The mood throughout the mercenary camp was grim on the eve of their next battle. The barbarian force they’d been hired to eliminate was larger—much larger—than their initial advance information had revealed. What’s more, they knew the mercs were coming. Instead of a simple flush-and-rout, the warriors of Grim’s Gauntlet knew their next fight would be the last for many of the company.
There had been fireside whispers of abandoning the contract, but Torvald and the other sergeants were quick to squash anything that sounded like desertion or mutiny. Indeed, they’d been busy all afternoon rounding up “strays” trying to escape.
“We get paid to fight, and that’s exactly what you’re gonna do,” Torvald had said to the last man who had tried to slip through their pickets. “Tomorrow morning, either you’ll stand with your steel brothers and face the enemy—or you’ll face me.”
The warrior had ducked his head in mixed obeisance and shame, then trudged back to his tent. Torvald was no fool, however—he ordered the night’s watch doubled, as there would be more attempted desertions the closer they got to the red hour.
Aye, we get paid to fight…just not always to win, he thought as he stalked through the rest of the camp, checking on the tight groups of men gathered around campfires or dicing or drinking. But the conversation turned out the same way each time. Oh, the line infantry listened to his brave words, and seemed to hear him when he tried to discredit the rumours about the enemy swarming around the camp. They nodded and grunted at the appropriate times, but he saw it in the clench of their jaw, in the hunch of their shoulders, in their sidelong glances at the shadows outside the firelight.
Usually, the Gauntlet camp would be rowdy and boisterous the night before a fight, with the men all psyching themselves up, bragging about how many of the enemy—whoever it was—they were going to kill. For such was the life of a professional mercenary—fighting for whomever paid the best, and not knowing if the next contract would be their last. Thus, they took their pleasures when and where they could.
Tonight, however, the conversations were muted, whatever liquor the boys had was cherished, and those that could write found themselves besieged by men and women who wanted to send one last letter to whomever was back home, so their relatives would know what had happened to them.
What’s going to happen to all of us, Torvald mused as he headed back to his tent to find a lone, robed figure standing by the entrance. When he got close enough to see who it was, he scowled, then let out a disgusted sigh. “What do you want?”
The individual who turned at his words was of slight build, and wore no armour, just general, sturdy travelling clothes. They carried a large, black, six-bladed mace with a twisted metal shaft, which rested easily on one shoulder. Long brown hair, shot with streaks of gray, hung loose down to their shoulders, framing a face that would have looked normal, except for the layers of cloth wound around their head that completely covered their eyes. A few loose straps floated in the air around their head, making Torvath shiver. Even without sight, the sergeant figured his visitor had probably followed his every step as he’d approached.
Their attire was equally unnerving; the robes were a plain gray cloth, the boots fashioned from simple battered leather. But over it all was a system of leather straps and belts which were festooned with all manner of strange white trinkets—trinkets Torvath realized were small bones of some kind. He hoped they were animal, but knew–given this person’s calling–that they probably weren’t. Their odd appearance always unnerved Torvald; these strange people just didn’t look—normal.
“I just stopped by if I could offer any assistance to your men before the battle tomorrow.”
Torvald steeled himself against that voice, the worst part of all. Although the words were normal enough, the timbre of each one was somehow hollow, echoing, as if they were speaking from inside a huge mausoleum…or a large, open grave.
Torvald adjusted his breastplate, resisting the urge to reach back to the leather-wrapped hilt of his greatsword jutting up behind his shoulder. “Look…Bonecaster—” he began, when the tent flap opened.
“Oh…excuse me, sir, but I heard voices,” said Corporal Kelwyn, his aide-de-camp. Upon seeing their visitor, he stiffened, then nodded to the new arrival, who nodded back to him. “Some refreshment, perhaps, sergeant? And for you as well, sir?”
“Tea, if you have it, would be excellent,” the sightless person replied. “And for the record, we prefer ‘they’ as the simplest form of address.”
“Of course,” Kelwyn said smoothly. “Do you wish to come inside, or—”
“We’ll talk out here, corporal, thank you,” Torvath interrupted, then continued when he realized how his words might be misconstrued. “Er—it’s stuffy in my tent, and cooler out here.”
