The Dead Man’s Crusade (Part One) by A.Z. Anthony
It was the place of lesser men to fear the dead. Harper was above their superstitions, was too great a man to fear the ancestors. Or so he’d believed. As it turned out, the ancestors didn’t give a damn what he’d believed. It was the place of lesser men to fear the dead, but for his trespasses, Harper had been bent and twisted into something far worse than dead.
From the other side of the rise horses whinnied and snorted. No doubt they’d caught his scent on the wind. A hard scent to miss, probably, what with the curse and all.
Harper licked his too dry lips with his too dry tongue. If the horses knew he was here, then the riders soon would too. Just as well, he’d been spoiling for a fight. A warmup would do him good before he attended to the far more important business that waited in the ruins of the summer palace beyond.
Warriors’ voices carried over the hill as they called back and forth to one another. He didn’t know much of the language of the Ghangerai, but he’d learned enough to understand them now. They knew he was there, and they were ready for him. Or, so they thought.
“I’ll spare all those who have the good sense to run,” he shouted into the cool night air as if the steppe warriors spoke his language. Whether they understood or not, at his words the warriors fell silent. The only noise was the distant howl a northerly wind as it whipped across the steppe. Best get on with it then.
A few long strides brought him to the top of the hill and gave him his first look at the poor bastards readied to face him. Near two dozen Ghangerai warriors waited in the pale moonlight with bows drawn or swords in hand.
“Last chance to run,” he said, but his heart wasn’t in it. Admit it or not, he wanted this fight. It wasn’t exactly revenge for what the ancestors had done to him, but it was damn close.
He would’ve taken a breath to steady himself then, to prepare for the fight, but breath was not a luxury he’d been allowed for near a decade. And the Ghangerai didn’t give him the chance anyway.
One of the warriors loosed an arrow and it thudded into Harper’s chest to drive him back a step. He looked down at the arrow, at the blood just starting to stain his shirt, but felt no pain. Some men would call that a boon. Some men didn’t know what they were talking about.
A memory flashed in his mind, and for a moment, he was back in that damned valley, ankle deep in blood-soaked snow, surrounded by his dead companions. And then the ancestors spoke through their corpses, returning voice to long dead throats and life to long dead eyes.
For your crimes, you will neither draw breath, nor know the release of death. You will starve and not die. You will tire and not sleep. And you will tell your tale to all you meet. Warn them of your folly, that they may fear and honor the ancestors, as their forefathers, and their forefathers before them.
Harper blinked and he was free from the valley, was back on the hilltop with an arrow in his chest. He would’ve spit had he any moisture in his mouth. Tell his tale to all he met? Warn them of his folly? He could only laugh at the thought. The ancestors had thought the curse would humble him. They were wrong.
He snapped the shaft of the arrow, pulling most of it from his chest, and tossed it away.
“Fuck your ancestors,” he said to the Ghangerai below him, drew his sword, and charged down the hill.
His curse wasn’t their fault, not really. If anyone were to blame, it was him. He’d been warned plenty of times not to anger the honored dead, but he’d always been an ambitious man. His curse was not the fault of these poor bastards before him, but that didn’t mean they’d be spared.
As he charged, several more arrows plunged into his chest. They did little to slow him.
The people of the steppe believed their ancestors watched from the heavens above. Believed that they bore witness to all deeds done under the open sky. As Harper drew in on the warriors, he hoped that was true. The ancestors had cursed him to this damned existence, and he intended to cut whatever revenge he could from every Ghangerai he met. All the better if their ancestors were watching.
His first opponent brought his sword down across Harper’s shoulder, the blade tearing through meat and muscle alike. It finally ground to a halt somewhere above the stomach. The warrior made to pull his blade free, but before he could, Harper’s body had started healing. All along the length of the otherwise mortal wound, the skin pulled itself back together as if sewn shut by the invisible stitches of some ethereal physician. The Ghangerai warrior watched the impossible feat, shock plastered across his face.
Harper waited a long moment, took his time with it, before looking the man dead in the eyes.
“I’ve a message for your ancestors. Can you take it to them for me?” he asked, then slashed him across the face. The blow sent the warrior spinning away, a trail of blood arching out into the night.
And then another warrior was on him, ramming a spear through his ribs, the bones shattering at the force. A third warrior appeared and hacked down on him with a sword, cut a chunk from his shoulder.
Harper had never been the best swordsman, but seeing as the curse wouldn’t let him die, well, that didn’t matter all that much.
He walked backwards off the spear, pulling the viscera-smeared length of wood from his ribs, hardly even noticing as his broken ribcage snapped and popped back into place and the missing chunk of flesh from his shoulder regrew with impossible speed.
