Why I Spared the One Brave Soul Between Me and My Undead Army
by Setsu Uzume
I am loathe to admit that the ambush was masterful. Not only had the bounty hunters slain my contacts, but they had done so in the right order — dispatching the Ritualist before she had any corpses to animate. Had I come on horseback, they would have had me, too.
In addition to my dead allies and their hobbled wagon, I counted four hunters lumbering through the dark. Big lads, experienced and well-equipped, but given the style of their breastplates they had come from the west — tracking the cultists and not me. It made them slow and ill-prepared to face me in my glory. I whirled, my shadow splitting off to pierce kidneys and slice the backs of their knees while I led them a merry dance through dead leaves and bracken. One of them even turned, his blade slashing a wide arc, but shadows have no heads to remove. Him, I killed the quickest.
My shadow returned to me as I wiped my sword on a patch of moss. I had tried once to convince it to use whatever weapon my true hand was carrying, but it had its own ideas. I was too aggravated to argue and inspected the cart instead. I was promised an offering of welcome from the cultists and a guide to an “interested party,” but all I found was squash, cushioned with straw.
The branches above me rustled, my shadow twitched, and a child dropped onto my back, kicking and punching.
“Surrender, villain!” they cried.
The impact slammed me forward against the cart, barking my shoulder on the wheel. My teeth snapped together painfully. I pushed back and flipped the kid over my shoulder. They had the wherewithal to grab my cloak in the midst of the throw, which might have pulled me down with them; but my shadow dislodged their grip.
Good instincts, I thought.
The kid scrambled away, snatched a dagger from the belt of a dead bounty hunter, then got to their feet, threatening me.
The child had tousled black curls and a wiry frame. They couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Granted, I wasn’t much older than they were when I first picked up a sword, but I am a brisk thirty-seven, and this was absurd.
“I won’t let you escape! You’re bringing evil to our land and it stops now!” they said.
Such gravitas in that high voice. “You’re half-right,” I muttered. My shadow readied itself, but I lowered my sword. “Where are your parents, kid?”
They thrust at me with the dagger. I danced back, evading some determined if incompetent swipes. I didn’t have time for this. I slapped the back of the kid’s knuckles with the flat of my blade and they dropped the dagger with a yelp. I shifted my weight and drove forward, grabbing hold of their collar and slamming them back against the wagon wheel. For good measure, I held the sword to their throat.
“Shall I ask again?” I said, hoping the answer wasn’t in the leaves behind me.
“Thurva,” the kid said.
A nothing of a town. The well was worth more than the huts clustered around it. The people in Thurva scratched out a meager living from what remained after the gentry took their crop. “That’s a day’s ride from here, but these hunters are from the next province. Out on a jaunt?”
“I have been marked,” said the kid, their voice rising in anger. “I am the best tracker in the kingdom and I have sworn an oath to bring justice to monsters like you!”
With a dramatic flourish (and my shadow enhancing my blade’s edge) I sheared off the top of the wagon wheel like a god splitting earth from sky at the horizon.
The kid flinched, then huddled into themself. I could feel their heartbeat through the palm of my glove.
I rested the flat of my sword on the flat plane of the wheel, a few inches above the kid’s head. “You have to be this tall to fight me. I can’t be bothered otherwise.”
I let go. The kid slumped to the ground, still shaking, but that spark didn’t leave their eye. They were alone, at night, on a forest path surrounded by the kind of death that would bring soldiers up short, and yet their spirit didn’t waver — even when their body betrayed them. You didn’t have to be touched by the gods to know there was something special here.
My shadow meanwhile had gotten bored and was rifling through the Ritualist’s satchel when a silver scroll case tumbled free and rolled into a pile of decaying leaves. I stepped away from the kid, grabbed the scroll case, and unrolled the parchment within. Angling it toward the light, it showed drawings of a cup, a dagger, and a feather, along with a description of a complex ceremony for the Right Hand of the Frozen Stars (that’s me, according to the cultists). The ceremony is meant to bind them to my will in this life and the next as their chosen leader. I knew who I had to find to conduct the ceremony, but there were a few items I had to track down and reappropriate before we could safely begin.
I glanced down at the Ritualist’s body. I couldn’t risk sending an underling. After tonight’s debacle I’d have to see to all this personally.
“The darkness is coming, you’re right,” I said to the kid. “But we’ve got no interest in Thurva. Run home. You’ll be safe there.”
“I can’t let you leave.” The kid struggled to get up, but they were still too scared. “If I do, I’ll be responsible for whoever you hurt next.”
It did follow a certain logic. “Tell you what, kid. Do you have a name?”
“I am Regan of Thurva, the one who sees the absent road, and I shall carve through your forces as dawn splits the night.”
I didn’t realize my shadow could snort.
