In the shadow of the Tower of Bones the child soldiers drilled.
They stood in ten tightly formed groups, twenty across and five deep. They wore armor made of cowhide cut into leaf-shaped patches, stitched together like scales with sinew, and brushed with mason resin. They held shields of leather and bronze over stumpwood, clutched spears cut from tree limbs and tipped with shards of flint, masterfully chipped to an edge fine enough to shave hair from flesh.
Zakra knew the last part well. His head still burned from when they’d scraped his hair from his scalp earlier that morning, especially where careless haste had flayed layers of skin. Wet beads trickled down his shaved head. Some sweat. Some blood.
He’d arrived with the other young recruits two days ago beneath the light of the new moon. They’d stood a few hundred paces from the Tower’s vast and terrible foot. Centurions had pushed and tugged them, jostling them barefooted over the barren landscape of pebble and sand until they stood in columns, their feet planted within crude cobalt-blue outlines. How many thousands of feet, Zakra had wondered, had filled those spectral footprints? How many thousands would fill them after he was gone?
For hours they stood at attention, shivering in the pale moonlight. They were all but ignored by the centurions, except for one grizzled veteran, an immune, who strolled through their ranks clutching a slender three-foot vine staff.
The immune stopped at each child in turn. Some he glanced at perfunctorily. Others he circled, measuring, examining. Those who shifted or moved, however slightly, received a sharp rap on the upper arm. Zakra earned this stinging rebuke after he moved a hand a few inches to scratch an itch on his thigh. Anyone who spoke, whimpered or, worst of all, cried, was smacked harder on the buttocks. If that didn’t solve the problem, they were struck again. Only a handful needed a third or fourth blow. But one… After the tenth crack of the vine staff, the immune raised an arm, and two centurions appeared and dragged the prostrate form away like a rag doll into the night.
By moonrise the following day, Zakra had been stripped of his leathers and furs, shaved, and scrubbed. His ear bars, rings and bracelets were wrenched from his head and limbs. Centurions brushed his tribe’s markings from his upper arms with stones dipped in glue and rolled in coarse sand. He’d been outfitted and armed and herded into his century.
There was no food or water, rest or sleep. Just a cold and brutal rush, driven by shoves, lashings and booming taunts. “Move it along, arselings! Move it along! Move move move, you slow, sorry, witless little shits.”
Had he a moment to dwell on the last day and a half, he’d have crumbled into tears where he stood. But his mind was focused on keeping the butt of his spear from touching the ground. Just as it had been for the last twelve long hours.
What had begun as a dull burn in his shoulder was now an unbearable fire that crackled through his entire arm. It flared into his chest, back and neck, shot seismic waves into fingers that shifted between agony and numbness. His only respite came when a boy two rows behind him dropped his spear. Then Zakra, along with the rest of the century, was forced to do three dozen pushups while the boy who’d dropped the spear was told to retrieve it and just stand among them. At least then the pain spread itself more evenly through his upper body.
He wondered now if the boys in the century to his right felt the same. He watched from the corner of his eye as their spear-dropping offender stood, head up, eyes forward, perfectly still–a lone pharos in a writhing sea–as all around him his fellow recruits pressed their knuckles into the rough earth, bodies rising and falling, their count ripping from their throats in tortured breaths.
“Twelve,” Horza whispered to himself, noting the most recent entry in his log.
He raised the circle of bone he’d been hiding to his right eye, holding it delicately between his finger and thumb. Shutting the other eye tight, he peered through the pocked ivory hoop, framing a dark and distant bird against a disc of deep blue sky.
He gazed a while at the soaring soot-black form in his makeshift viewfinder, keeping it in his sights as it rose and fell with outstretched wings. Finally, perhaps spying unsuspecting prey many thousand feet below, it drew its wings back and dove too fast for him to follow.
He withdrew the fragment of bone from his eye and extended his arm over the unfinished wall. Leaning forward, he steadied himself against a brace of femurs, fingers and clavicles. He stared down the length of the Tower’s Western face. His eyes darted over the rows of intricate ivory latticework, which narrowed like a roadway stretching to the horizon as they plunged toward the earth.
Horza fought the dizziness that always shook him when he looked down from the Tower. He knew he had to get close to the edge to conduct his experiment.
Twelve, he thought to himself. Twelve is our mark. The number we must reach, but not exceed, to prove my theory.