The warriors nearest him backed away, eyes wide.
“Ah, now you’re getting it.” He stepped at the spearman and ran his sword up through the man’s belly. “Your ancestors thought their curse would humble me.” He let the gasping spearman collapse, then slashed at another warrior. “Maybe they thought the endless thirst would bend me.” Another slash and he took off a man’s arm. “Maybe they thought the insatiable starvation would break me.” This time he stabbed in low, caught his target in the thigh and sent him tumbling to the dirt. “Or maybe,” and he stepped over the wounded man, “they thought wrong. Maybe, they just really pissed me off.” He brought the sword down on the cowering man with all his weight. It plunged straight through his outstretched, pleading hand, and into his chest. His cries for mercy turned in a coughing gurgle as blood bubbled in his mouth and on his lips.
Harper pulled his sword from the man’s chest and left him to his approaching death as he turned towards the rest of the Ghangerai warriors. Several had already mounted their horses and disappeared at a gallop into the night. The few that remained looked like they wished they’d followed.
“You can run,” Harper said, finally getting a grip on the blood lust inside him. “I won’t tell anyone. It’ll be a little secret between you, me, and those ghostly bastards in the sky.” He looked up at the dark heavens and wished once more that he could spit.
The remaining warriors turned tail and Harper wiped his sword on a dead man’s chest. When the blade was clean, he sheathed it and faced the ruins of the summer palace the warriors had been guarding.
It wasn’t much a thing to look at. Didn’t seem like there’d be much reason to guard it, really. But Harper knew otherwise. He’d heard the rumors. Had tracked them all the way here.
Some rogue Ghangerai mercenaries had found a sword in the far north of the Khanate and they were selling it to the highest bidder. But not just any sword, no. This was a sword of legend, if one believed in such things. For the most part, Harper didn’t. But then again, he hadn’t believed in the ancestors either.
Rumor had it the sword was special. Rumor had it the sword belonged to some emperor of old. And most important of all, rumor had it the sword was imbued with the ancestor’s power, could kill any creature, living or otherwise. At that thought, Harper smiled for the first time in a long time.
He’d expected near a decade of cutting his vengeance from Ghangerai flesh would have satisfied him more. But, if he was being honest with himself, he hadn’t known satisfaction since the day he’d been cursed. All he’d known was the crippling delirium of years without sleep, the piercing ache of starvation tearing through his gut, and the constant, looming terror of drowning in air he was unable to breathe.
Some thought life unending sounded a mighty fine thing, but all Harper wanted as he approached the ruins, was to finally die.
* * *
“The steppe was ravaged by storms that night. Winds so strong as to move mountains buffeted the land and rain as cold as the heart of winter lashed at all in its reach. And yet, our heroes were undeterred. So true was their honor, so fierce their resolve, the storms felt no more than a passing annoyance.”
Riding a few paces behind his employer, Chen looked up to the cloudless sky. There wasn’t the slightest sign of a storm. In fact, the wettest they’d gotten on the entire journey had been from the dew each morning.
“You’re making thorough use of hyperbole tonight, I see,” he said as a gentle breeze whisked past.
“Hyperbole? Why, my noble biographer, that’s but one step away from lying!” The man shook his head sadly. “Senesio Suleiman Zhao is not a man to lie. But he is a man who knows his audience.” He twisted around in the saddle and leaned close. “Call it, oh, I don’t know,” he gestured dismissively, “dramatic exaggeration. I know it might not sit well with the conscience, but your stories of our travels are growing ever more popular. Our readers demand we up the stakes. A bit more adventure, a heavier sprinkling of daring, and,” he pumped a clenched fist in the air, “a healthy helping of danger!”
Chen thought back to the pile of corpses they’d left behind on their last adventure. Didn’t see how much healthier a helping of danger one could have. Well, and still come out alive anyway.
“You know, speaking of dramatic exaggeration,” Chen said, careful with his words as he drew his horse up alongside his employer’s. “We don’t actually have to do this anymore.” He swept an arm out towards the wilderness around them. “We’ve gained enough credibility with our readers. We could just, oh, I don’t know, disappear into the countryside for a bit, have a relaxing time somewhere quiet, then slap some mud and pig’s blood on us and head back. I’d write another story and no one would have a clue we hadn’t actually killed some monster or saved some shit village.”
Senesio was quiet for a long moment. Considering the suggestion, Chen hoped. When his employer turned to face him, however, his hopes were whisked away on the breeze.
