Chapter 20: Path of Bones

Four thousand three hundred and fifty-six marching warriors came to a halt behind Agamon. The warlock’s army had travelled many miles to get to this point, gathering new members into its ranks as it rolled along the countryside. He could feel each of their eyes on him, could feel their wonder at what they were about to accomplish together. He had shared with them the pivotal role they would play in the future of their country, the whole world, even. Agamon’s eyes gleamed in the setting sun, reflecting the last rays of light like some holy prism aimed at the path ahead.

Twin walls of rock loomed before them, marking the entrance to a winding canyon. This was the path to the Khaliav, the ascended god Xatalon’s last fortress on this plane before he went on to take his rightful seat amongst the pantheon. That holy event had taken place nearly three centuries ago. The last god’s whispers echoed in Agamon’s mind, slim memories plucked from his dreams. His lips pursed tightly together. The way ahead was already dark as night. Soon it would be even darker.

He turned to face his army. Rows of warriors, once slaves to the mines of the Gulag, now the proud heralds of a new age, tensed in an uneasy readiness. These were good soldiers. He saw that now, their usefulness. Even to the lowliest bandit, they were willing to give life and limb in service of something greater than themselves. It had not begun that way, but over time they had come to see the righteous path that lay before them. Agamon lamented that many of them would need to die today to make that dream come true, but alas, their memory would live on in the legacy they helped to create.

“This is the lost god’s chasm?” Agamon’s loyal servant asked. Ciotl was one of the visek, a forgotten race of necrophages that the Malakar kingdom had long ago turned its back on and forced into exile. Decades ago Agamon had formed a secret alliance with them, trading resources for ancient secrets, not knowing how useful they would one day become. The visek were his trusted allies, and Ciotl in particular had become like a right hand for him.

He was a small creature, the top of his hooded head scarcely making it to Agamon’s chest. The visek could not stand bright lights, even that of a full moon, and so kept themselves shrouded in heavy robes of black. Glowing orbs of yellow peered up at Agamon expectantly from the depths of shadow that filled Ciotl’s hood.

“At the end of this valley awaits my destiny,” Agamon answered. “The power to restore balance to this kingdom rests inside the Khaliav, enough to elevate my being into the next phase, so that I may take my rightful seat as demigod under Xatalon. I am his chosen and I will give the lost god a voice on this plane once more.”

“It has truly been too long since he has spoken,” Ciotl agreed.

Agamon smiled kindly at him. “Soon enough, it shall come to pass. All we need do is survive to the end of this canyon.”

“Master…why would Xatalon hinder our progress when you are his chosen, dutifully walking the pilgrimage of the lost god?”

The canyon ahead lay bare, with not a soul to be seen or even a plant to be found. Agamon wondered what had happened to the bodies of the men he had left here several months ago, that first expedition of dimwitted bandits. He had not been ready that time, underestimating the task set before him, a mistake he would not repeat. He knew that those walls, pressing in around its visitors, were pocked with large holes. Even worse, he knew what waited inside of them. So many will die today.

His gaze fell back on Ciotl, somber and anxious at the same time. “Trials. Everything up until now has been a series of trials and tribulations, proving that I am worthy of Xatalon’s gift. Only the mightiest among mankind may inherit the mantle the crystal throne waits to bestow.” He nodded toward the canyon. “This is the final trial.”

Ciotl bowed, holding himself in reverence to Agamon for several long minutes. It was the way of the visek, a symbol of deep humility and respect. Finally the small robed creature turned to face the army and lifted a bone wand high in the air. A spark of green spit forth, hissing high into the sky and bursting into a cloud of writhing serpents, the signal to arms.

The soldiers clapped weapons against chests or palms, stomping feet into the dirt and crying out for their ranks to prepare.

Agamon held up a hand then closed it into a fist. “First and second regiment, take the chasm!” he cried.

The first two regiments were made up of his fastest warriors, hobgoblins and bandits that could move quickly enough to face the first trial. They charged past Agamon, howling as they entered the valley ready for battle.

