The Dead Man’s Crusade (Part Four) by A.Z. Anthony
Laughing? Now there was something Harper hadn’t heard in a long while. There hadn’t been much to laugh at since he’d died. Or, not-died. Or whatever it was the ancestors had done to him. No, he hadn’t done much laughing lately, and now, with the sword so close, he found the sound more annoying than anything he could remember.
“Good show, sir! Struck the fear of the ancestors into their hearts, you did.”
The odd-looking man who’d been ready to die fighting the Zhong soldiers had turned to face him now. Even worse, the bastard was smiling. Was this a game to him? Harper tried to put him from his mind. He didn’t matter.
The sword was nearly within reach and he could hardly resist the urge to grab it. Ten years of suffering and damnation was about to end. Ten years of insatiable starvation. Ten years of sleepless exhaustion. Ten years of suffocating in the very air around him. It was all about to end. Just as soon as this smiling bastard got out of his way.
“You should follow your commander and leave,” he said, waving the man away.
“Senesio Suleiman Zhao is not a man to have a commander,” the smiling bastard said. Senesio, so that was his name? For a moment Harper almost cared, until his eyes settled on the sword once more.
“That is my name, of course. No doubt you’ve heard it before.”
“I haven’t.” Harper took a step towards It-that-Kills, the blade still in its sheath and half buried in weeds where the bearded Ghangerai had dropped it.
“A shame,” Senesio said, stepping forward and pinning the sword beneath his boot. “But I’ve heard of you, Harper. Or, at least that was your name before. Now they just call you the Conqueror, don’t they? The Conqueror of Ghairkhan. Your name has spread far, my friend.”
Harper could care less if the God-King of Turja had heard his name. All that mattered now was the sword. The sword and using it to end his curse.
“I’ll ask you once to give me the sword before I cut you down.”
Senesio hooked It-that-Kills with his heel, then flung it backwards with a sweep of his leg. It was lifted into the air, then slapped into the chest of the small, shaking man who’d thus far been quiet.
Senesio leveled his blade and lowered himself into a fighting stance.
“They say I’m unbeatable with a sword, you know. They also say you’re unkillable.”
Harper growled and raised his own blade.
“Let’s see which is true, then.”
“I feared you’d never ask.” Senesio gave a wide smile, all teeth and steel as his sword slid side to side in the air, a viper waiting to strike.
Best make this quick, Harper thought. Before the shaking man found his courage and did something stupid like running off with It-that-Kills.
Two quick steps brought him within striking distance of Senesio, and Harper didn’t hold back, swinging forward with all of his might. His sword, already bloody from the two prior fights, hissed as it cut through the air. That was all it cut through, however. Senesio was gone.
The sound of a blade slicing through flesh reached his ears, and Harper turned to find Senesio’s blade sliding back out of his chest. He felt no pain, as always. Or at least, not from the sword wound, anyway. It was long past time the smiling bastard before him felt some pain, however.
Harper swung again, this time expecting the man to dodge the blow. Senesio countered instead, stepping into the strike quicker than Harper could blink. Their swords met briefly with a clang, before his jumped back out of his grip. Senesio wasted no time, running his blade through Harper’s chest, then stealing it back and slicing into his shoulder. The sword ground to a stop against Harper’s shoulder joint, and he twisted hard, using his body weight to wrench the blade from his opponent’s hand. As it turned out, being undead had some advantages.
With his opponent disarmed, Harper turned to retrieve his own sword. This Senesio might’ve fancied himself an unbeatable swordsman, but sooner or later, all men died. Maybe, Harper hardly dared to hope, even himself.
* * *
The Conqueror, or Harper, as Senesio had named the undead man, turned to pick up his sword while Senesio was disarmed. Doing so exposed his back, however, and Senesio plucked the axe from it.
Harper had just turned back around when Senesio caught him in the cheekbone with the flat of the axe. The blow connected with a sharp crack that sent him spinning to the ground. Chen fought the urge to rub at his own cheek. It didn’t much look like Senesio’s opponent felt pain, but if he did, he’d be feeling that for the next few months.
Rather than pounce on his downed foe, Senesio stepped back, allowing him to regain his feet.
“Enough,” Harper growled, and turned towards Chen. “I’ll have that sword now.” Chen took a step back, clutching the sheathed blade to his chest, but he needn’t have worried.
The undead man hadn’t taken more than two steps before Senesio took one of his legs off at the knee with a blow from the axe. Harper wobbled once, leaning as if he would fall, then regained his balance. Chen had to blink twice to be sure he wasn’t seeing things. Another leg had already replaced the severed one, sprouting like a bloody shoot of bamboo amid a rapid series of crunching squelches.