Senesio’s brow was furrowed. He looked genuinely puzzled.
“Are you proposing we lie about our adventures, Chen?”
“I propose we exaggerate. Dramatically.”
“Senesio Suleiman Zhao is not a man to lie.”
Chen felt his own brow furrow at that.
“But you just said—”
“Think of all we’ve accomplished together, my friend!” Senesio cut him off with a firm slap on the back. “We slew the man-eating brush cat of Chobei. We saved the noble citizens of Akeng from the dread wendiguar. And we even cured that plague in Jitan!”
“We…we burned Jitan down. I mean, they’re striking it from the maps.”
“There’s no more plague.”
Chen buried his face in his palm.
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. Here, I’ve got good news.”
Chen felt his confusion drain into dread. Good news to Senesio was often bad news to anyone who wasn’t Senesio. Still, he couldn’t help peeking a tentative eye out through his fingers.
They were on a ridge line now, looking down at a long stretch of grassy steppe. In the distance, moonlight illuminated the ruins of what once must have been a grand summer palace.
Senesio patted his horse’s neck idly, eyes locked on the ruins.
“Arrived?” As best as Chen could tell, they’d ridden through the steppe for a couple uneventful days, only to arrive by dark of night at what appeared nothing more than the ruins of some noble’s old palace.
“We’ve arrived where, exactly?”
“I couldn’t tell you, honestly. The ruins used to be owned by some fat noble back in Ba Seng. But that’s not important. What is important,” he said, standing in his saddle for a better view, “is what’s inside the palace.”
Chen knew Senesio didn’t want much in life, just wealth beyond measure, fame beyond time, and maybe a small kingdom somewhere warm. Whatever was inside of the ruins, however, Senesio wanted it. Chen swallowed hard before finally asking the question he knew his employer was waiting for.
“What’s inside the ruins? Some foul monster of nightmare we’ve come to slay? Terrorizing the local goats, perhaps?”
Senesio laughed at that, shaking his head.
“Don’t be so dramatic.” He chuckled again. “There’s nothing so exciting as that in there. No, we’re simply here for a sword.”
“A sword?” Chen was taken aback. Something wasn’t right. Senesio didn’t waste his time on such mundane matters. “You’ve got a sword, and a replacement. And a replacement for the replacement. What do you need another for?”
“Oh, this sword’s not for me. No, no, no.” He looked aghast at the thought. “This sword is for the emperor himself.”
Chen had been around his employer long enough to know when the man had a story he wanted to tell. It was his job, after all, to spread the adventures of Senesio Suleiman Zhao to the masses.
“Care to explain why the emperor wants this sword?”
“Got a good bit of history attached to it, this foul little blade. They say it was forged in hellfire beneath the black sun of an eclipse. They say the iron itself was imbued with the powdered bones of all manner of sacred beasts. They say its blade is black as night and twice as deadly. A single cut from it will kill anything, man, monster, or otherwise.”
“And you believe all this?”
“Fuck no. But the emperor does. I know an opportunity to profit when I see one.”
Chen had to agree there. It was well-known when the emperor of the too-vast Zhong empire set his heart on something, he got it, one way or another. Being the one to bring him that thing, well, to say the rewards were enough to purchase a small army would not have been dramatic exaggeration. Despite himself, Chen was smiling. This was looking to be the least suicidal of their adventures so far.
“So we dig up this sword from whatever cupboard or chest it’s in, then take it to the emperor. That’s it, huh?”
“For the most part.”
Chen nodded. Now this was his kind of adventure. The kind that paid well. And probably didn’t get him killed.
“How’d you find out the sword was there anyway?”
“Overheard the soldiers talking about it in that drink hall a few nights back,” he said nonchalantly as he urged his horse forward, down towards the ruined palace.
“Soldiers?” Chen frowned. “What soldiers?”
“General Ming’s, of course.” Senesio said, shouting back over his shoulder. “The man would be a fool to buy from Ghangerai mercenaries without bringing some protection.”
Chen felt his frown fall deeper and deeper until it might as well have fallen off his face entirely. His mind reeled trying to process everything Senesio had just said. Zhong imperial soldiers were down there. And commanded by General Ming, no less, the notoriously fierce border commander whose punishments were almost as severe as his praise. Oh, and then there was the minor fact that they were buying the blade from the Ghangerai, the most feared steppe warriors this side of the empire.
Chen swallowed hard.
“I don’t suppose that was a bit of dramatic exaggeration, was it?” he called after his employer.
“I told you,” he shouted back, “Senesio Suleiman Zhao is not a man to lie.”
END OF PART ONE