Excerpt from my latest manuscript:
Kai stumbled over a body. He tugged at his collar stiff with dried blood, staggering against waves of nausea. Liquid sloshed in his boots and he didn’t want to know why. His right leg refused to bend, dragging like a beggarly dog. Most of his limbs were numb. He moved like a man undecided between life and death. He tore off his bloodstained coat and threw it to the ground. We’ve lost, he realized.
His senseless body carried him south of the burning battlefield pitched over the miles between two dry arroyos and their clusters of shattered elder pines. The sky stretched overhead in orange and crimson hues, streaked with stacks of rising black smoke from fires that burned with nothing to fuel them. How the fires continued without their mages escaped him, but he avoided those twisting flames of greens and reds and blues. The hazy smoke surrounded him, obscuring his vision and direction—the world endless bodies at his feet. The air was lacking and his lungs ached with each breath. Black vultures floated in the stained sky; they crowed to Kai, the dead, and the dying.
His legs collapsed without warning and he braced himself and fell amongst a line of corpses. He urged his body to move but it wouldn’t budge so he waited. The corpses wore his uniform. They were the faces of his country or with no face at all. He retched.
He didn’t know how much time passed before he was able to move again, and even then, when his limbs responded, the effort was limited. He crawled, raised himself on his arms, and sat against the carcass of a nearby horse, another corpse in the same position beside him.
He had hardly the energy for surprise when the corpse moved.
She was an officer of his army, half of her charred, arm mangled. Her once sky blue uniform was torn and stained, her shako crumpled. She struggled to turn, gave up, and looked at him sidelong with her bad side.
He could think of nothing else to say but, “Hello.”
She groaned. “Just how I left things. Would have been fine not coming back.”
“You’re alive.” It was almost a question.
“They left me for later.”
He was young with barely a mustache and didn’t know what she meant.
She smiled to him, blood in her teeth and hair plastered to her dirty face. “It doesn’t matter if we won. Did we?”
After a moment, he said, “Yes.”
He surrendered the truth. “I was standing near a wagon, the air hissed, and I flew. When I woke up we were all dead.”
“You were in the front, too?”
She grimaced and briefly closed her eyes. “The cannons. Didn’t expect so many of them. And their range was different, longer.”
“Why couldn’t the mages protect us?”
She waved in the air absently as if at flies but nothing was there. “Who can say? I’m no mage. Seen their amazing and horrifying abilities. We thought. We just thought…”
The battlefield was sundered with chasms wrought by magic.
He had seen hellish fire swathe men, melting them, vanishing their bodies like raindrops into a lake.
And they had still lost. Without the mages, what hope was there?
“It’s over then?” he said, hoping she would argue with him.
The officer coughed blood. She looked at him with her disfigured face and raised a hand and cupped his chin. Her hand trembled until he stilled it with his own. He felt puss and blood sticking to him.
“Time will tell,” she said. “Our people are strong. But this?” She tilted her other hand at those flies. “We have never dealt in war like this.”
He felt his breath leave him and maybe more. His head screamed with the cries of his countrymen, telling him to run, ordering him to fight, and pleading for their fathers and mothers. His family was long dead, gone in the war’s shadowy initiation. What did this world hold for him any longer?
“I wish this had never happened,” he said.
She recoiled from him, clutching her chest, face clenched in pain. “Sorry to leave you with such a grand time. It really wasn’t the goal.” She wheezed with a laugh only to cough more blood, the volume greater.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Take this to my family.” She breathed raggedly as she pulled a medal from within her coat.
She grinned. “Tell them I died looking like an angel.”
And she died.
He turned the bronze medal in his hands, running fingers over the embossed elder pine—the emblem of his country. On the back were etchings he couldn’t read, symbol forms he would have learned if his family were alive. He sat for a long time. The strength of her presence remained in her grotesque yet peaceful face. He was ready to die, he thought.
A man called behind him in his language.
Kai turned with hope but upon sight of the soldiers found only dread. His conquerors.
The Strahani soldiers had their muskets shouldered and leered at him. They were men roughly his height, several shades lighter from his dark complexion, and had braids of hair bound in varying numbers of iron rings. One of their rank was not Strahani yet foreign and carried only a staff, which he gripped beneath sharp knuckles as he gazed at Kai. Behind the soldiers stood a coffle of his countrymen looking beaten but otherwise alive.
