Friday, August 29, 2014

Cut It

            To him. To him.
            (We are one in the machine.)
            To him. To him.
            (We are one in the machine.)
            For the first time in ages, Stalav had a headache. The flesh in his skull that had not rotted away had mummified. He had no physiological capability of feeling a headache, but then, there was no physiological way that he could still think or walk or see. His undeath sustained him, but he had not felt anything quite like this true and distracting pain since he had been a living man.
            They were getting too close to town. He would have to make his move quickly, or he would lose his opportunity. It was unlikely that they would stop to sleep for more than one night. If he got lucky, he might be able to kill both of the women in a frontal attack in broad daylight, but he did not like his chances. He was missing an arm, after all, and the headache was always getting stronger.
            (All the more reason to strike soon.)
            He knew the forest well, and he could walk silently. Stalav had marched in the legions of the Icelord for countless years. He had slain many wanderers in the forest, and they did not see him until he was upon them. The Icelord’s magic was not limited to mere necromancy. That was his gift – the one that he bestowed upon his reverent human disciples. But the Icelord’s power was far greater. Stalav could walk over snow without making a print. He could see clearly in near-total darkness. Stalav had in the past been used as a vessel through which the Icelord could do his work, and had effectively raised his own minions from death.
            But such confidence could in turn become overconfidence. The humans of the northeastern coast had been strong fighters, and had met the Icelord’s legions with ferocity and valor. Stalav respected them. And without the Icelord’s song in his mind, he could not be certain he still possessed the powers that would give him the edge in a confrontation.
            He kept his distance, following the women’s tracks, though sometimes he would come closer to peer at them. The tough-looking woman with the military uniform would be first. And then… and then… and then…
            Why? What would that accomplish?
            Stalav nearly stumbled when this thought came to him. The voice that asked this in his head was his own, but the thought seemed to shock him. It was as if someone else had been narrating his thoughts until this one.
            (We are one in the machine.)
            Horrific pain shot through his head. It felt as if someone was jamming a steel bolt directly through his temples. He had not felt this level of pain for so very long. He dropped to one bony knee, and he could hear a small shard of his kneecap as it chipped off from the rest of the bone.
            No, he thought. This was some sort of interference. Something that was trying to prevent him from serving the Icelord. Perhaps it was that witch, Giladra…
            Giladra’s dead. Has been for months.
            Stalav tried to remember what had happened to the witch. She was a member of the Stag’s Head Cult, but she stayed out in the forest. The Icelord had commanded his subjects to leave her be. They had come to some kind of arrangement, but then… Someone had killed her. There had been some kind of panic amongst his fellows at Castle Dusk… Stalav struggled to remember the details.
            My mind is going.
            No, his mind couldn’t be going. It hadn’t gone anywhere since he died. The Icelord spoke to him and acted through him, and everything was correct and right.
            Stalav, why are you trying to kill these women?
            (We are one in the machine.)
            Because they would… Because he had to…
            The arm, Stalav. Look at your shoulder.
            He moved his head slowly, allowing his eyes to fall upon the shoulder stump. The stump was pure white, whiter than the snow. It had become square, and only after a few inches did the upper arm gradually turn into the grey flesh that was his own.
            It’s spreading.
            No. It couldn’t be spreading. He had cut off the arm. He had amputated it. The corruption was removed. The faceless man had touched only his hand and his wrist. Both were far removed from his body.
            But it’s spreading.
            (We are one in the machine.)
            Stalav shook his head, which was now pounding and grinding and he felt like his teeth were going to explode out of his mouth.
            You couldn’t bear to lose the entire arm. You couldn’t cut the flesh where it was still yours. There’s still something of the human being you once were. He left it for you. You were not a simple thrall, some zombie. You were one of his chosen champions, and you were allowed to keep your name. He kept you human enough to think and to lead, but now, well. Now you’re paying the price for that.
            Stalav grabbed hold of his head, dropping his sword and burying his face in the frigid snow.
            You doomed yourself because you were not willing to cut where it counted. You were afraid. You were weak. And now…
            “I have to kill them!” he tried to scream. But in that moment he had forgotten how old and useless his vocal chords were. He did not need speech when the Icelord spoke directly to him and his comrades.
            No. Stalav. You don’t have to. He hasn’t told you to kill them. He is gone, Stalav. You are on your own, and you will probably be gone soon as well. Cut it. Cut it now, before it…

            (WE ARE ONE IN THE MACHINE.)

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)