He watched them with equal measures of pride and guilt. It was the same lingering feeling that would nag him for days after they sacked a village or town. Agamon found the act of battle terribly exhilarating—to hold another creature’s life in the palm of his hand, as sole judge, jury, and executioner—there was nothing else like it. But for days afterward, he would remember what he had done and it would hang over him like a dark cloud, the guilt a cold reminder of who and what he used to be. In the beginning, it had been easy to justify his actions—the razing of towns and slaying of travelers mere fuel to keep his ragtag bandits together and get him to his destination. However, after he made it to the valley and communed with Xatalon for the first time, he saw how easily he was slipping into becoming the same monster he was trying to overthrow—King Necian, the tyrant of Malakar. Agamon had to constantly remind himself why they were doing this, why it was necessary to cut down those in his path.

Sometimes you have to break a bone to set it properly again, so that it might heal and be pure once more.

For the briefest moment, nothing changed in the canyon, and he dared hope that he had been wrong all along. Perhaps the Khaliav’s guardians had gone the way of dust after their recent skirmish with his first cadre of bandits? But then, in the blink of an eye, they awoke. A keening wail from otherworldly lungs cut through the air, echoing off the walls of the canyon and multiplying all around them from the holes carved into its sides. Agamon saw the first pair of hands grasp the outer rock from inside one, like a spider’s legs falling in place, and then the skeleton burst out with that inhuman wail.

In an instant, a flurry of the guardians descended from the canyon walls, pouring out of the holes like skeletal maggots. The first dozen or so ripped the men they fell on to shreds, clawing for their flesh with terrifying strength. The warriors quickly gave them as wide a berth as they could manage, staggering back in horror. For some it was too much for their minds to take, seeing the undead abominations.

These were the guardians, an army of undead warriors from some forgotten race that lingered on in a misguided quest to keep travelers from Xatalon’s fortress. It had been so since the last god left Pog and the world declared him a heretic, sealing off his lands forever. Funny how “forever” never seemed to make it past the first century or so.

The flesh had long ago rotted from the guardian’s bodies, leaving them intact only through bones and a magic reflected in the orange glow peering out from the recesses of their empty skulls. They were taller than the average man, and their feet disproportionately larger. Some had the skeletal remnants of tails, and most wielded rusty swords and shields with the symbol of their order, a seven-pointed star.

Agamon could not fault his warriors for their hesitation. Staring an undead Templar in the eyes was a most unnerving prospect. It was a shame such a weakness cost some of them their lives. In the span of time it took to open their mouths, gawk, and wonder what have I gotten myself into, the guardians fell on them with brutal abandon, tearing down Agamon’s ranks with swift abandon.

He could see the front line’s resolve quickly fade. Some of his warriors were already turning back.

“We’ll not be beat so easily,” he promised, pointing his staff before him and jumping into the fray.

He felt the pulse of energy suck into his hand and funnel down the length of the staff, exploding in a ray of light that melted the unholy bones of the nearest guardian. Another replaced it, freshly fallen from a hole in the canyon. “Praemi diablios!” Agamon shouted, twisting the fingers of his free hand in the air. The guardian was lifted off its feet, propelled by a burst of air that tore up from the dirt. Before it could land, he let loose another blast of light from his staff. The magical energy enveloped the guardian, so that by the time it reached the ground all that was left was a charred spinal column and clattering shield.

The warriors around Agamon cheered at his display of power. Agamon pointed his staff forward. “You see, they are only bones, all that stands before us and greatness. Show Xatalon why you are worthy to become his heralds!”

A knuckle-dragging ogre roared and grabbed one of the skeletons by the shoulders hard enough to tear an arm off as he slammed his forehead into the abomination’s face. The guardian’s skull flung free from its shoulders and rolled across the dirt as the light faded from its eyes.

That was all Agamon’s army needed to see. Within minutes, the tide of the battle turned in his favor, his men falling on the guardians with unmatched ferocity.

More than a few of his soldiers fell, hundreds in fact, a virtual bloodbath soaking the canyon floor. Agamon fought with them, side by side, doling out a litany of catastrophic spells that cut through the guardians’ ranks. He relished every second of it, the world dragon’s magic coursing through his veins. It was all of the ecstasy he got from raiding a village with none of the lingering guilt over cutting down the innocent.

When the last guardian fell, the army cheered, tossing swords to the ground and clasping hands or butting chests.

Agamon stood tall in the center of them and held a hand high for all to see. It was stained in the blood of the fallen. The laughter and revelry died down as all eyes centered on him.

“It is not over yet,” Agamon declared. As he spoke, the ground and walls around them began to tremble. “Prepare yourselves as the second trial awakens.”