“As you wish, sergeant,” an odd smile played around the bonecaster’s mouth, as if he knew exactly what Torvath was thinking and why he had just said that. “You were saying?”
Torvath cleared his throat. “I know the commander hired you to do… whatever it is you do, but I can tell you my men don’t need you sneaking around here spooking them. They’ve got enough on their minds already without folk like you haunting ’em.”
“Is that all you think we do?” Kelwyn asked, his smile now obvious. “If you would just hear me out—”
“I don’t want to hear you out. I don’t know what you do, and I don’t care.” Torvald thumped a gauntleted hand against his armour. “All I know is that despite carrying that around—” he nodded at the impressive-looking mace, “—you don’t bear steel onto the battlefield, and therefore you’re of no use to me. Not now, and not tomorrow either. Just stay out of our way, and try not to get your feet wet skulking around when the blood of my men soaks the field at dawn.”
“Despite your rather…limited view of my kind, I have fought in many battles, sergeant,” the bonecaster held up an open palm as Torvald inhaled to cut him off again. “Regardless of your thoughts on this situation, you and I both happen to find ourselves walking along the same path at this singular point in time. Our eventual destinations, however, may be quite different—”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Torvald snapped, a flush rising to his cheeks. “That you’re going to live through tomorrow, and I’m not!”
“Not at all. I only meant that, like all people that walk through this world, there are several choices open to you. The world itself is a spiritual vessel, filled with wild, random energy that cannot be controlled—you can only control the actions you yourself take while in it. I only hope that you will be open to the best decision when it presents itself.”
Torvald waved the words away with a slash of his hand. He leaned toward the bonecaster and dropped his voice low. “Look, ‘ghost-talker,’ unless you can find a choice to help my men defeat a force five times their number tomorrow, there’s nothing you can do for me or them, except maybe give ’em last rites. Steel and tactics will decide the day, not a corpse-minder running around doing—whatever ‘magic’ you do!”
“The preferred term is ‘ghost-walker.’ No doubt just a simple miscommunication.” The bonecaster just stared at him for a long moment, then heaved a weary, silent sigh, as if this was a situation they had encountered many times before. “I have seen my share of blood spilled in both my years and more, sergeant, so I know very well of what you speak. And I can see that you are a more than competent leader, a person that your men should feel confident in as they follow you into battle.”
“They should, huh?” Torvald grunted at the compliment. “Unlike some people, they don’t get a choice.”
“Who is to say that I had a choice whether to be here on the morrow either?” the bonecaster replied, making the sergeant shiver yet again. And yet—” They spread their hands out in a gesture that took in the encampment, the dark forest around them, and apparently everything else within earshot. “—even now, you are surrounded by more allies than you know.”
Torvald looked to where the Spiritualist was indicating, but only saw his own uneasy men. “If that’s true, where are they? ’Cause I could use every bloody hand I can get tomorrow.”
“You only have to ask,” they replied, “I will find you on the field of battle tomorrow, sergeant—and I will bring you those allies with me. But for now, sleep well, and trust in your people—” Once again, the bonecaster flashed that irritating smile at him. “—for I give them even odds regarding a victory tomorrow.”
Torvald frowned. “Didn’t take you for a gambling man. Despite your kind words, I still have to be there come dawn—so you damn well better be, too!” He shoved the tent flap aside and stomped inside, muttering about throwing good gold away on charlatans. One drink, just one to take the edge off tonight, that’s all I need…
He glanced back at the entrance to the tent, but there was no sign of the bonecaster. Well, if I’m going to find my own grave tomorrow, I’ll at least have the satisfaction of seeing that smug corpse-walker find one right next to me …
* * *
The next morning, death stalked the battlefield in steps of blood.
The men of Grim’s Gauntlet had risen and formed up before dawn, hoping to catch their enemy by surprise with an early morning strike. But again, it seemed that the barbarians were one step ahead, for the few scouts that had returned reported that the enemy was already on the field, awaiting them.