He drew a deep breath and held it. Then he cleared his head of all thoughts but one. You must listen carefully, Horza.
“Oi!” thundered Brago.
Horza whirled, staring into the master bone mason’s angry green eyes, their faces not a foot apart. He quickly palmed the bone and log, folding his arms behind his back. He raised his eyebrows, forcing a smile.
“Hello, Master Brago,” said Horza, his voice dry. “It’s a hot morning, isn’t–?”
“Never mind it’s a hot morning,” Brago shot back. “I know it’s a right hot morning. Wouldn’t be sweating like an ass-crack in Hell if it was cool and breezy out, would I?”
Brago took a bite of his hunk of dried, salted meat, tearing the flesh from the gristle. He chewed loudly, not bothering to wipe the spittle that poured over his fissured bottom lip. He tucked the gristle into a small pouch on his work belt, unhooked his stein and quickly slugged the flat, tepid beer inside, keeping his eyes on Horza. He slipped the stein over the hook at his side, belched loudly and jabbed a fat, gnarled finger into Horza’s chest.
“What I wanna’ know,” he hissed, “is what you’ve got there.”
Horza shrugged. “Got where?”
“Don’t play cute with me.” Brago waved his finger in Horza’s face. “You know damn well I’m talking about what you’ve got in that greasy hand of yours behind your back.”
“But…I’ve got noth–” Horza started. But he stopped when he saw Brago withdraw his outstretched finger and curl it up alongside his other four in a fat, shaking fist.
Horza exhaled and swung his arms around to his front. Slowly he opened his hands, revealing the ring of bone and crudely made book.
Brago’s eyes widened. His face slackened with disbelief. Then he drew his heavily tanned features into a smoldering rictus and growled through his teeth. Two deep furrows cut up his brow and disappeared beneath the parched brim of his kettle hat.
“Son of a bitch!” Spit flecked his lip. He turned and swung his foot into a pile of excess bones, scattering ribs, shoulder blades and vertebrae across the floor with a clamor of hollow knocks and clacks.
Embarrassed, Horza’s eyes darted to the smattering of bone masons taking a rare break. He’d hoped the racket of their card games and conversations would conceal him. But every eye seemed fixed on him.
Brago’s kick spun him around to face Horza again.
“I knew it,” he growled. “I fucking knew you were up to something. You just can’t help yourself. Your hands go idle for a few hours and already you’re looking to stir up trouble.”
“Master Brago, I wasn’t gonna’ stir up no trouble, honest. I was just gonna’ conduct a little experiment.”
“I know what you were gonna’ do. You were gonna’ toss it off the Tower, weren’t you? You were gonna toss it off and start your counting and write your numbers in your stupid little book.”
“Which means you’re still holding on to that half-wit idea about this tower not getting any higher despite we building it up.”
“But Master–” Horza stopped as Brago lurched towards him, leaving a mere inch between their noses. Brago’s voice rose just above a whisper.
“You might not remember what happened the last time you were chattering about the tower not getting any higher.” Brago slit his eyes. “But I do. And if you think I’m gonna’ let you stir up another mutiny among a hundred tired and hungry bone masons pulling a shift north of ten years, you’ve got another think coming. Though I should say you’ve got another think going, because going is exactly what you’ll be doing. Right over the fucking wall. Right behind your fucking bone and book. Is that clear?”
“Yes, immune!” the recruits attempted in unison.
“Die now, the lot of you, if that’s the best you can do!” the immune boomed. He kicked his skull-tipped boot hard into the ground. Sand erupted in a wispy cloud. Pebbles clamored off the shields and shins of the century before him. “Spare us the trouble of stumbling over your gutted corpses on the battlefield.”
Zakra watched as the immune stalked across their formations, glaring at each boy through a single smoldering eye. Its absent twin was replaced with a tangle of pulpy, bruise-colored flesh spreading across his face like tree roots pushing above ground.
“You don’t have a solitary fucking inkling why you’re here, do you?” he growled.
He stepped aside, swinging his arm out and behind him, leveling his hand at the Tower.
“Behold your charge,” he intoned. “Every bone you see here once lived in the skin of someone who defied His Benevolence’s rule, who questioned His right. Look to its foot and you’ll find remains of the Oreni, those to first take up arms against Him. Could you glimpse its top, you’d find those of the Cimerals, still hot with the mason’s brew. Soon, they’ll cool, harden, and become one with the thousands who’ve fallen before them. And in time, they’ll bear the weight of yet another people who dare challenge His claim.”