“Fine. Regan. Let’s cut a deal. If you go home right now, not only will I spare your life, you’ll have a chance to challenge me again.”
The kid looked very solemn. They scrambled to their feet, glancing up at the tip of the wagon wheel. They had at least a hand’s width to grow. “I accept,” they said. “Give me your name and I’ll go.”
I rolled the scroll up, returned it to the case, and shoved it down the front of my jerkin. “Layla of Etal, beloved of the Silver-eyed God, and Right Hand of the Frozen Stars.” It felt good to say it, even to a nobody. To sum up the years of initiation and sacrifice that would one day lead to my rule. “And take one of these knives with you. Might be trouble on the road,” I kicked the dagger they’d dropped toward them. They picked it up, then shambled off down the path, suddenly just a kid again.
Maybe I had some time.
No one saw me, but I followed Regan to the edge of the village. Just in case.
It took me a year after that to make contact with Kaiyabrisha, a Ritualist and powerful devotee of the Silver-eyed god who could complete the ceremony. Between us we had secured all but one item.
The last piece, called the Vessel of Mercy, was held in a cathedral. I had always preferred breaking into cathedrals rather than abbeys. For one thing, there were more ways in and out of a city cathedral than a monastic compound. For another, cathedrals had more baubles worth stealing, and more places nearby to offload them; compared to miles of muddy, cold, and isolated wilderness. I couldn’t carry much in addition to my blades, poisons, ropes, and other tools, but a few jewels or adornments did well on the black market. I wanted to enjoy this while I could. Once the Silver-eyed god summoned me to lead hir armies, I wouldn’t have this freedom anymore.
The interior of the cathedral looked unguarded, which was for the best, as my shadow was sluggish and uncomfortable on the grounds. I had to keep my wits about me.
The Vessel itself was the clay cup of some dead holy woman. It was the last thing she held the day she was murdered, and it shattered when she fell. The murderer, a soldier in the service of corrupt chieftains, was killed shortly after. While everyone grieved the holy woman, a young urchin wept over the murderer instead, proving themself her most devoted student. The urchin couldn’t save the dead, but when the tears fell on the shattered cup it shone with gold and was restored. The story was passed down as a parable on faith, a condemnation of violence in all forms, and a kind of “love your enemy” philosophy.
Ironically, with the backing of the nobility here, this cathedral’s caretakers had crushed the holy woman’s sect. After the conquest, there were no enemies left to love.
It’s probably that hypocrisy that allowed me and my shadow to enter the building at all.
Anticipating either resistance, a trap, or an alarm, I poisoned every room I passed to slow pursuit. I greased door handles, dusted incense sticks, and added foul oils to candles that gave me about a half hour to find the cup and get out. The Silver-eyed god was fond of that sort of thing, and as hir Right Hand, I knew how to dance through it unharmed. The last of my caltrops were in place when I found the inner sanctum containing all the relics. My shadow declared the door free of wards or warning bells, so I went inside.
The room was more packed than I expected, candlelight glowing on copper-lined chests, dusty display pillows, and desiccated body parts in glass cases. The high ceiling gave the smoke somewhere to go, diminishing the claustrophobic effect of the cluttered treasure. On a plinth sat the Vessel of Mercy, veined with gold where the cracks had been. At the base of the plinth was a seated figure, alive and whole, with a mop of black curly hair. Across their knees was a beat-up practice sword made of wood.
“What are you doing here?” I blurted.
Regan looked up at me slowly, as though returning to this realm from the depths of meditation.
“I saw through your scroll by the moonlight, villain. The Right Hand of the Freezing Stars will not escape the justice she so richly deserves.”
“Frozen Stars,” I corrected. “You can read?”
“No, but I can ask if people have seen something shaped like this,” Regan said, pointing at the cup on the plinth, “and put the rest together.”
I wasn’t sure which I found more baffling, that Regan picked up and retained those details for a full year after such a brief glimpse, or that enough people believed their story to let them sit vigil in a room of sacred items, waiting for me.
I hedged. “You’re still not tall enough to fight me, stick or no.”
Regan got up, confirming what I’d just said. “The priests would not allow me to carry a blade of metal here, but I will do what I must.”
“As will I.” My shadow tugged at me, but I ignored it for the moment. “I believe what you say, Regan. Chosen to chosen, I know what it’s like to feel the call. But I have to ask you, is this really what you want? If there were no destiny driving you, or god watching over you, would you still die for this?”
“Lord Eysham rode through my village once, to fight the cultists. He inspired knights to follow him because it was the right thing to do. In ten years, I’ll be just like him.”
“The right thing to do?” I said. “The world is messy and complicated, you can’t choose the course of your whole life from half a story!”
“No more tricks!” Regan shouted. “I cannot let you walk out of here unchallenged!”