From the Strahanis, the only man with six iron rings in his braid spoke to the others then approached Kai and in Kai’s tongue said, “You’ll be the last.”
Some soldiers were forcing the coffle to kneel. Another pair pulled Kai to his feet, bound his hands, and roped his feet to the line of his five countrymen. The prisoners were older than him, their faces bruised, blood and dirt crusted in the folds of their noses and ears.
Six Irons stood in front of the kneeling coffle and said, “In order to save your country, you must live. Men like you can keep the worst from happening.”
“The worst has already happened,” one of the prisoners said.
“No. The weakest are all that is left of you: your children, your elders.”
Some of the soldiers whispered in their language and snickered but were silenced by a glance from Six Irons. He was broad man with a jagged beard reaching to his chest and wherever he cast his eyes his aura of command intensified.
“Reformation demands strength,” Six Irons continued, “and without strong men from the war, your weak will suffer. Then the worst will happen. This is your chance to prevent their suffering.” His fluency in their native language offended Kai, a perversion of their tones.
“You expect us to help the Reformers?” the same prisoner said.
Six Irons shrugged. “You remain. You are strong.” He leaned closer. “And you are not mages.” He walked and stood before the prisoner farthest from Kai. “Now you must make your choice.”
Gray streaked the prisoner’s short hair and creases in his forehead furrowed as he stared down the line of prisoners, meeting their eyes. “Never,” he said. He turned to Six Irons and spat at his feet.
Six Irons sighed and turned to the soldiers and waved his hand. They formed a semi-circle with their muskets at the center and barrels skyward. Six Irons plucked a musket ball from his belt pouch and dropped it into one of the waiting barrels. The soldiers curved their crescent to bear on the prisoner. At the word of Six Irons they fired into the prisoner’s chest.
The air thumped and Kai flinched instinctively, his ears ringing and useless. Gunpowder plumes pervaded Kai’s senses, the heavy sulfur odor suffusing the air. He quivered and could not steady himself.
The executed prisoner remained kneeling, as if he might rise, had only paused to rest. As if he could wish and dream and aspire to live. His soul seemed undecided between the corporeal and ethereal. But he was dead. He toppled and the bond connecting him to the prisoners tugged at them.
Six Irons crouched beside the next prisoner, didn’t say a word, just nodded his head at the man like the two shared a sympathy.
The prisoner looked sidelong at the others before shaking his head in resignation, closing his eyes and tilting his face to the sky, his last sun, last cloud. It was only black up there.
Kai tried to shake the ringing from his ears, but it only amplified as the next prisoner refused and died. The rings filled his chest.
Only three prisoners remained. It was Kai’s turn.
He wanted so badly to lick his lips but his body had drifted beyond his control. It felt as though he were looking down at himself. He dropped his head and stared at the ground. How fine the dirt looks when finality looms overhead.
Boots filled his vision and a strong finger lifted his chin, forcing Kai to meet Six Irons’ dark auburn eyes. Six Irons lifted his eyebrows and nodded, mouthing soundless words, finger still under Kai’s chin like a fatherly chide.
Kai nodded and a groan fled his body.
The other prisoners howled.
The man beside Kai died with betrayal in his heart and eyes that glared until his last moment was gone in a shroud of gunpowder.
The final man looked at Kai then his alternate future. He nodded.
Six Irons rose, surveying the dead prisoners and shaking his head. He spoke to the other soldiers and a trio cut the other prisoner from the macabre coffle and escorted him away, disappearing amongst the patches of unrelenting fire and banks of smoke. Six Irons freed Kai’s hands and offered him a filthy rag, waving a finger in circles around Kai’s face. “My name is Maka.”
Kai pushed the rag away. “What’s the point?”
Maka shrugged and wiped his own face. “You need to know my name.”
Kai continued as if Maka hadn’t spoken. “I’m ashamed and no rag will fix that. I should be dead, but I chose to live like a coward. I’m not even brave enough to face death.”
“To live another day is brave. You made the right choice for your people and yourself. Trust me.”
“I don’t trust you.”
Maka scoffed and scratched his thick nose. “Good. Skepticism keeps you alive in our line of work.”
Hate—not skepticism—burned in Kai but he kept this to himself, let the anger sear into his memory. He still had her medal in his hand and he gripped it.
“You can keep that,” Maka said walking away.
He had nothing else.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed that snippet, please comment/share or join my newsletter. Both make me happy. You can even buy me some hot chocolate! Whatever you do will encourage me to keep going 😀