This story is part of the Visions of Grandeur short story collection.
By tradition, the healer’s tents were located at the back of the army. When Sian passed through them to enter the playing field of war, screams of pain assailed her.
Images of raw agony, grotesque disfigurements, and gaping wounds flooded her mind and multiplied by the dozens. She pressed her hands against her ears, regretting her blessing from the gods. Some minds she hated seeing into. She crouched, shaking, as the muffled noise caused the images to fade.
“I’m sorry; I’m sorry,” Sian said to Darien, her escort. “I didn’t expect this to happen.”
Darien’s youthful black curls hung in his face as he looked down at her. He gave a reply, but Sian couldn’t make it out with her ears covered.
“Can we move beyond these tents?” Sian gestured with her head. “I can’t be near them.”
Darien’s lips moved again, then he gently took her elbow. Sian slowly stood and let herself be led away. Once she was far enough from the tents, she hesitantly removed her hands. She could still hear screams, but not enough to visualize the minds of the injured.
Sian exhaled and turned to Darien. “I’m sorry. If I’d known I would be overwhelmed, I would have warned you.”
Darien stared at her as if she had been possessed by a demon. “What in Thanax’s name was that?” He mentally replayed her reaction in his mind.
Sian rubbed her right ear self-consciously. “Sorry—I, I haven’t ever been on the battlefield before. Those screams overwhelmed me.”
She didn’t tell him the truth. Because that would involve admitting that she could see people’s mental images even when she wasn’t touching them. And she was trying to avoid intimidating people with her blessing.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this mission?” In his mind, he was picturing her running around the camp in terror.
Sian sighed. “I’ll make it work.” She just had to stay away from the sick camps. “You want to show me where the general is?”
“Uh—sure,” Darien said. “I’ll show you right to him.” But his mental images revealed the way before he’d taken a step.
“Never mind.” Sian waved a hand. “I know where I’m going.”
Cedric coughed. “What?” Jumbled images wove through his mind.
“I studied the setup of the camp before coming. Thanks, though! It was fun traveling with you.”
Sian hurried away before he could stop her. Anything to get away from the awkwardness of that conversation. He probably thought she was an idiot. Not the impression she wanted to give the cute boy who had escorted her from the Citadel to the battlefield.
She approached the general’s tent. Her mentor, Grimweld, would want her to make a grand yet humble entrance befitting someone who has not only received a supernatural blessing from the gods, but was also part of the Heralds—one of the few groups who used their powers for good. But she wasn’t Grimweld, and he wasn’t around to criticize her.
Sian walked up to the two guards. “Hi, I’m Sian the god-blessed. General Helder has requested my presence?”
They snapped to attention. “Yes,” one said. “He mentioned you would be arriving any day.” His memory impressions were strange, involving sealed orders and people yelling at others. “I’ll check if he’s free.” He pulled back the tent flap and disappeared inside.
Sian turned to the other guard. “How has the war gone?”
“Uhh.” The guard averted his gaze. His memory impressions swirled with people dying, trumpets blaring, and promises binding his lips from spilling the general’s secrets.
What kind of secrets was the general hiding?
The other guard poked his head out. “Go right in, milady.” He held the tent flap open. “The general would be delighted to see you.”
“Fascinating talk.” Sian winked at the tight-lipped guard and sauntered into the tent.
Three men surrounded a table covered with maps. One wore the traditional general helmet. That would be Helder. Beside him stood a lieutenant and a turquoise-eyed man Sian had never met before, but she recognized him as Rexin from descriptions she’d heard. Muscles bulged under his red shirt. According to hearsay, Rexin could summon flames to scorch the earth around him and consume nearby enemies with fire. A terror on the battlefield, he was one of the most powerful god-blessed the Heralds had on their side.
Helder looked up. “Sian, can you break into people’s minds?”
Sian cocked an eyebrow. “No introductions?”
“We don’t have time,” Rexin growled, folding his arms. The dull rumblings of a volcano filled Sian’s mind. Mental images became symbolic the more emotional someone got.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” Rexin continued, “we’re in the middle of a war.”
“Sorry.” Sian snorted. “Thought this was a peace conference.”
Rexin’s volcano erupted. “You—”
Helder lifted a hand. “Stop. She hasn’t been trained as a soldier and lacks discipline.” His voice was calm, carrying an impression of a tower built firmly in stone. He locked gaze with Sian. “Back at the citadel, perhaps you enjoyed relaxed interactions with your superiors. But any god-blessed who leaves the citadel for the front lines becomes a soldier, whether you fight or not. Soldiers don’t use sarcasm with superiors.”
Sian’s cheeks burned. “Yes, sir.”
“Back to business,” Helder said. “Can you penetrate minds?”
Sian swallowed. “I can see only mental images, sir. I can’t directly read thoughts or manipulate them.”
Helder nodded. “Pity. I suspected as much, but I had hoped.”
“What is this all about?” Sian asked.
Helder leaned across the table. “Do you know what we are fighting?”
Scenes of death and soldiers with frenzied stares flickered through Sian’s mind. What was Helder thinking about?