The walls at the far end of the gorge shook loose, crumbling rocks and boulders crushing the unfortunate few who did not heed Agamon’s warning not to stray past the middle of the canyon.

His heart skipped a beat when the final guardians stepped forth, shaking away the remnants of their stony tombs as their mighty footfalls shook the ground. These might very well be the last remnants of a once proud and powerful nation of ettins. Each of them stood almost as tall as the canyon itself, gazing down at the army that had awoken them from their slumber and stony prison with cool indifference. Unlike their fallen comrades, the giants were dressed head to toe in boiled leather armor, strapped and fitted in many jointed sections covering them from the neck down. The same empty sockets, glowing with an eerie bronze light, glared down at them from underneath spiked helmets.

“Hobgoblins, fall back!” Agamon roared. “Third regiment, move in!”

Trolls and a small group of viseks flooded past the warlock, fearless and ready to break these foes.

“Ciotl, help guide them. You must face the guardian’s backs to me!”

The giants struck first, one of them smashing a fist into the ground with such force that everyone in a twenty-foot radius was knocked off their feet. Agamon had to turn away when the second ettin stomped on some of the soldiers, grinding them under his bony heel as if they were bugs. He could hear their muffled screams and popping skulls.

The trolls hacked away at the ettins’ calves as if they were trying to fell a tree. One giant kicked his foot out, sending a troll spiraling in the air over Agamon’s head. The other ettin slapped a bony palm across the ground, sweeping away warriors all around him.

“Turn them around!” Agamon shouted insistently.

Ciotl ran between one of the giants’ legs, coming out the other side with a blast of green energy cracking into its thigh. The undead behemoth cried out in agony at the stinging attack. It quickly brushed a group of trolls aside and turned to face its attacker.

“The same for the other!” Agamon said, pointing at a group of viseks.

The hooded humanoids quickly complied, dodging the giant’s slapping hands and skirting around him. The first ettin tried to step on Ciotl, but the clever little visek seemed to shift left, leaving a multiplied mirage of his form in his trail. It was too swift for the giant to keep up, and as he reappeared as a tangible being, he sent a necrotic bolt into the giant’s mid-section. The trolls, viseks, and a handful of remaining bandits were on the other side of the canyon now, throwing spears at the guardians’ chests and stabbing their heels with swords. One of the giants plucked a man from the ground and squeezed his skeletal fingers, snapping his back. He tossed the dead man into the soldiers’ ranks like a cannonball.

Agamon wasted no time. Xatalon had told him how to get past this trial. The ettins were imbued with a powerful spell that ensured if one was taken down, the other could resurrect him. The only way to overcome this obstacle was to take out both behemoths at the same time. He forced himself to ignore the dying screams of his men. He had to remain focused. Agamon’s free hand played in the air before his face, fingers bending at odd angles and swirling in patterns that opened a shimmering circle of air before his face. He peered through that circle at each giant in turn and found a halo of blue light flattened around the base of their skulls. That was where the curon stones were embedded. This was where he must strike to lift the spell.

All at once he let the dweomer fall and dropped to his knee, slamming his staff into the dirt. Agamon’s voice cracked through the gorge, echoing off its walls and over the battle cries like a rolling thunder. Fire surged from the world dragon into his body, amplified and magnified through the top of his staff. A ribbon of pure light haloed then burst out in twin rays, each cracking like lightning into the giant’s neck.

The giants staggered at the blow. One of them reached toward the heavens and cried out for Fallor’s mercy, but the god of War did not answer his pleas. Seconds later, his body, like his brother’s, burst into a million pieces, bony shrapnel embedding into nearby soldiers and scarring the rocky gorge.

The last of the guardians had fallen.

This time there was no cheering. How could there be after so many had perished? None smiled except Agamon as he gazed down to the end of the chasm, past the moaning bodies of fallen soldiers and bony remains of the guardians that littered the ground. None of it bothered him anymore. He was a different person now, bathed in a communion of blood, no longer a naïve babe of the pantheon. Today Xatalon had shown him that. There should be no shame in delighting over a decisive victory, yearning for mastery and the will to evolve. How could there be with the silhouette of the Khaliav lying before him, laid bare and ready for its new master? He forced himself to look back down the canyon as a crooked smile working its way over his cold lips. Agamon’s eyes blazed with fire as he held his arms out to accept Xatalon’s divine gift.

Without another word he walked forward to meet his destiny. The crystal throne was waiting.