It wasn’t a trick. I was trying to do this kid a favor. My shadow warned me not to waste time, given the oils and banes I had set all over the cathedral. Sure, maybe a child would come across them by accident in the morning, breaking the will of faithful and sowing chaos among them; but that was an entirely different situation. Adults had heard Regan’s story and still left Regan to die here.
I was furious. “You’re what, twelve? This is not your job. Where are your parents?”
“Do not mock me again, Layla of Etal.” They pointed their joke of a sword at me. “My parents passed last winter, and I have common cause with the priests here. I shall not waver.”
The priests should have hired help. The kingdom was crawling with heroes — puffed up blowhards and true dangers alike, all of whom I’d have to face eventually. They were the reason I needed the damned army! Where were they?
My shadow smelled the slow creep of poison before I did. The longer Regan stayed here, the less likely they’d survive. I snarled, drew my sword, and Regan leapt to meet me in battle. In three moves I sent the stick clattering into the dusty treasure, knocked Regan out, and snatched the Vessel of Mercy from the plinth. My shadow cried out in pain, sending a buzzing ache through my bones. Once the Vessel was secured in my pack, I threw Regan over my shoulder and ran out of there, avoiding the traps I had set.
Once outside, I found the sleeping quarters of the priests — a small detached building on the grounds behind the sanctuary. I put the unconscious Regan down near the entryway and should have stopped there; but I couldn’t let this continue. I banged on the door.
The bleary-eyed priest who appeared on the threshold was probably not expecting visitors in the middle of the night. He was certainly not expecting a tirade from a fully-armed, enraged, and, let’s face it — beautiful — beloved of an enemy god.
I grabbed him by the collar of his nightdress and dragged him outside, channeling my voice into daggers that only he could feel. I didn’t want to summon guards on patrol, but I didn’t want him to forget a word, either.
“How DARE you send this child to fight for you. You pathetic cowards. You tell Denurac, Lord Eysham, Tor the Unbreakable — and all the rest of those high and mighty champions of the light — how badly you lost tonight. You shame your order and your god. My army is coming. If I see any more children at the vanguard, I will find you; and in the name of the Silver-eyed god, you will beg me to put you in the ground.” I threw him down to the mud, hoping the shock of cold would wake him up. “Do you understand?”
He nodded, terror wetting his eyes, and by the smell, his underclothes.
I gestured to Regan. “This is your ward, not your guardian. You tell them that.” The sight of the cow-eyed priest disgusted me. I turned, vaulted over the wall, and dropped into the street. If he was smart, he’d deliver my message before walking into my traps. If not, well, that wasn’t my problem.
Removing a glove, I reached into my pack and touched the Vessel of Mercy. It burned my skin like a live ember. My shadow berated me for delaying, for hurting myself, for being sentimental; but the pain kept me focused. I left the city without further distraction and hurried back to Kaiyabrisha. Only the ritual mattered now.
It took a full turn of the seasons after Kaiyabrisha’s ritual to fully grasp the extent of my role within my god’s plans. I became the center of the army, the Right Hand of the Frozen Stars, the darkness that held them all. My will enfolded thousands of minds living and undead. They were all my creatures now, to command or condemn in service to the Silver-eyed god.
Our war machine was not yet ready for conquest on a large scale, so I kept it hidden at the edges of inhospitable lands, building and refining our apparatus for the battle to come. I thought I’d miss fighting and infiltration, but there was a whole new level of reality to explore and I was enjoying it immensely.
I was less enthusiastic when the far corners of my perception flashed with Regan’s face. My scouts felt my displeasure, and I issued orders to leave the child be. That worked for another year or so, until a much nearer corner of my perception flashed with that face again, and I realized the kid had made it all the way to my personal encampment.
Within two days, Regan was brought to me in chains.
The enormous monsters that carried the kid here were eight-foot monstrosities we called “saddlebags” (because you can toss anything in there). They were masterpieces of necromancy, stitched together from both fallen enemies and their equipment. They were my favorites, a perfect balance of style and effectiveness, and I kept a team of them near my illustrious person as guardians. The pair that deposited Regan onto the floor of my tent had gotten a little viscera on the kid’s leather tunic, and the look of horror on Regan’s face filled me with pride.
Once the Saddlebags were dismissed, I got a better look at my brave pursuer. Regan was disheveled, hungry, and cold. The black curls were much longer, tied at the nape of the neck. They must have been nearing the age of self-determination, but I couldn’t guess if they’d lean boy or girl. The face had a touch of fuzz but was gaunt otherwise, and the fire of righteousness still blazed in their eyes.
My own armor had simplified over the years, augmented by Ritualists to reflect my role as the commander of an undead army. Most of all, I loved that it was comfortable. I eased back into my throne, a marvelous construction of bones and pelts, while my shadow poured two cups of thick, warm tea.