He turned to the Tower, drawing a slow, deep breath. As he exhaled, he nodded, affirming an unspoken question.
“Because someone always will,” he said, turning towards them. “Someone without the sense to understand how futile it is to fight. Who’ll look upon our tower and feel not our might but their own.”
He paused, leveling his gaze at each century in turn. “That,” he said, “is why we fight.”
Zakra was stunned to hear a voice other than the immune’s. For a moment, he thought the feeble tone might have been his own. That his faltering body had found a voice and uttered its surrender.
“I can’t,” came again. “Not me.”
Zakra looked hard to his left. The boy there was about his age. He stared ahead with vacant eyes, smoky lids slowly opening and closing. His trembling, sweat-slicked frame conveyed the same agony that tortured Zakra.
Zakra’s eyes darted back to the immune. Thankfully, he had lumbered to the opposite end of the line, unhearing of the boy’s mutterings. But his gravelly voice rang out clearly.
Zakra swallowed hard, wincing as his parched throat protested. “You can,” he managed at a dry whisper, careful not to turn his head. “You can and you must.”
If the boy heard him he showed no sign of it. His eyes closed. His head tipped forward a moment, then jerked back, eyes flaring wide.
Zakra swallowed again, still finding no saliva to wet his throat.
“My name’s Zakra,” he said. “What’s yours?”
The boy’s lips moved, miming sounds. “S…SSS….SSS…” He tried. Then managed, “SSS-avo.”
Savo, Zakra repeated to himself. Immediately, his face grew hot, his throat taut. He fought back tears.
“Savo’s a good name,” he said, his words barely a whisper. “My little brother’s name is Savo.”
The word brother lodged in his throat, burning. Zakra thought of his brother’s face, with its soft small features, his hazel eyes. His ears were too big and Zakra remembered how he’d once convinced Savo he was half bird, because they could start flapping at any moment, carrying him away. He thought about how Savo had cried at that. And how he had laughed and called him Savo the Sissy. Which only made him cry more.
In but a few years Savo would be standing where Zakra was now. Only so much smaller, so much weaker.
Savo the Sissy. How that taunt churned like jagged stones in Zakra’s gut. He wished he could take it back.
“You are my brother now, Savo.” Zakra swallowed hard. When the boy didn’t respond, he added, “Yes?”
“Yes,” the boy finally said.
“And I am yours.”
“Yes,” the boy repeated after a time, nodding imperceptibly. He even seemed to smile.
Zakra returned his attention to the immune.
“Unless you find yourself at the wrong end of a sword, arrow or spear,” the immune was saying, “for the next ten years, you are Empire property. Which means your pathetic little hides belong to me.” A hint of a smile twitched at the scarred corners of his face. “You’re mine.”
The immune swung his vine staff through the air. It met his opposite hand with a resounding crack.
“Is that clear?” he thundered.
Has it really been that long? Horza thought. Has the Tower really claimed ten years of my life?
He’d been told that the shift of a bone mason was only as long as it needed to be. That was fine with him at the time, for he couldn’t fathom a work shift longer than that of a thatcher or blacksmith or tanner. A few days, weeks at most. But he’d quickly realized that his gauge of “needed to be” was different than what the Empire had in mind. That his shift was not so much a shift as an enslaving.
But how long had he been enslaved?
There was a time, he recalled, when they had kept time–logging days, weeks, months and years. He remembered celebrating the year ends with festivals. The men played music on instruments carved from Demencrea tibiae and Stetzen ribs and Koteph vertebrate. Others fashioned masks out of fallen birds, using feathers for brows and beaks for noses, turning their wormy guts into bands, their scaly legs and curved talons into clasps. Drunk on wares smuggled in with supply drops, they’d reel beneath the light of the stars and sing songs of their friends and wives and homes far below.
But in time, the days and weeks and months and years went unmarked, even unnoticed. Especially when the sky teemed with bones and there was too much work to think about anything else. They didn’t have time to worry about time. Time had been lost. Horza’s once fresh memories were now shrouded in the fog of years past, as dim as the Tower on the gloomiest of days.
He sloshed his tongue around his mouth and swallowed to moisten his throat.
“You have my word,” he said. “I won’t stir up no trouble with the others, Master Brago.” He lowered his voice. “But between you and me, I just…well…I keep looking up at them clouds…when there’s clouds up there to look at, that is. I just can’t help but start thinking them clouds I’m looking at ain’t getting any closer, despite we building towards them.”
