than even the thudding hoofbeats of a cavalry charge. His entire body was pressed against the ground, and it felt as if the entire world was cracking apart.
“Have you eliminated the cavalry captains?” came a feminine voice, stoic and sharp. The squire closed his eyes and slowed his breathing to appear dead. “We are to burn even the bodies.”
A small man with a scholarly build patted the dust from his shoulders, replying, “Burn the bodies? Why go through the trouble? This one is already a mere torso.”
The stoic woman responded, clear now that she was speaking from atop a horse herself, “The Cybeleans practice esoterics utterly unlike our own. They revive the dead and press them into service. Should you ever tour Cybele, you’ll not find a single graveyard. Despite their small, insular society, they remain pernicious.”
The scholarly man scoffed, “What madness has possessed them to defile the resting dead? Rarely have I thought our work any more than a well-paying vanity project of His Highness, but perhaps this is my first true act of altruism. Excuse me while I relish the irony.”
“Enough. You speak in roundabouts. Do not take prisoners. Burn the bodies. That is all.” She rode away without another word.
He began to mutter, “Then again, what difference is there between pressing the dead to fight and forcing an academic such as myself to serve as a walking crematory. It is both equally barbaric.” The scholar knelt down and peered at Sir Labroaig’s upper body. “This one does appear to have been modified somewhat… For a fresh corpse, this man’s organs are in a state of unexpected putrefaction. I would be more interested in taking a specimen to study than reducing it to ash.”
As his hand reached out to touch the corpse, a hand grabbed his wrist. The thin man could not stop himself from jerking back with a cry of terror. “It lives?!”
The squire however did not let go, his eyes and words pleading, “Do not burn his body. I beg of you.”
“I am here to retrieve my liege lord’s remains. I do not wish to see him fight any longer. I wish merely to bury him.”
The scholar sighed, “I would fain believe you, boy, truly, but-“
“This is Sir Glenn of House Labroaig. I am his squire, Nils. He has fought countless battles, but he has confided in me himself that he wishes no longer to fight. It is my duty to retrieve his body so that he may be laid to rest at last. Please… allow me to bury him in tact with honor. Please!”
The scholar stood, his hands at his hips with a thinker’s frown, “I am at a loss. I have been told that your people do not believe in burials — that you raise the dead to fight wars.”
After a pause, the squire’s head drooped, his shoulder slumping as if his marionette strings were cut. “Will you not let us go?”
“I do not wish to kill a noncombatant, no less a child. You can go, but I must do as I am instructed and burn this body.”
“Then I must fight you for it.” He unsheathed a small dagger from his side. “I am prepared to die for my lord.”
“My boy, do not leap to such folly. You may go so long as you leave the body with me.”
“I cannot leave without my lord liege’s remains.” His two hands trembled as he spoke, tightly gripping the blade.
“A man of letters though I may be, I am still versed in combat intermagia. Do not do this. You will not succeed.”
“I was told by my lord to know the name of the man I challenge. What is your name, sir?”
“I shall not tell you my name for I do not accept your challenge!” the scholar dismissed with a quiet anger, shocking even the squire into silence, “I do not believe in glory, but I do believe that the sooner this war ends, the sooner everyone can return to living their lives in peace. Do not throw your life away for the dead. In fact, I should say, do not throw your life away even for the living. Have you no idea how precious the very thing called living is, boy? Have you lost sight of it believing you would be brought back with that profane magic?”
The boy barked back, “I am no one worth reviving. They will not revive me, and I will ensure that they do not revive Sir Labroaig.”
The scholar responded, “Will you do anything to bury your liege lord? Even die?”
“Yes,” the squire said with grim resolution.
“Then betray your kingdom and join the Imperial forces. If you swear allegiance to me, then I will take you in as my prisoner and Sir Glenn’s body as my trophy.”
“We can bury him once the war has ended wherever you please. Then I will release you from your bonds.”
“I don’t understand. How do you benefit from this?”
The scholar held his hand out as if requesting the dagger the boy had since lowered, “I will have done my duty, saved a life, and have an opportunity to inspect this body closer to understand what they have done to it.”
“You seek to study Sir Labroaig’s remains?”
“I may have called it profane magic, but this sort of esoteric might be unlike anything else in the world. Countless men and women have given their life to the cause of unlocking the secrets to cheating death. I have long suspected that there is no such thing as reanimation magic at all, and that it was a legend spread in order to preserve the kingdom sovereignty of Cybele.”
“That’s right. Your warriors fight bravely to the death with the knowledge that they will return to life. This makes them particularly vicious and difficult to kill. What if this was all a story in order to drive them to be willing to offer their very lives in battle?”
“What are you suggesting?”
“The alternative is that reanimation magic does not exist and that they have been replacing their fallen warriors with duplicates. The reason why we have been told to burn the bodies is to demoralize your soldiers from fighting. On the other hand, if reanimation magic exists, then we eliminate our enemies forthright. I am telling you this because this may well not be the body of the man you serve.”
The squire dropped his knife, “It cannot be. I cannot believe it.”
“If this man is so renown a warrior, and if this alternative is correct, then even if his remains are not returned, he himself will return to the battlefield. That is why I would like to add you to our number: to see whether or not you can verify this for us. And afterwards, as thanks for your service, I promise you will be free to return to your family and bury this body as you please.”
Another billow of raging flames erupted from around them as Nils stared at the body of the knight. Had he truly almost sacrificed his life to save the body of someone that wasn’t him? Or perhaps, he had many bodies after all? More than anything, he wanted to know, and he wanted to live to see it.
The words of Sir Labroaig returned to him. “Cherish life. Protect it above all else. Above king and country, and above even family. Life itself — your life — must be cherished and protected. If you do not cherish your life, you will end up making the same mistakes that I have.”
He gave a small nod.
The scholar dropped his own head in relief, “Good, good. Now toss that knife away. I shall help you with carrying this body back to our camp.”