“Now that is interesting.” Senesio seemed to ponder to himself a moment. “What happens if I…” He swung the axe at Harper’s neck, a fierce blow that would have undoubtedly beheaded him. Chen had the distinct impression that even that would fail to stop the undead man, but he never had the chance to find out.
Moving quickly for the first time that night, Harper ducked at the last moment. The axe thunked into the side of his skull and split it near halfway through. Almost looked a melon being cut for a feast. If one could look past the blood and grey matter that oozed out around the axe head, that was.
For a moment, the two stood there completely still. And then Harper’s split skull knit itself back together. Skin stretched and grew, almost flowing around the blade, then pulled tight and clamped his skull closed like an old chest snapping shut. Head back in mostly one piece, Harper took another step forward. The blood must have made the handle slippery, because Senesio looked surprised as the axe slipped from his grasp.
Another step and Harper was far too close for Chen’s taste. He backed away, but the undead man followed.
“Just give me the damned sword.”
“Best I can do is a spear,” Senesio said, ripping the broken spear from Harper’s back and beating him over the head with it. No effect. Another step closer.
Next Senesio ran the spear through the back of the man’s neck. It burst out the front of his throat in a shower of blood. But still, no effect. Another step closer.
Fear had its claws in Chen now and he felt panic rising from his gut.
“Fear not, my friend,” Senesio shouted from over Harper’s shoulder. “I’ve got this under control.” He scooped a rock from the ground and smashed it into Harper’s head. The blow staggered the not-corpse for a moment but had little other effect.
Another blow and Harper’s skull caved in again, but he didn’t stop.
“Actually, maybe you should run.”
Chen turned to flee and slammed face first into the wall behind him. The collision sent him stumbling backwards. He groped at the wall he knew he couldn’t reach, at the empty air, at anything that could stop him from falling back towards the unkillable bastard a few steps away. All for naught.
The ground slammed into his back, driving the breath from him, and when his vision steadied he found himself staring up at those cold, black eyes. Senesio jumped and stomped somewhere just out of sight, still bashing the rock into the man’s head, but Chen couldn’t see past the void of its eyes. So deep, so black, they were, he felt he could see death itself in there. His own, and all those that had fallen to this monster previously.
One blood-soaked hand reached down towards Chen’s throat and he squirmed to get out from under it. He rolled to one side and the fingers missed his throat. Or, had never been aiming for it, he realized, as Harper gripped the sheathed It-that-Kills. A second hand followed the first and he lifted the sword, fingers wrapped around its sheath.
“Not today, bastard!” Senesio shouted and, dropping his bloody rock, lunged for the blade as well. The two collided shoulder to shoulder, then stumbled to the side.
Chen reached for the sword as they fell, finger tips snatching at its hilt. They found purchase and he gripped tight, pulling backwards with all his strength. The blade seemed caught for a moment — the three of them hanging there, all wrapped around the sword, all pulling in different directions — and then it gave way. Senesio and Harper tumbled into a pile of blood and discarded weapons and Chen fell the other way, naked blade gripped tight in one hand.
He landed on his back, It-that-Kills held above him, the sword gleaming in the scant moonlight that trickled down from the clouds above. It was a beautiful weapon. Or, at least Chen had expected it to be. Instead, it looked rather like every other sword he’d seen. Smooth, thick steel in the middle with two cutting edges that ran the length of the blade on either side. In fact, if he wasn’t sure it was the infamous blade of legend, he’d have half thought it was merely an ordinary—
“Fucking stab him, Chen!” Senesio shouted from a few feet away, snapping Chen’s thoughts back to the situation at hand. His employer and Harper were wrestling on the ground, exchanging blows back and forth whenever one managed a free hand.
“Stab him, damnit!”
Chen swallowed hard, but he knew what he had to do. He’d always thought he’d never be anything more than a scribe, but now, now he knew otherwise. It had been a circuitous route to get here, but he was meant to be here this night. He knew there was a reason he’d followed Senesio all those years. Had always known he was destined for something greater. He was meant to wield It-that-Kills. Was meant to strike a blow with the blade that killed all, and finally put this undead son of a bitch into the grave.
“Gahhhhhh!” Chen roared as he charged, swinging the sword in front of him with all the precision of a drunk aiming for the piss pot.
“Stab him!” Senesio shouted.
“Stab me!” Harper said, rising from Senesio and turning to face the charge. He spread his arms wide, opening his chest to It-that-Kills.
“Die you son of a bitch!” Chen rammed the sword through the monster’s chest. Or, almost through it, at least. It got in there a little ways. A good hand’s length, or so. Probably.
“With…pleasure…” Harper said, eyes slipping closed as he collapsed backwards. He hit the ground with a heavy thump and lay still. It-that-Kills stuck in his chest, wobbling slightly back and forth along its length.
Chen fell to his knees, breathing hard. The world spun around him, adrenaline pumping in his veins, heart beat pounding in his ears. He’d done it. He’d done it. Son of a bitch, he’d done it!