“And why do you think that is?”
Horza raised his hands, fingers flexed. His eyes widened, face brightened. “Well–”
“I’ll tell you why. Clouds come in all different sizes, don’t they? And some are higher than others and some lower. And sometimes the higher ones look smaller even when they’re not and the lower ones look bigger even when they’re not. So when you look up at the clouds, who’s to say the clouds you’re looking at today are the same size as the clouds you looked at yesterday, or last week, or last year for that matter?”
“Well, yes, Master Brago, I can’t argue with you there. But I’m speaking more generally about the size of–”
“Well, speaking generally ain’t exactly scientific now, is it?”
Horza smiled. “Ah ha!” he said, his voice rising in pitch. “That’s where the bone comes in.”
Brago let out a big, husky laugh. Throwing his hands on his bulbous belly, he shook his head. “Your experiment is as stupid now as it was the first time.” He wiped spittle from his chin. “Even if you could accurately count the seconds until the bone hit the ground, you wouldn’t know when to stop. Because you wouldn’t fucking hear it land!”
Horza frowned as Brago continued.
“Just like you didn’t hear it land the first time you did it. Which means you don’t even have a…a…”
“Reference point,” Horza offered, his mouth crooked.
“That’s right–a reference point.”
“But I will hear it, Master Brago, I’m sure of it.”
“Oh, you’re sure now? You’re sure?”
“I am.” Horza held up his log. “It’s all in here, you see. The time it’s taken for every bone I’ve ever dropped to–”
Brago returned his finger to Horza’s face. “Oi! I don’t want to hear another word about dropping bones. And the next time you mention clouds it better be because we’re in the middle of one, because that’s exactly where we’re headed. We ain’t stopping until villains clear on the other side of the world look up in the sky and see what happens to them when they defy His Benevolence’s–”
An ear-splitting screech tore through the air.
Zakra winced, wrenching his head up towards the terrible, distant cry.
He quickly realized his insubordination and dropped his head. But he tipped it back again once he noticed that all the other boys were looking up, along with many of the centurions. Even the immune held a hand to his brow as he gazed at the sky with his one good eye.
Zakra didn’t understand what he was seeing. The objects must have been thousands of feet off the ground. The glare from the sun made it hard to distinguish the strange shapes. But it looked as though a flock of fat, pillowy birds…or perhaps a scattering of small, white clouds…was crossing the vast blue sky, heading for the Tower’s crown.
“Eyes front!” shouted the immune. In a blink, every head dropped.
The immune raised an arm toward the things in the sky.
“You see there, boys? They could be returning from anywhere in the world, carrying bones from any one of a thousand peoples who dare defy the Empire. And in half a year’s time, you’ll find yourselves in any one of those places, driving your spear into the face of the next skull that will adorn our Tower.” He scowled. “Or one of their spears will drive through yours.”
The immune paced along the front of their lines, scratching his chin.
“Aye, so many foes to face, so many ways to die. An eighteen-foot pike shoved through your belly by a Silver Phalangite of Arnos,” he mused. With frightening speed, he whirled, grasped his vine staff with two hands like a spear and thrust it into the belly of the nearest recruit. The boy let out a strangled huff and doubled over, retching silently as he struggled to take a breath. “And not just through you, oh no, boys,” the immune continued, “The three men directly behind you in ranks as well.”
He moved on, leaving the recruit on his hands and knees, gasping for air.
“Or the screaming Glavii, naked and blue-painted, streaming out of the hills and forests of Dalnaspida like angry ants.” He stopped and placed his hand atop another recruit’s shaved head, then began gently stroking it, turning it from side to side, examining the pale, stubbled crown like a house-slave examining a chicken at a Sun’s Day market stall. “They believe the head is where the soul resides. And they want nothing more than to collect yours and make a chalice of your skull.”
“I can’t…” mumbled Savo.
Zakra turned to see his new friend shivering.
“My head…for a…drinking…” Savo stammered.
“A lie, Savo,” Zakra hissed. He looked back to the immune, still strolling down the line. “He just wants to scare us.”
“A chalice.” Savo’s bottom lip quivered with fear.
“Calm down. They’ll hear you.”
