Having cleaned the last of his knives, Digger put them away. He sat cross-legged on his bedroll, leaning on his folded hands and watching the fire flicker. He contemplated it. Under his eyes, the flames couldn’t get away unnoted. Changes in the patterns attracted his attention. Digger learned things from how the fire moved and how it consumed the sticks. Twig could tell that much from the intensity of his gaze. It was like Digger thought he could divine the secrets of winning fights from the way the flame traveled up and down the sticks.
A few minutes later, Digger turned away from the fire, so that the glare wouldn’t make it hard for him to see in the night if something should happen. Twig could still see part of Digger’s profile. Almost an hour passed in silence. Then Digger glanced over his shoulder at Twig.
“What’s your story?” Digger asked. Twig thought about a good answer. He felt disassociated with the life he had left. Before boot camp, Twig Lithnmark led a common enough life. He had grown up on a ranch, the son of a lord but rarely treated differently than the other boys on the grounds. When time came, he found a wife. When duty called, he joined an army. He joined the Wildhagen Militia first. After only a few weeks with the Militia, a man approached him and invited him to join the Zombie Corps. The man assured Twig Lithnmark that the training program of the Zombie Corps fitted Twig Lithnmark’s talents. The Zombie Corps was an elite fighting force unlike any other, the man said. Excited by the proposition, Twig Lithnmark joined the outfit. He shipped to Camp Younes in a secret location far to the north. Training blurred together after that.
The whole course of experiences felt distant to Twig, like a life lived and finished. It all sat in his mind like the vague wisps of dreams. He sometimes doubted any of Twig Lithnmark’s story had ever happened to him at all, it seemed so disjointed from his current reality. Though he knew it all had happened. He was Twig Lithnmark, and the same who had been born more than sixty years earlier and lived in Wildhagen for twenty and more years before ever going into the military. It felt strange.
That might be the story that Digger wanted, asking for Twig’s story. Twig felt disinclined to share it. It belonged to him. He wanted to keep it.
“I have been in a rebuilding hibernation,” Twig said.
“What does that mean?”
“I am not certain. Some magic worked on the Zombie Corps to add to their preparation for the Wars.”
“Do you know what kind of magic?”
“No,” Twig said. He put new snow in his empty cup and erected the little tripod he had made earlier. “They told us it would occur at some point. We would be magicked to be less afraid and more fear-striking. We thought it sounded superfluous after the training we received.” Digger nodded. He was no stranger to hard training, Twig could see it in his posture and the small scars all over him. “The magic never occurred during training. I began to think they used the term magic as a metaphor. The Zombie Corps never saw fighting. Those bold soldiers would have reckoned hard against any enemy. Any who fought us would fear our cries.”
“You never saw the War?” Digger asked. Twig shook his head. “You’ve been, say what like, hibernating for these years?”
“For many years. The magic worked on us while we slept, it seems. I have not always been like this.”
“Ah, I see.” Digger seemed comforted by the information, knowing Twig had once looked different. His back relaxed a touch. Twig thought he ought to be offended. He failed to conjure the energy. Digger seemed to have thought of a few more questions. Hesitating, he asked one that sounded like not his first choice. “The magic worked on the whole Zombie Corps, did it?”
“I do not know. I have not come across any.”
“Perhaps the ghoul wandering the hills is one,” Digger suggested, turning halfway around to look at Twig.
“Perhaps,” Twig said.
“Why don’t you look for him, then?”
“I could not track him. Just as he would not be able to track me.”
“I tracked you,” Digger said, smiling sideways.
“I lured you to me, Wiggend Lordling,” Twig said, lowering his chin. Digger’s face was blank, his posture unamused. “And there is a Zombie Corps rallying point near here,” Twig looked west, toward the mountains, where the road led them. “He would have checked in there.”
“No. It is protocol, however. It is the most likely place to find members of the Zombie Corps.”
Frowning at the idea that he had been lured anywhere, Digger looked back out into the night. Twig found it curious that Digger refrained from asking why he had been lured out into the hills. All the obvious questions that Digger refrained from asking gratified Twig. They were points he preferred leaving dark. “Where is this rallying point?” Digger asked.
Digger’s sideways smile returned. “That is the quarry where most of the gods mined the stone for their castles in the mountains.”
“Yes,” Twig said.
“There are stories of awful things happening to people who have recently desecrated those grounds,” Digger said.
“That is reasonable. It is the kind of technique which the men funding the Zombie Corps would have used to discourage prying eyes.”
This time seeming to misbelieve, Digger shook his head again. “Likely we’ll see, then, eh?”
Twig stared at the fire. It hardly mattered if anything calamitous had occurred in Cankerous Gorge. If Zombies had been there, they would have weathered, averted, or avoided the calamity. They would either be at the barracks built in the Gorge or they would have left clues. Either would be useful to Twig. He felt confident that the Gorge would provide answers.
“Why are you alone?” Digger asked. Twig looked at Digger. He had no immediate answer. The question seemed peculiar. He was alone. That seemed logical. Digger glanced at Twig’s eyes, raising his eyebrow. “If there’s a whole Zombie army, where’s the rest of it? Weren’t all of you wakened at once, eh?”
“I do not know,” Twig said.
“Seems strange,” Digger said. He looked back out at the night.
Twig thought about that for a second. His brain began running through reasons why the Zombie Corps would have been wakened without him. Perhaps he had been kept in reserve. There would have been at least a few others kept with him, probably, at least. It could be. The people giving the orders might have placed him to execute a solo mission. They were trained to do that. But the Zombies had been always assured by Geving—who had always claimed to be Ferryman’s representative—that there would be orders to follow.
It confused Twig to operate without orders. He knew he looked like he operated with steely calculation. His head worked with a steely calculation that would have been useful during the confused months of boot camp. Inside, befuddlement kept him from predicting his next step.
Digger’s quiet posture indicated that he lacked any desire to speak any more tonight. Twig rolled onto his back. The stars began to be hazed over by thin, misty clouds. Hours passed. Digger gave up his watch to Silk and Silk sat in silence. They swapped watch twice in the night.
With his eyes open, never blinking, Twig stared at the stars and the slowly gliding clouds. He recalled the details of Cankerous Gorge he knew from a visit.
It was a two day journey to Cankerous Gorge, a canyon cut in the foothills of the mountains. Legend told that Groesn, the Stone God, had rent the Gorge in the side of a hill, so that the gods could get to heavy, grey stone buried in it. The grey stone Gorge yawned deeper in these centuries than ever. The stone had been quarried for the great citadels of the three chief gods: Ythig, the god of chaos; Groesn, called the Stone God; and Ferryman, also called Morthweorc, the god of death, who stood at the end of things.
Continued on December 15...