She shook her head. “I know it’s another god-blessed…”
“His name is Zeskar. He can control the minds of every soldier under his command, but we’re not sure how.”
Sian tried to keep her mouth from dropping open. “He can control the whole army?”
“We doubt he can control individual movements, but he can sway motivations.” Helder swept his hand across a map. “He conquers fiefdoms and soon his enemies become avid supporters of him. Each day we’re forced to kill good people whose wills have been overpowered by this monster. We believe he possesses a clarestone that’s amplifying his blessing.”
In Helder’s memories, frenzied men viciously attacked the Heralds’ forces. As a sword impaled one man, the frenzied glaze left his eyes, replaced by shock at what he had done. This horrified expression repeated itself a hundred times over.
Sian shivered. “I can’t believe you have to fight that.”
Helder sighed. “Wars are usually complex, but this is far worse. That’s why you’re here.” He leveled his gaze at her. “We must break Zeskar’s control. We’ve captured several of his men. We hope that the memory impressions you get from questioning them will provide insight to thwart Zeskar.”
Sian slowly nodded. “That’s a tall order. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“Every god-blessed who serves with the Heralds inevitably reaches a point where they must stretch their abilities to discover their limits,” Helder said. “I realize you’ve never trained for this. But the alternative is for us to continue killing innocent men who have been dominated by Zeskar.”
Images of the dying inundated Sian’s mind.
She swallowed. “Understood.”
A man with stubbly cheeks and hair the color of storm clouds jostled the chains that held him to a post. Prisoners were normally kept near the sick tents, but Sian had requested they be moved to a different place when she examined them. She knelt to peer into the man’s brown eyes while she touched his leg.
He stared back at her. “What do you want?” The words dripped from his mouth like the poison in his memory impressions. Did the dripping poison represent his disgust toward her or Zeskar’s control over him? Images didn’t always interpret themselves.
Sian tucked her hair behind her ear. “Just to talk, if that’s all right.”
“And if I say it’s not?” More poison oozed.
Sian shrugged, feigning indifference. “There are dozens more captives. Someone will talk.”
“We’re loyal to Zeskar,” the man snapped. “We won’t spill nothing.” Sian caught snatches of plans the man had overheard that he didn’t want the Heralds to know about. She filed them away. If she couldn’t figure out how Zeskar controlled his men, perhaps she could deduce their plans later.
“I’m not here to interrogate you about Zeskar’s plans,” Sian said calmly. “I’m here because I’m curious.” She let the words hang in the air.
The man took the bait. “Curious about what?” Murky clouds, caused by either confusion or suspicion, formed in his mind. Sian always struggled to distinguish those two types of impressions.
“About you. You’re a farmer, right?” She gestured at his calloused hands, but the guards had already told her his occupation. “Zeskar conquered your country; why did you join him?” She had no idea what to expect—was Zeskar’s control so complete that he’d influence this man’s answer?
“That’s what you’re fishing for?” The man laughed. Sian saw an image of farmers listening intently to Zeskar speaking atop a horse. “He’s creating an empire. And I’m going to be a part of it.”
A war scene unfolded in Sian’s mind, but not the nightmarish chaos she’d beheld before. Instead, soldiers in gleaming armor cut down their opponents with ease as they marched under golden banners. The image seemed…contrived. Sian couldn’t pinpoint why, but she’d glimpsed artificial images like this before when a shapeshifter had shrouded its true emotions. What was this man concealing?
“Why does this empire appeal to you?” Sian asked.
The farmer grinned. “Why wouldn’t it? Would you rather aimlessly work the ground year after year just to survive, or live and die for a worthwhile cause?” His memories of his onerous farm life seemed tainted as well. Zeskar had tampered with these memories.
“Do all of Zeskar’s followers hold this view?”
“Not everyone is a farmer. Some are blacksmiths, shopkeepers, or soldiers. But the same vision connects all of us: a unified country free from wars of the god-blessed.” He smiled. “One war to end all wars.”
She’d ascertained Zeskar’s motivations at least. But she was no closer to learning how Zeskar persuaded his men to believe and spout this nonsense.
Sian shifted her weight from one knee to the other. “Does everyone Zeskar speaks to embrace this purpose?”
“Of course.” But the farmer’s memories contradicted him. Zeskar sat atop a horse addressing the farmers. But then one man raised a commotion and the other farmers gored him with pitchforks.
Sian grimaced. “You’re lying.”
The man blinked. “No, I’m not.”
Sian leaned closer to him. “When you noticed my turquoise eyes, did you wonder what blessing the gods gave me? I perceive memories. Right now I see you and your farmer friends skewering one of your own because he spurned your master’s message.”
The man’s brow knotted. “You lie.” But the scene replayed in his mind again and again.
“No,” Sian said firmly. “I know what I see. You murdered one of your friends.”
“He wasn’t a friend.” The man’s lip curled. “He was a selfish traitor who refused to accept the cause.”
“Why did he reject it?”
“How should I know? All that matters is his refusal.”