“And then there’s the lovely Sireni,” continued the immune. “So beautiful, so graceful, so alluring…and so deadly. Boys, if ever you’re wounded and left behind on the fields of Sirenia, best fall on your sword and die still a man.” His vine staff lashed out swifter than a stray thought, whipping between the legs and smashing the crotch of yet another hapless recruit with a fleshy thud. The boy squealed and collapsed in a fetal coil, hands buried between his thighs.
“Oh god…” Savo whispered. His breathing quickened. His chest heaved.
“Shh,” Zakra hissed. “Savo, please–”
“I can’t do this, Zakra.”
“You can. Be quiet.”
“Help me escape, Zakra…please, help me escape…”
Zakra turned toward the immune, who still paced across their lines. His eyes darted then to the centurions scattered about them. “Savo, we are stuck here.”
“Far from here…”
“Savo, please. They will–”
“Insubordinate fucking dogs!” snarled a centurion into both their ears.
Rattled by the thundering voice, Zakra lurched to one side, dropping his spear. Savo did the same.
“How dare you speak over your immune, you spineless sacks of shit-filled guts? I’ve a mind to cut out your fucking tongues.”
The centurion grabbed them both by their arms and wrenched them close.
As Zakra looked ahead, he saw the immune staring at them. His head was bowed, his lone eye narrowed and cold. He raised his arm and beckoned them.
“Move!” the centurion shouted, shoving them forward.
As Zakra skulked toward the immune, the terrible, beastly screech sounded from way up high. For a moment, its echoes tolled like a bell. An awful bell of an awful belfry. Signaling his end.
The great winged creatures glided so smoothly that they appeared motionless. Sunlight flashed and danced wildly upon the silver spurs and polished helms of the riders, winking like tiny stars upon snaffle bits and martingale rings. The vast snowy parcels tethered to the raptors’ sinewy grey legs swayed beneath them. Even at a distance, Horza could tell they were loaded to the bursting point. It looked as if the raptors were towing clouds.
“Well, it’s about time,” Brago said, sounding both aggravated and relieved.
The riders pulled hard on their reins as they fell upon the Tower. The raptors raised their long, leathery necks and pushed their chests out. They beat their massive wings, throwing great rushes of air towards the Tower’s unfinished level, scattering wayward bones and threatening to knock the bone masons off their feet. Slowly, deftly, they lowered their parcels until their tethers went slack.
Fighting wind gusts, a pair of bone masons, knives clenched between their teeth, climbed each sack, severing the ropes. Free of the weight, the raptors threshed their wings harder, lifting their riders high above the top of the Tower. With a final cry, they lowered their heads, stretched their expansive wings, and soared off into the blue.
“Bring it over, boys,” Brago shouted to the two bone masons struggling to untie the parcel nearest him and Horza. “We haven’t got all day.” The knots at last undone, the heavy white cloth fell away like the petals of an impossibly large flower, revealing orderly stacks of bundled bones.
“Right then,” Brago said, stepping towards the load. “Let’s get to–”
Brago stopped and stared at the load, his eyes level with a bale of skulls. Unsheathing his knife, he cut a bit of the twine. With a few snips, a single skull popped free of its bundle. Brago raised it close to his eyes. He slit them to study its features, looking over its dome, peering into its sockets, inspecting the palate behind its few remaining teeth. Then Horza saw his face go slack, as if with sudden recognition.
“This is a Xangen-Ho skull,” Brago said, as if trying to convince himself. He thrust his hand into the bale and wrenched another free by its eye sockets. He looked back and forth between the two skulls, then at the remaining skulls in the bale. “Son of a bitch,” he howled. “These are both Xangen-Ho skulls.”
Horza watched as Brago burst into laughter. Broad shoulders and bulging gut shook. Fingering the bone in his palm, Horza hoped the new delivery would make the foreman forget about him, his log and his experiment.
Brago tipped back his head and inhaled deeply, puffing out his chest and belly.
“Oy!” he bellowed. Immediately, the bone masons halted and looked toward him. “Looks like the Empire just got a wee bit larger. We’re working with Xangen-Ho bones now.”
Horza wasn’t surprised that the bone masons didn’t rejoice. Instead, they quietly dissected their parcels, loading bundles of bones into their wheelbarrows. Once, the announcement of a new people’s bones had been met with howls and cheers. It had been a long time ago.
Brago thrust a skull in Horza’s face. “You can always tell a Xangen-Ho skull. See the broad, blocky brow–like a brick? That’s what makes them so stubborn and prone to resistance.”