And what a host faced the redoubtable mercenaries. Clad in fur pelts, animal bones, and with fierce faces daubed in bright stripes of red, blue, and green, the barbarian force looked like it had just come from a place where civilization had never flourished, where the only law was that of raw might.
The bonecaster was there as well, taking up their agreed-upon position on the right flank of the battleground.
As the Gauntlet forces began taking the field, the barbarians started whooping and howling, the bone-chilling cries washing over the mercenaries and making even the most veteran soldier wonder how soon they would meet their end.
Still, the men and women of the Gauntlet continued taking their positions. As they did, several long, cloth-wrapped bundles were passed forward, until they were distributed evenly among the front line.
Three barbarians emerged out of the line of fur-and-bone-clad warriors, each one holding a crude sack with a dark, dripping bottom. On a guttural, shouted command, they all reached in their bags and pulled out round objects that they flung at the mercenary line.
The bonecaster didn’t quite see the heads of the missing scouts bounce and roll toward the others. Instead, they felt the pain and confusion of the trio of spirits following their mortal remains, and shook their head at the needless desecration. “Leave your earthly vessels behind, my brothers,” he called to them. “They can only cause you more pain now.” As he expected, the newly-dead didn’t listen, but instead kept wandering the battlefield, vainly chasing what they once knew as their lives.
The gruesome insult got under the skin of some of the mercenaries, making them tense up and even take a step or two toward the bellowing horde. The sergeants, including the one the bonecaster had spoken to the night before, maintained order by barking commands to hold the line.
Loud, deep drums began sounding from somewhere within the barbarian army. The rhythmic beat whipped them into a frenzy, and they began punching themselves and each other, shrieking and roaring at everything that moved.
“Spearmen! Take your positions!” Torvald bellowed. Ten warriors stepped out from the front line and readied their weapons. As they did, the tempo of the drums, which had quickened into a frenzied cacophony, suddenly stopped. And with that, all movement and sound among the barbarian army stopped as well.
For a single moment, the two sides stared at each other, motionless. Then, one of the barbarians screamed, a high ululating wail. As it died away, the rest screamed in unison and charged forward, straight at the mercenary unit.
A soldier next to the sergeant held up a flag and waved it back and forth. At that signal, the spearman unit aimed and let fly with their weapons. The wooden missiles arced up and then down into the mass of shrieking, frothing brutes, each one finding a target and dropping an enemy warrior in their tracks. The wounded were quickly trampled into the dirt by their fellow fighters.
The spearmen had just enough time to launch another volley, then they melted back into the front line as the remaining barbarians redoubled their furious charge. The flagbearer had picked up a new signal pennant, which he held low and at the ready, waiting.
The barbarians were only about twenty paces away now, their pounding footsteps seeming to shake the ground as they approached. And still the sergeant held his order, until they were less than ten from the front line.
“RAISE LANCES!” he bellowed, and the flag snapped up.
Immediately every man on the line raised a fire-hardened shaft of wood at least ten feet tall, the tip of each honed to a dagger’s point. Each lance was braced by two men behind the front soldier, and in seconds a devastating wall of spears was aimed at the oncoming enemy.
The vanguard of the horde couldn’t stop in time, and dozens of men impaled themselves on the barrier, screaming and dying even as they tried to reach the men holding the long lances.
But the ones behind them didn’t stop. They kept running forward, climbing on the bodies of their fellow warriors and leaping over the pointed barricade to crash into the second line. While they were quickly dispatched, they managed to break up enough lancers to create gaps in the line—gaps that were swiftly exploited by the rest of the onrushing barbarians.
Soon, the front lines of both armies consisted of knots of fighting, shouting, bleeding, and dying. For the first minute, the mercenaries’ training was carrying the fight, as their men often killed two or three of the enemy for each loss they suffered. The problem was that there was always two or three more barbarians running in to replace the fallen ones. While men were falling on both sides, it was obvious that the mercenaries could not hold out against the enemies’ superior numbers for long.