“I did it!” he yelled, jumping to his feet and pumping his fists. “Yes! Take that you undead bastard!” He jumped up and down, surging with adrenaline and punching the air all around him. “Not so unkillable now, are you, huh? Huh?”
Amidst the celebration Senesio pulled himself up.
“Chen,” he said, waving to the scribe.
“I did it! Ancestors above, I did it!”
“Oh hell.” Chen stopped his celebrations. “I’m going to be famous. Better than that, I’m going to be rich.” The realization hit him like a slap to the back of the head. Or, no, actually that was a slap. Senesio slapped him again.
“Get yourself together, man.”
Chen could only smile up at his dirt-smeared employer.
“I killed him. With the sword, you saw it, right? Ran him clean through.”
“Again? Ancestors be damned.”
“Come again?” Chen asked, before realizing it wasn’t Senesio who’d spoken. The excitement drained from him like blood from a punctured artery. Dreading what he’d see, he turned around to face the undead man.
True to name, he wasn’t dead.
Harper pulled himself into a sitting position and looked down at It-that-Kills in his chest.
“Fuck. Really thought we had it that time.”
“Maybe it’s not in far enough?” Senesio offered, leaning in for a closer look.
“Give it a kick, would you?”
Senesio kicked the hilt of the blade and drove it the rest of the way through his chest.
“Wait,” Chen said, still not believing what he was seeing. “I didn’t do it?”
“No.” Harper pulled the sword from his chest, then spit and tossed it away. “‘All swords kill, but not all swords kill all. This one does.’” Harper said, scrunching up his face in an annoyed mockery of Long Beard. “What a load of horse shit.”
Chen was still reeling.
“I…didn’t do it?” He could feel his wealth and fame slipping away like grains of sand through his clutching fingers.
“Hold up.” Senesio scratched at his head. “You wanted to die?”
“Have you ever been cursed with a century of unlife?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Suffice it to say, it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Harper stood and looked down to the already healed wound It-that-Kills had tried to leave in his chest. “In fact, it’s downright fucking torturous.”
Senesio still looked dumbfounded.
“You’re trying to get yourself killed?”
Harper reached up and pulled the axe from his skull, a spurt of blood trailing it as it ripped free.
“Trying. Failing.” He shrugged. “Trying again.”
“Chen,” Senesio said, reaching out blindly behind him and slapping at his biographer’s shoulder. “Chen. Did you bring your quill?”
Chen swatted away the pestering hand and cursed.
“No, of course not.”
“You’d best go get it.”
Senesio turned to him and smiled. A cunning smile. A hungry smile. The smile he flashed whenever he’d had another damned fool idea.
“You’re going to have a lot of new stories to write soon.”
“No,” Chen said, shaking his head. He knew what Senesio was thinking. “No. No no no.”
“He’s a monster! Damned insane, most like. And he could kill us both without even trying—”
“He’s a legend, you mean. The Ghangerai fear his very name, and as soon as Ming returns home, the Zhong will know of him as well.”
“The hell are you two on about?” Harper said, eyeing them with a look of contempt.
Senesio turned back towards the unkillable man, slapped at the mud and blood splattered across his robe to little effect, and drew himself up to his full height.
“Forgive me, my friend. I don’t think we were properly introduced. A horrible oversight on my part.” He swept into a low bow, one hand flourishing several times over.
“I am Senesio Suleiman Zhao, monster hunter, Champion of the People, and soon, the most famous man this side of the empire. And I’d like to make you a proposal.”
“What kind of proposal?”
“The kind in which you join me and my noble biographer on our future adventures.”
Harper frowned even deeper.
“And why would I do that?”
“Because I’m a particularly persuasive individual. And because if you do, I promise I will find a way to kill you.”
Harper laughed. A low, guttural sound. Coarse and rough almost as if he’d forgotten how.
“You’ll find a way to kill me? I’ve been trying for a decade now, and yet, here I stand.” He laughed again. “Kill me? I’d like to see you try.”
Senesio smiled all the wider.
“So would I.” He extended one hand. “We’ve a deal, then?”
Harper stared at the hand for a long moment.
“You’re a mad bastard, aren’t you?” he said finally.
It was dark in the courtyard, and Harper was splattered near head to toe in blood and mud and ancestors knew what else, but in that moment, Chen could swear the man almost smiled.
“I like that,” he said, then clasped Senesio by the wrist and gave it a firm shake. “Here’s to killing me,” he said.
“To killing you,” Senesio agreed, then turned back to Chen and flashed a smile. “I think our days of dramatic exaggeration might be over, my friend.”
Chen shook his head and cursed the ancestors for condemning him to such a life. But later, when no one was watching, he couldn’t help but crack smile. Even he had to admit, this was going to make for one hell of a story.