Horza narrowed his eyes, pretending to inspect the skull. He’d learned the art of bone reading during his apprenticeship. Every bone mason did. Vallards, his Guild Master had said, could be identified by a slight slanting of the eye sockets toward the nose, which produced an ill temper and propensity for violence. The Eudeamon skull was characterized by a pronounced, trapezoidal jaw, the source of their insatiable hunger for power, while the tell-tale sign of a Stetzen’s head was its distinct cone shape, no doubt the reason for their presumed superiority.
Their vile characters, captured in their faces, explained why the Empire was always battling these warmongering peoples. But Horza still couldn’t find a consistent, discernible difference from one people’s skull type to the next. Of course, he kept this embarrassing deficiency to himself. For who was he to question the keen eye of a master bone mason? And how shameful to be a bone mason without that keen eye? It was only by the dumbest of luck that he passed the bone identification portion of the Trials.
Horza nodded. “Yes, like a brick.”
Brago withdrew the skull from Horza’s face and tossed both in his wheelbarrow. He wrenched the bundle of skulls from between bales of tibiae and fibulae, held it over the wheelbarrow with one powerful hand, and slit the netting with the other as he would have the belly of a beast, spilling skulls like entrails.
“You waiting for an engraved invitation?”
“I’m sorry?” said Horza, his thoughts again having drifted to his experiment.
Brago raised his knife. “You will be if you don’t get to work.”
“Of course, Master Brago,” Horza said.
He slipped the bone and log into his back pocket and drew his knife.
Zakra raised his sparring sword. Carved of dense wood, it weighed three times the steel and bone swords worn by the centurions around him–the steel and bone swords too he would one day wield. The blade wobbled through the air in a clumsy arc and landed against Savo’s shield with a dull, sad thunk.
Savo tried a blow of his own, its weak path even more haphazard.
“You boys are skilled at wielding your tongues,” the immune barked, sounding amused. “I cannot say you are equally talented with swords.”
Zakra swung again. And again Zakra’s armor scuffed his shoulder, chafing his blistering skin, the overlapping scales biting into the tender flesh at the inside of his bicep. While the legionaries wore padded linen tunics beneath their armor, no such luxury was provided the recruits. The pain that had rippled into his shield arm with each blow now faded into numbness. With each scathing taunt, Zakra felt his presence of mind slipping from his grasp.
“Harder, boys,” the immune demanded. “Do you think the Kakleas will swing at you so daintily?”
Zakra moved to block Savo’s strike. The sword fell hard, rattling his shield. But the blow came merely from the sword’s weight. There was no will behind Savo’s swing.
“They’ll cut through you like stalks of cane.”
He returned the blow again, meaning to pull his swing like Savo. He was surprised at how hard his strike landed–at its resounding, hollow knock. Savo’s wide eyes told Zakra he, too, was surprised.
“Come now, is that the best you can do?”
Zakra winced behind his shield. Would Savo retaliate with an equally hard blow? But the sword fell limp, useless.
“You two are pathetic.” He raised his vine staff in a bloodless fist. “Harder!”
Harder, Savo, Zakra thought. The sooner you do as he says, the sooner he will be done with us. His pity for the weaker boy was shifting, turning to resentment.
Again they traded blows, Zakra’s hard, Savo’s soft.
He resented Savo’s mewling, his inadequacy as a soldier.
“What part of ‘harder’ don’t you understand?” the immune hissed.
Resented his unwillingness to pull his own weight.
“Come on, you wet little turds.”
To have Zakra’s back if he were the one to falter.
Zakra felt something inside him give. The immune’s words bore beneath his skin, coursing through him. A force began to take hold inside him. It was waking, growing. A smoldering fire bursting into flame.
He swung, grunting with the exertion. The blow knocked Savo back a few steps.
“Yes,” sang the immune. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Savo regained his balance and stared at Zakra. His eyes were glassy, his mouth wide. He slowly raised his sword and returned another strengthless blow.
Zakra dug his feet in and swung. His strike nearly knocked his friend off his feet. Again, Savo regained his footing and responded. Weakly.
Zakra’s next blow seemed beyond his strength. The animal grunt that accompanied it seemed not of his throat’s making.
“Harder! Harder! Harder!”
