The Last Battle

This one's OLD old ­— 1998, maybe?

Somewhere overhead, the dust is settling, and the carrion birds are gorging on the fallen. Good has triumphed over Evil. The Dark Lord's power has been broken. The dread tower of Debentor lies in ruins.

Strange, muses Hril, leaning heavy on his staff of crooked rowan. He is nigh immortal, but no less made of weak human flesh for it. His memory fails, and the faces of the kings and warlords and unbearably young, dead heroes run together through the centuries, their names and valiant deeds wiped clean, adding only the faintest texture to the endless rough churn of war and chaos that stains his every recollection.

Strange that those kings and warriors, with their songs and legends and their written histories, should rely on him to remember. The details escape him, but he knows that he has fought in this war before, more than once, eras of history coming and going, empires coalescing and disintegrating, and always he and people like him dragging themselves through the weary eons, lieutenants of the Right and the Wrong, intent on each others' destruction.

Hril feels old. He leans on the staff, and shuffles another aching fathom across green-black ice. Debentor. The last time he was here, the relentless scour of human tongues had not yet worn away the original shape of the name: Deberen's Tor, the hilltop last stand of the hero Deberen. The man had been the last of his line, a line Hril had followed down the ages since the last Last Battle. So many good men dead, of nothing more sinister than time. So many dead.

Once, Hril thinks, he would have seen the hand of the Enemy in it, each death a veiled dagger thrust, but he is too old for that blinkered anger. The lieutenants of the Enemy need their monsters as much as he and his need their heroes, and time spares neither side. The bitter stalemate has lasted the age of the world, boiling backward and forward, snatching up anything nearby to help fuel the ruckus — people, creatures, spirits, armies, whole civilisations. Hril has seen it all, and expects to see no end. He is tired. He can put on a brave face for the young and the angry, exhort them to support the cause, fight alongside them when clash with the Enemy they must — but here, miles below the Tor, alone in mystic caverns of ice, his ineffable Master's victory still resounding in the clear night air above, he can be just a tired old man.

Somewhere in these caverns, the hideous necromancer Vas crawls away to lick his wounds. Hril dimly recalls, eons ago, another flight through these dark halls — triumphant, conquering, hounding Vas with fire and mighty sorcery. Vas shows his face at every Last Battle — that one, this one, and doubtless the next one, whether Hril hounds him now or no. It was a shock to look upon him, the brief glimpses across the field of battle — Vas the mighty, Vas the cunning, Vas the repugnant — a greybeard now, bent and craggy as Hril himself.

A piece of dark stone, perhaps once part of an ancient temple, is somewhere to rest a moment. Hril flexes aching feet in worn-out boots, eyeing the three dark holes the tunnel forks into. It doesn't matter which he takes. It doesn't matter if he spends an age of the world wandering in the dark. When his Master needs him, his steps will be guided where he needs to go, and until then he is free to wander a world he has grown too tired to enjoy.

He knows Vas is down here somewhere, so the surprise is not great when the other sorcerer staggers from one dark passage, singed and bloodied. His enemy startles at the sight of him, raising his arms and starting to snarl, and Hril feels almost young for a moment.

It passes.

"Vas," he says wearily. "No point killing each other. Our Masters have not yet run out of mortals."

Vas continues to wave his arms for suspicious seconds before letting them fall with a grunt. The necromancer hobbles forward to take a seat on the stone with Hril, leaving as much space between them as possible, because they are enemies, after all.

"My back hurts," Vas mutters feelingly.

"My feet hurt," Hril tells him. "It seems the making of comfortable boots is a lost secret."

Vas is quiet a moment. "Beer," he says finally. "The beer was better when the world was young."

"I was a wine man," Hril says.

"That's all piss now, too."

They sit in silence for a while.

"One of the camp followers gave me back rubs," Vas says eventually. "Quarter Orcish. Pretty. Probably dead now," he adds morosely.

"Well, you are a necromancer," Hril points out.

"You raise one army from their graves, and for the rest of time they call you a corpsefucker," Vas says bitterly, and spits on the ground.

Hril is surprised into a creaky laugh.

"One army," Vas repeats, aggrieved. "Stop laughing, you bastard."

Hril keeps laughing for a while, and then they sit quietly in the dark for a time.

"I bet you'll kill me if I go to sleep," Vas says, scratching his beard.

"I only try to kill you when you try to kill me first," Hril says peaceably.

"I could kill you in my sleep if I wanted to," Vas mumbles, tucking his cloak round him. "Stop talking so much, I'm tired."

Hril is dozing himself, back against the smooth cold wall, when Vas rouses himself with an irritable snort. "Too fucking cold," the necromancer says. "How the hell can you sleep like that?"

"A great weariness is upon me," Hril says. Privately, he thinks that he is dressed for the cold, and Vas is dressed...well, the Enemy seems to prefer people stylishly undressed, even the grizzly old men.

"It's that bloody great cloak, isn't it?" Vas says, and abruptly he is beside Hril, yanking at it. Hril bats at him in sleepy alarm, and then he suddenly finds himself sharing his cloak with a shivering necromancer.

"Vas!" he protests. "This cloak is hardly big enough for one of us!"

"Don't tempt me," Vas warns.

"This is my cloak," Hril says. "I have sharp elbows," he adds.

"You're warm," Vas notes approvingly, trying to tuck himself under Hril's arm.

It is possibly the most uncomfortable night's sleep that Hril has ever had.

"I'm going that way," Vas announces as they set off in the morning. "I don't want to be seen wandering around with you."

Hril supposes that Vas has the right of it, but does not point out that Vas is heading into leagues of dead-end catacombs. The man is evil, after all.

Hril's route takes him to the surface, out in the shining sun, where the birds are singing, the wind is blowing, and a lone straggler from the army of Evil tries to menace him with a sword. Hril can tell at a glance that the tear-stained youth has Orcish blood, and cannot handle a weapon at all.

Hril puts on his brave face, and tries to remember his lines.

"So!" he declaims. "A minion of the evil Vas!" Perhaps it is a little overdone, but he usually only has to do this for the benefit of his own side, and this one looks none too bright anyway.

"You killed my master!" the not-very-bright youth blubbers.

"Hah!" Hril makes an expansive gesture of contempt, regardless of the shooting pain it gives him in his elbow. It really was an uncomfortable night. "The coward ran from me in the caverns of Deberen's Tor, and lives still, hiding in the ground like the worm he is!" He stamps forward, sending the boy stumbling back in panic. "Go, then, join your master in the freezing dark! I won't lower myself to destroy a mere creature of that foul ghoul." He quarter-turns, letting the sun's light turn the creases of his face to dramatic shadow. "Cower in the icy caves, O pet of Evil's pet!"

That really was overdoing it, but the boy does as Hril says, fleeing into the cave's mouth.

"The freezing caverns of doom!" Hril ad-libs after him. "Where it will be very cold! Where your slinking dog master shivers without warm clothes!" It is far too late — the boy is already out of sight, and has no cloak of his own, never mind another to give to Vas.

Hril sighs and checks the sun's position, calculating north, and sets off in the general direction of Urkaen Keep. He needs to report to his fellow champions the course of the battle, and that Vas fled the scene; that King Umar is secretly planning to annex the eastern territories of the Lammaneans; that one of the Enemy's dread Red Spectres has been destroyed. He is a busy old man. He should not be worrying about one young quarter-Orc getting cold without a cloak.

Besides, he thinks, Vas will probably find a way to keep them warm without one.