“Layla of Etal,” Regan began, kneeling before me. “I am Regan of Thurva, the one who sees the absent road, and I have come to carve through your forces as dawn splits the night.”
“You are relentless,” I said, taking the tea from my shadow.
“I am also tall enough to fight you,” Regan replied.
It was true. They’d had a growth spurt. My shadow held out a clay cup to Regan. Mundane, this time. No traces of gold.
“Then the proper respect is due,” I said, taking a sip. “How shall I address you?”
“I prefer she.” She took the cup with shackled hands, observing me for a moment before drinking.
Smart girl. Looking for poison. “Why are you here, and not the champions of light?” I asked.
“They’re slow, and I’m a better tracker. Always was.”
“You’re still too young to be out here on your own. You never would have been discovered if you had allies watching your back.” I gestured toward her shackles. “And you’re a lousy fighter. We captured you so easily I thought this might be a social visit.”
The canvas tent flapped around us, freezing wind a constant threat. I had become accustomed to the smell of an undead camp, but Regan looked a little pale from that as well.
“Now who’s relentless. You never let a failure go unremarked, do you?” She chewed her lip. “I didn’t see your Ritualist on the way in. Is he stationed elsewhere?”
“Kaiyabrisha? Moved against me, had to kill him,” I said. An idle thought glimmered in the back of my head. I reached out to her, the leather underside of my gauntlet hiding the keloid scar left by the Vessel of Mercy two years ago. “The Silver-eyed god could use a Left Hand.”
On the floor between us, my shadow curled my articulated finger plates into talons.
Her eyes narrowed. That fire again.
“I will see you destroyed, your army dismantled, and your god torn down before I ever join you.”
“Well you have to join someone,” I said. My shadow retrieved a piece of parchment from my writing table. I began a letter, awkwardly, as it had been some time since I’d sent instructions to anyone beyond my army. Regan asked what I was doing, but I silenced her. I finished, then sprinkled bone powder on the ink to dry it. Once the letter was ready, I rolled it up and placed it in a silver scroll case.
“One night of rest, then you go back down the mountain. Travel north to Volissen City and ask for the Pteroptyx guild. This letter will get you in.”
My shadow held the scroll case out to her, and she eyed it suspiciously. “The mercenary company?”
“The Silver-eyed god came to me while I was there, and I betrayed them for hir favor. They kicked me out after that and definitely want me dead. You want justice? So do they.”
She took the scroll. Uncertainty had crept in behind the fire. Her confidence was a mask. She’d seen some of the world, but not nearly enough to understand. I had to make her understand.
“Chosen to chosen, you’ve got what it takes, but the road is long… And this is the last time I’ll be merciful.”
She cradled the scroll case for a while before looking up at me. “You keep choosing evil, Layla. What you’re doing is wrong, but it’s not too late for you. This is proof.”
I shook my head. With a thought, I summoned the Saddlebags to remove her. They carried her to a relatively safe corner of camp and showed her just enough of our might to give her nightmares without hurting her or betraying any vital secrets. Then, after a short and fitful sleep, my cultists brought her down the mountain as promised.
My shadow pooled around my feet, its questions less pointed than usual. Why did I spare her, what was the point? Regan did decide her whole life from stories, but stories were only ever half of it. She was lucky no one had thought to use her as bait for me. She was lucky she hadn’t been tricked into service by some flashy knight who was more knob than noble; but no one had taken her seriously, either. That fire in her needed better than luck; it needed direction, and something to burn.
Regan was one example of what was worth saving in this world — the potential in each person, the raw material that the Silver-eyed god would use to rebuild. At least this way, the kid would have a roof over her head and some backup when the assault began. She might even give up on destiny and justice after the tenth time eating dirt in the arena. For now, let the crowns and commanders come. Let heroes break themselves against my army for sending a child to do their work.
Let them buy Regan time, just a few more years to become the person she’s meant to be.
Then, chosen to chosen, we shall have our glory.
About the Author
Setsu is the host and assistant editor at PodCastle. They write and occasionally narrate dark fantasy. Setsu’s interests include violin, baking, swordwork, horseback archery, linguistics, and making friends with your cat. Their fiction has appeared in Grimdark Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Magic: The Gathering.
About the Narrator
Katherine Inskip is the editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and Polu Texni.
About the Artist
Yuumei is an illustrator, comic artist, and designer. Her works include “Knite” and “Fisheye Placebo” webcomic series, Axent Wear Cat Ear Headphones, and various art that focuses on environmentalism, fantasy, and human nature.
You can read her comics for free at YuumeiArt.com
Follow on Instagram.com/yuumeiart or support on Patreon.com/Yuumei