He brandished his sword, a warrior possessed, landing blow after blow, each more crushing, turning his opponent’s shield into a mess of dented bronze, splintered wood and shredded leather. He swung even when Savo stopped swinging back. Swung as Savo dropped to a knee. Swung as he dropped his sword and cowered behind the ruin of his shield.
With a feral scream, Zakra brought his sword down one last time, shattering Savo’s shield, revealing a face slick with tears, taut with fear.
In that instant, Zakra returned to himself. A roiling cloud dissipated in his mind. A hum ebbed from his extremities, returning him to his flesh.
He looked at Savo, crumpled and cowering on the ground, clutching his forearm, sobbing. He looked at the fat, wooden sparring sword in his hand. What have I–
Before Zakra could finish his thought, the immune thrust his face into his. Their noses nearly touched.
“You stop swinging,” he hissed, “when I say you stop swinging.”
With blinding speed, the immune snatched the sword from Zakra, whirled toward the fallen recruit, and brought the heavy sword down across Savo’s shins. It landed with a sickening snap.
Savo screamed, the cry ripped from his throat.
“Be glad I broke them clean,” the immune shouted. He turned to the rest of the recruits. “He’ll be back here in two months, legs good as new, ready to go through this all over again. Except then–he will be ready.”
Two centurions hoisted Savo up by his arms. Zakra stared at his tortured face as they dragged him away. Savo’s wide eyes, watery and burning, were fixed on Zakra’s, soundlessly pleading for help while screams crowded his mouth.
“And you.” The immune reached out, cupped Zakra’s soft chin in his calloused hand, and gently turned his face toward his own. He smiled–a terrible, menacing smile that never reached his eye. “I’ve something else in mind for you.”
Slowly, he tilted Zakra’s head upward until it faced the distant summit of the Tower.
Grunting and sweating, the masons pumped the bellows’ handles, stoking fires under iron vats until the coals glowed red and the molten resin bubbled. Two-man teams clad in thick leather aprons and gloves released bungs with blackened steel tongs, pouring the hot liquid into iron buckets.
Other masons wheeled their buckets and bones to their stations to begin assembling the level’s walls. They slathered the thick, pungent liquid over the bones with wide, coarse-haired brushes. Steam billowed where the bristles caressed the glistening bones, as if they’d been freshly ripped from warm bodies. The still air was punctuated with the ceaseless knock and scrape of bone meeting bone. The masons snapped humeri into pelvises. Popped femurs into craniums. Wedged scapulae into ribcages, fixed in place with phalanges and metacarpals. They wrought ulnae and fibulae into lattices, secured at the corners with mandibles, joined with clavicles. The resin crackled like boots on crushed glass as it rapidly cooled, hardened and shrank, drawing the bones together and locking them in place.
“I wonder sometimes…” Horza trailed off, his tone distant, his expression dazed. For an instant he didn’t know whether he’d said it aloud.
“What is it now?” Brago grumbled, breathing hard. He rested sweat-slicked hands on his hips.
“Well,” Horza said. “We’ve been through the Koteph, the Brangheim, the Demencrea, the Bathketh. We’ve set the bones of Vallards and Kakleas, Stetzen and Cimerals. And here we are working with the Xangen-Ho. So I wonder sometimes when the bones will stop falling.” He paused, swallowing the lump in his throat. “When it all might come to an end.”
Brago laughed and shook his head.
“If there’s one thing a bone mason never has to worry about, it’s being out of work.”
Horza’s throat tightened as the ever-dimming faces of his wife and son bloomed in his mind. What good is never being out of work, he thought, if it means never seeing my family again?
Brago grabbed the handles of his wheelbarrow, deftly balancing the heaping pile of bones on the front wheel. He let out a grunt and pushed on toward his station.
Horza watched until the overseer was out of sight. Then he reached into his pocket, pulling out the bone and log.
He eyed them, considering his experiment and the promise they held. Reaching down, he tapped the tip of his forefinger on his dagger’s point. The tiny bead of blood would provide more than enough ink to wet the single loose bristle of mason brush he used to scribble his findings.
Twelve, he reminded himself as he stepped to the edge. Twelve is the mark.
He extended the bone over the wall and held his breath.
“You just couldn’t help yourself, could you?” Brago growled in his ear. In a blink he snatched the bone and log from Horza’s hands. “Now here’s what you get.”
As Horza watched the bone tumble down the Tower’s face, his flimsy log fluttering behind it like a wounded bird, he found himself absurdly, irresistibly, counting.