Zeskar’s powers had cracks. But what was the difference? How could he subjugate some men but not others? Could he only control a limited number of people at a time?
“Maybe you’re lying to me again.”
“Maybe I am. But I’m not telling you psychics anything.” His memory impressions matched his hair—billowing black clouds ready to unleash lightning.
Sian wouldn’t be drawing any more information from him.
General Helder turned as Sian entered his tent. “Your report?”
Sian held herself straight in an effort to exhibit the military bearing Helder preferred. “I spoke with four men. From three I gleaned that other men initially defied Zeskar’s control and were killed. None of these men admitted that. But I saw it in their memories.”
Helder’s eyes lit up. “So it is possible to resist.” Victory marches flashed in his mind.
Sian nodded. “Yes—but I don’t know how they did or why Zeskar’s power faltered. If our goal is to liberate men from Zeskar’s control, we aren’t much closer to succeeding, besides surmising that it is perhaps possible.”
“It’s a start,” Helder said.
A soldier poked his head into the tent. “General Helder. The supplies are here.” Visions of fresh corn and apples filled Sian’s mind.
Helder motioned to Sian. “Let’s move.” He headed toward the opening of the tent. Sian followed him outside.
“Did you learn anything about Zeskar’s plans?” Helder asked as they wove through the tents of the camp.
“Only that he has grand plans for conquest,” Sian replied. “He views the Heralds as his greatest threat.”
“As he should.”
“Their next attack will be tomorrow.”
Helder nodded. “Our spies suspected that, but we didn’t have confirmation. I’ll prepare accordingly.
“He also promised his men that he would soon control other god-blessed.”
Helder exhaled. “So the god-blessed aren’t immune to his powers.”
Sian envisioned Rexin turning mid-battle and incinerating his own men. She shivered. “It seems not.”
Helder stopped and scratched his neck. “That knowledge will save lives.” He paused. “I’ll have to consult Rexin about this. We may need to pull him and our other god-blessed from the battle. Zeskar doesn’t normally enter the fray, but we can’t let him control any of the god-blessed.” Blackened battlefields scattered with scorched troops plagued Helder’s mind.
“If I may make a suggestion—”
“The prisoners I examined were brought under Zeskar’s control after he spoke to them. I don’t know whether my sample was representative or not, but if the god-blessed put wax in their ears to stifle the noise, Zeskar may not be able to control them.”
“A good thought.” Helder rubbed his neck again. “Unfortunately, deafness is disastrous in battle. However, it would be better than Zeskar controlling them.” He resumed walking. “I will consider it.”
They neared the middle of the camp. A train of wagons loaded with produce rumbled in. Soldiers stared greedily at the provisions, but no one approached the wagons.
The lieutenant leading the convoy walked over to Helder. “General, some nearby farmers generously donated supplies to our war effort.” Sian saw different images in his mind. Soldiers seizing food from crops. Farmers begging them to stop.
She frowned, and casually brushed a hand against his armor. Hopefully Helder saw that.
General Helder nodded toward the lieutenant. “Thank you. They have our gratitude. Bring the food to the cooks and have them send me a message once they have made accurate supply counts.”
The lieutenant left to tend to his orders.
Sian swallowed, then glanced up at Helder. “With…with all due respect, sir, I’m pretty sure that man is lying.”
General Helder turned toward her. “You’re a bit of a mental eavesdropper. But yes; I know.”
Sian frowned. “But that means our men are stealing food from farmers and lying to you about it!” She remembered Rexin’s rebuke from the day before. “Forgive my outburst. But this seems reprehensible.”
Helder smiled. “Believe me, Sian, I understand your concern.” He studied her a moment. “You’re being trained by Grimweld, aren’t you?”
“I’m being trained by all the Heralds in the citadel; Grimweld’s my mentor.”
“I see…” Helder’s gaze flickered away before returning to her. “Although Grimweld is an honorable man, there’s a reason he guards the citadel and doesn’t pursue many outside missions anymore.”
“What are you saying?”
“Grimweld is an idealist. He desires a world where every Herald performs unambiguously righteous deeds. It’s a noble vision. But you can’t fight wars that way. Whenever conflict arises, situations become messy. If we don’t obtain enough food, the army starves and dies. Would I prefer a world where we didn’t need to raid farms? Of course. But that’s not the world we live in.”
Sian pursed her lips. “I don’t agree with Grimweld on everything. To be honest, I disagree with him often. But I struggle to believe that maintaining ideals during war is impossible.”
“We don’t abandon ideals,” Helder said. “But we need to be wise about their application. Take our position now: we’re forced to slaughter men whose only fault is being mind-controlled by a god-blessed. The paradigm of heroism doesn’t exist here.” Helder gazed into the distance, his memories displaying overcast skies above fields littered with bodies. “But we do still believe in ideals, and that’s why we brought you here. Maybe you can stop the massacre.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “If Zeskar’s troops will be marching on us tomorrow, we need you to find a solution before then.”
[While most of my short stories are published in their entirety on this blog, the second half of this story is exclusive to my short story collection.
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