That is when the bonecaster sprang into action—or rather, they knelt down right where they were, set the mace upright on the ground in front of them, and closed their eyes.
The battlefield appeared to them again, but in a much different light. The living combatants were reduced to fuzzy and indistinct forms hacking and slashing at each other. They were almost completely overshadowed by an army of spirits hovering around the battlefield.
Some were brand new, the essences of freshly killed warriors on both sides, looking confused as they found themselves separated from their lifeless bodies. Others were so old they didn’t look quite human, as if they had been a spirit for so long, they had forgotten what it was like to exist in a mortal shell so long ago. The bonecaster looked past them, knowing it would be too difficult to make contact, and kept searching for the particular kind of spirit they wanted.
And soon enough, they found one—the spirit of a proud woman warrior, dressed in leather armour, with a bow slung over her shoulder and a warhammer on her hip. Whereas most of the nearby spirits were either milling about aimlessly or only vaguely watching the unfolding battle, she was studying the conflict with undisguised interest, watching the ebb and flow of the fight intently.
“Spirit, please, hear me…” they said, holding their free hand out to her. “My mind and body are open to you.”
Startled, the woman warrior looked around, then seemed to notice Kelwyn for the first time. She drifted over to them, a puzzled expression on her face. “Who are you, that you can speak to me in this way?”
“I am but a humble one who is able to pierce the veil between the living and the dead, but I can offer you the chance to live again, if only briefly, to fight again, as you did in your own lifetime. My flesh, my blood, would be yours to command.”
“I’m listening,” the warrior said as she folded her arms. “What do you wish in return?”
“My comrades-in-arms are in trouble,” Kelwyn said, motioning to the dwindling mercenary force. “They will soon be slaughtered unless I can call upon your power to turn the tide of this battle. In return, I offer you the chance to experience the glory of combat one last time, to feel the thrill of your enemies falling before you as you fight for victory.”
“How do I know you will not bind me, like other mages have done to my kindred spirits?”
“Indeed. Moreover, how do I know that you will not bind me to your will once we are finished?” The bonecaster bowed their head low. “I can only offer my solemn word of honour, from one warrior to another, that I shall release you once this battle is done, and trust that you shall do the same for me.”
The warrior woman regarded them for a long moment, then shrugged. “It would seem I have little to lose, especially for the chance to make enemies fall in combat before me one last time. Very well, spirit-talker, our bargain is sealed.”
She reached out and took their hand—and the bonecaster’s eyes snapped open, but it was no longer just they who surveyed the battlefield though those dark brown orbs—the woman warrior also shared their gaze now. They glanced up to see a glowing spiritual avatar of the warrior rising above him, easily ten feet tall. Her energy surrounded them, coursed through them, made the bonecaster several times stronger than they would have been alone. The influx of energy was invigorating, almost intoxicating, but the bonecaster knew they had to maintain tight control over their new passenger, lest things get too out of hand.
“There.” She/they pointed at a huge man who had just stepped into view at the far end of the battlefield. Easily a head taller than the largest barbarian, he wore what looked like the entire skull of a cave bear on his head, with its massive, claw-studded paws serving as crude epaulets on his broad shoulders. He wielded an iron-banded rod as thick around as a man’s thigh, and ceaselessly strode forward, bellowing a challenge to any within earshot. Any merc that dared try to take him on were met with a crushing blow or two that left them shattered and dying on the field. “Take the head of their leader, and the rest shall scatter.”
“Truth well spoken,” the twin-soul replied, “but even with your power, we shall need assistance to get to him—there!” They/she turned to the sergeant on the outskirts of the battle, finding him and his subordinate facing off against three of the barbarians in a pitched fight. “Let us enlist him in our cause.”
The woman spirit nodded, and Kelwyn felt their head move as well. “Done—let us be about it.”
They/she strode forward as one of the barbarians brought their axe around in a vicious chop that stove in the sergeant’s breastplate and drove him to the ground, where he lay stunned. The barbarian raised her weapon high to cleave the sergeant’s head in, but the twin-soul drew upon the warrior’s spirit to siphon energy from the fur-clad fighter, weakening her muscles so that the axe trembled in her shaky grasp. Even so, she managed to bring it down on the sergeant, but this time the blade was turned aside by the merc’s armour.