One, two, three…
…Four, Zakra thought as he reached the South end of the Tower’s Western face. And who knows how many more passes I’ll make before morning.
His parched throat ached with each breath, legs burning as if the blood pumping through them was boiling. His shoulders screamed at the weight of his shield held high above his head. Each graceless stride that met the coarse, shifting sand threatened to send him tumbling to the ground. He would gladly have swapped punishments with Savo, trading his two healthy legs for a pair of broken ones. At least then he could stop marching.
But he dare not stop. Not even to catch his breath and lower his shield and rub his thighs for a few short moments. It didn’t matter that his mock sentry duty brought him to the far side of the Tower and out of the immune’s sight. For if by some unlikely chance he saw–
Something hit his shield dead center above his head. The sharp clang, amplified by the bell-shaped bronze boss, rang into his ears. Startled, he stumbled over his feet, nearly falling as he skidded to a stop.
He lowered the shield and found a shallow dent on the side of the burnished metal boss and a deep divot just off center. Whatever had hit it had glanced off the boss, punched through the leather outer shell and dinged the wooden core. He looked at the ground near him. Nothing was out of place. Just pebbles and sand. Then he slowly craned his neck up to where the tower narrowed to a point, shielding his eyes from the unrelenting sun, thinking of the fabled bone masons.
Something in the sky drew his eye. Sharp and silhouetted against the painful brightness, he saw what looked like a winged insect fluttering down. He followed its slow coiling pattern. When it was level with his eyes, he reached out and gently closed his fingers around it.
Opening his palm, he saw a small collection of cloth patches roughly sewn together along a common edge. He examined each piece in turn, noting the small, strange markings that covered them–arcs, dots and slashes that he found pleasing. But he couldn’t fathom their meaning…if they meant anything.
Zakra was so focused on the odd object that it took him a moment to realize his stumbling had carried him only a few short paces from the Tower’s foot.
A cold chill climbed up his spine as he met the hollow gaze of a skull. It sprouted a splayed fan of long curved ribs, like the half-moon crest of a centurion’s helm. Slowly, breathlessly, he took a few steps backwards, gazing at the Tower’s endless face.
The setting sun bathed every piece of lifeless ivory in smoldering rusts and bloody reds. It looked as if the bones themselves were glowing hot from fires within. Skulls set a mere foot apart stretched out in all directions for as far as Zakra could see. Many were marred by narrow clefts and broad gashes. Some bore star-like holes left by arrows. Others had domes like cracked eggs. Between them, bones of every kind, size and shape rested in a dense and complex matrix.
Zakra couldn’t imagine how many skulls there were across each of the Tower’s sides. Or how far and wide the Empire must have traveled across the world to collect so many souls. How far he might travel.
He shrugged his shoulders to free himself of the icy tingling at the back of his neck. I better get moving, he thought. His legs ached at the idea.
He took a few deep breaths and shook out his legs. But before he could take a step, he caught sight of something where the Tower met the sand. He paused.
A hand. A skeletal hand. Jutting out from a fan of ribs alongside a skull, palm up, fingers out.
He was stunned to see an intact hand. From what he’d heard about the Tower, no two bones connected in life were ever connected in the same fashion in death. He knew that the bones of individual bodies, once broken down into small pieces, were mingled. It was unlikely, even impossible, that the hand once belonged to the skull at its side. Still, Zakra found himself wishing it had.
Zakra squatted, bracing himself against his thighs with his forearms. He studied the hand beside the skull, the way the fingers and thumb fell, slightly cupped, as if expecting to be handed something. He looked at the pieces of painted cloth in his hand. Still taken with the absurd notion that the hand might have long ago been gloved in the same skin as the skull, he wondered if the markings he liked so much were written long ago by that same fleshy hand.
He had intended to tuck the strange stitching of cloths beneath his armor, to play with it when the other recruits were asleep. They had taken everything else away, after all.
Instead, he reached out and gently placed it in the upturned palm.
As Zakra stood there, silent and still, all thoughts of his punishment forgotten, he felt disoriented. The sand was shifting beneath him, inching his feet towards the Tower’s base. His eyes fell as they followed each row of imperceptibly sinking skulls.
He stared at the head beside the hand just as its teeth bit the soft ground. He met its dead gaze as its dark, hollow eyes filled with a cascade of pebbles. The fingers on the drowning hand curled tightly around Zakra’s gift. And then they were gone. Buried beneath the sand.