by Ski Hemulen
Half a year ago
He wasn’t asked anything when he came to take Wahalan’s oaths. Arik’s greatest fear was that they’ll question him, or worse – ask questions about him – and find out that he’s a heretic and a deviant and he’d be in deep shit. He still presumed he could get out of it. An army marching with thousands of mercenaries who followed at least four different religions could hardly start burning heretics. Still, it made him uncomfortable.
But there were no questions. There were more than a hundred soldiers other than himself who came to take the oath after the battle, and the priests of Wahalan seemed well prepared for them. They raised a long and low tent and sat all of the oath takers, lined against the fabric of the tent and it was lit inside with a few torches, creating more shadows than light. The smell of incense was partly hiding the smell of unwashed men. Two small choirs of priests where chanting praises to Wahalan in low voices. Yes, they knew all the tricks in the book. He wasn’t fooled, but it was effective nonetheless.
After a long wait several priests with pitchers of some liquid passed between the oath takers, letting them drink.
‘You must drink, or leave right now’, he heard one of the priests tell one of the men around him.
He considered pretending to drink and spitting the liquid afterwards, but thought better of it. He came here to get what protection they could give. He was certain much of what went on here was just for dramatic effect, yet he was quite convinced some of what they did really worked, some sort of Magi was at work here. He should probably stick by the rules. He didn’t want to botch the protection ceremony.
He drank it. It tasted like slightly salted water.
A low drumming started. He couldn’t see the source of it, but curiosity seemed to have left him. He just sat there, listening to the drum go on. Probably something in the water he thought absentmindedly. The room began to spin around him. He heard several men vomiting but his unfocused attention was on the drumming.
The torches became blurry and started spinning around him, dancing to the rhythm of the drum, and the shadows seemed to be boiling, as if they were a sack hiding an army of people screaming and writhing in torment. He felt the shadows crawling on his skin and he tried to scratch them away. Several of the men were screaming.
Priests were walking among the men again. One came to him.
‘Repeat after me’, he said. ‘Wahalan, I give myself to you.’
‘Wahalan, I give myself to you’, he said, frightened.
‘My arms and my legs’
‘My arms and my legs’
He hesitated just a moment, ‘m-my life’
‘Wahalan, Make me whole!’ the priest exclaimed.
‘Wahalan, Make me whole’, he said, unenthusiastically.
He felt a ripping inside of him. He was thrown across the room towards one of the torches. He tried to send his arms in front of him in an attempt to stop his face from slamming into the flame of the torch, but his hand were nowhere to be found. He was in the flame for a moment and then felt himself being pulled back to where he sat earlier. Now he could see he was still sitting there, only somehow he was outside of himself. But he was being pulled back inside. Back into his body.
He settled down, feeling dizzy, his head slumped on his knees. Was this an illusion? He heard of plants that induced strange trances of this sort. Yet he felt a stranger in his body. As if he was just a temporary occupant. The feeling chilled him to the bone.
Again in the middle of a battle. Again the fear and pain. His terror this time was greater, having seen the results of battle last time. His infantry company started stationed behind a hill. Then they charged over it, falling on an enemy company and things have gone crazy. He hadn’t really fought anyone today yet, but the slaughter was already around him.
One of his company bumped into him and he slipped down the slope on a puddle of mud and blood into an enemy band. Sword in hand, he tried to awaken his fighting instincts but they refused to take over. A man slashed at him and he parried clumsily, almost falling over.
Then it came. he felt a presence near him. He looked around but could see no one but the three enemy soldiers. Was this Wahalan? He barely had time to think but the presence felt very normal, like a man standing next to him. Then he felt the presence enter him, at least partly. His hand moved of itself, the grip on his blade strengthening, and it stabbed directly to the throat of one of the enemy soldiers, using the small gap between the helmet and the chain mail. His body spun, avoiding another soldier’s blade and his hand stabbed that soldier in the face, while his other hand hit the last soldier with the shield with such force he fell to the ground. With another involuntary movement he finished him off.
He stood in a daze, looking at the three dead men around him. It was exhilarating and awful.
But he didn’t have time to contemplate. More enemy soldiers were moving towards him.
He walked through the encampment that evening trying to think about what happened. He felt exhausted from the exertion of the day but he couldn’t rest. There was more sickening death today, but he had to admit that after the first fight it wasn’t accompanied with too much fear for his life. He came out of the battle unscathed. It wasn’t that he didn’t control his actions all of the time. It seemed that the presence took over him only when he was in real danger. And it knew how to win.
While walking near the great tent the priests had built for themselves he started to feel that the presence was near. His curiosity piqued, he stopped and looked around. Out of the tent flap rose one of the priests walking slowly outside. The feeling of the presence was very strong near him.
Arik stared at him. The priest raised his eyes and met Arik’s and there might have been a hint of recognition in them.
‘Run along, soldier’, the priest said.
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