Still on the ground, the sergeant saw the opportunity and riposted, stabbing his greatsword into the barbarian’s knee. The blade pierced it, sending her crashing to the ground with an agonized scream. He fell upon her, and two blows later, the enemy was dead on the ground.
The flag corporal had been left to face the two other barbarians, and was keeping them at bay with wide sweeps of his sword. He was visibly tiring, however, and the bonecaster wasn’t about to let him fall.
One of the barbarians lunged forward, trying to catch the corporal’s leg with his spiked flail. The twin-soul drew upon the warrior spirit’s power again and drained even more of his vitality, staggering the barbarian and allowing the corporal to slash him across his exposed neck with his blade. The other one rushed in as well, but by this time the bonecaster was close enough to strike, and lashed out with their mace The winged head smashed into the barbarian’s head hard enough to send him tumbling to the ground, where he fell still.
Immediately the bonecaster pivoted and sent the energy they had stolen from the enemy into the sergeant, closing his chest wound as if it had never even happened. The awestruck merc sat up, a dumbfounded expression on his face.
“You…you did all that,” the sergeant stammered. “How did you…”
“It does not matter, we’re not finished yet.” The bonecaster extended a hand, which the dazed sergeant took, and pulled him to his feet. “Their leader approaches.” They pointed out the giant among men, still sweeping the battlefield clear of opponents with great swings of his iron-banded rod. “But we can still win this day—if we work together. Are you with me?”
The sergeant looked at the man powering across the battlefield toward them, then sucked in a huge breath and raised his bloody greatsword. “Aye, I’m with you.”
“Me, too,” Corporal Kelwyn said between laboured gasps.
“Then let’s go,” the twin-soul said. “Follow my lead, and await the right time to strike—you’ll know it when you see it.”
The four of them set out over the torn, muddy, bloody ground toward the horde leader, who was battering a man into a red ruin. The dead man toppled over as the war chief looked for more targets. The bonecaster made sure their gaze found his.
Here we go, they thought.
“All you promised and more,” the woman warrior exclaimed. Kelwyn felt her energy flare as the leader strode toward them, his giant rod whooshing through the air as he swung it back and forth, no doubt eager to smash it into their flesh.
He will not get that chance, she/they both thought at the same time.
The giant barbarian wasn’t within melee range just yet, but was close enough for the twin-soul to call upon a spirit that would harry and distract the war chief, opening his defences and allowing them to strike at him more easily. It wouldn’t be visible to the huge man, but he would instinctively feel its presence, and react to it whether he wanted to or not.
As the spirit flitted around the barbarian’s head, the sergeant immediately waded in, swinging his greatsword for a slash on the enemy warrior’s thigh. He withdrew as quickly as he had struck, allowing his flag corporal to also distract the leader while staying just out of his reach.
The brute staggered, his thigh bleeding freely, but was still full of fight. Kelwyn’s opinion of the sergeant rose—he obviously wasn’t some foolhardy brawler who simply charged in swinging wildly.
“Forward—the battle lust burns within me!” The woman warrior cried in their mind.
“Patience, my ally—there is a proper time to strike, if only one sees it first—”
A scream interrupted their conversation, and the Spiritualist turned to see the corporal take a monumental blow, sending him flying across the battlefield to crash in a bloody heap several paces away. Instantly they flung out a wave of spirit energy that healed the worst of his injuries—by using the bonecaster’s own life force to help him. Their knees buckled, and they used their mace to support themself, but still remained upright.
Focusing all of their willpower, the twin-soul tapped into the warrior woman’s spirit and awakened a power that would give their strikes strength to rival even the greatest champions. The arcane might grew and grew, first restoring their spent energy before building up inside them like a flood before a dam.
“Sergeant—strike now!” they cried while moving in, the mace in their hands blurring into a deadly weapon. As they/she approached, the bonecaster and the warrior woman issued a call to all of the spirits around them, asking them to bind the barbarian where he stood.
Three, four, a half-dozen spirits emerged from the ground under the chieftain’s feet, reaching for him, grasping at him, and slowing him to a crawl, then holding him in place. The war chief struggled to move, then bellowed in rage as the bonecaster, their ally spirit, and the sergeant all attacked in concert.
The barbarian seemed to move in slow motion, the brutal iron-banded rod floating through the air at the bonecaster, easily avoided. The head of their mace, however, was not so easily dodged. Focusing all of their/her power, the twin-soul brought it down on the chieftain’s head with such force that the blow shattered the thick cave bear skull, the bone shards spraying out and exposing the barbarian’s head for the first time.
The sergeant was right behind them, his greatsword blurring through the air as he swung it at the leader’s already injured leg. This time, he caught him in the side of the knee, hard enough to sever cartilage and break bone.
Already dazed by the powerful shot to the head, the chieftain staggered and dropped to his uninjured knee. Both the bonecaster and the sergeant struck again, the merc dealing a mighty blow that chopped into the side of the barbarian leader’s neck, while the Spiritualist swung their mace at his head again, crushing it. The war chief swayed for a moment, then toppled over with a crash.
The nearest barbarians stopped to stare at their fallen leader in shock. The remaining mercenaries, down to a skeleton force, seized the moment to strike their opponents down, raising blood-soaked blades and flails and maces and spears to dispatch their enemies.
The turning tide enveloped both sides, and soon the rest of the barbarian force was in full retreat, harried by the remains of Grim’s Gauntlet, which picked off as many stragglers as it could.
Sergeant Torvath had gone back to his corporal, who lived, though he was still in rough shape. The twin-soul bent over him and placed a hand on his forehead. Aided by the warrior’s spirit, they muttered a prayer, feeling the drain of their own life energy as it flowed into him.
The corporal’s eyes fluttered open, and he stared up at the bonecaster in shock. “I was…gone…I don’t know how…”
“It’s all right. Rest now.” Exhausted by the battle, even though they hadn’t taken a single hit, the bonecaster leaned on their mace again, unsure whether they could muster the energy to leave the battlefield.
A strong hand gripped their shoulders. “Lean on me, if you will.”
Kelwyn looked over to see the sergeant’s broad face smiling back at them. They nodded gratefully. “I will. Just one thing I must do first…”
“You fought well this day, spirit. I and my companions thank you for your aid.”
“And I thank you as well,” the warrior woman replied. “It was good to feel the battle fire quicken my blood again…it has been far too long.”
“As promised, I release you from our pact,” the twin-soul replied. “You are free once more.”
“And I release you as well. Farewell, spirit-walker…” The spirit’s departure was like a physical part of the bonecaster being removed. The sudden energy drain staggered them, and they would have collapsed if not for Torvath’s firm hand keeping them upright.
The sergeant took their arm and slipped it over his shoulders. “You will rest in my tent tonight, ghost-walker,” he said, “After all I saw and did here today…I will never doubt you or your kind again.”
“Did I not say…that I would bring allies?” the bonecaster whispered as their head leaned against his shoulder, their eyes drooping closed.
“You did indeed…but you forgot to mention that the mightiest one of all was yourself,” Torvath said with a smile.
“Wait…wait…” the ghost-walker said. “Take me back…to the chieftain.”
With a puzzled frown, the sergeant did as ordered. From a belt pouch, the bonecaster took a small silver knife covered in runes and knelt by the cooling body. Selecting a huge hand, they sliced off the index finger, wrapped it in a scrap of cloth, and tucked it back into the pouch along with the knife.
“That, I could have gone the rest of my life without seeing,” the sergeant remarked as he helped them up again. “What was the point of it, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“A talisman…to summon a particular spirit again,” the bonecaster murmured. “You have to admit that he was a fearsome specimen, yes?”
“No doubt…just do me a favour,” the sergeant said. “Don’t ever send him after me again. Killing him the first time was hard enough!”
The bonecaster laughed, then winced in pain as they slowly left the battlefield. “Deal…”
* * *
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.