The sand is mesmerizing. The way it moves, drifts — hovers, almost — over the surface of the beach. One might almost be forgiven for thinking it was alive because it moves like it has intelligence, or maybe more like the wind moving it has intelligence.
Directing. Guiding. Showing it where to reach and leading it through its’ complicated dance with the water always coming and going.
The wind is relentless — it hasn’t stopped blowing all afternoon.
And I realize, suddenly, that it’s a lot like our Enemy. That realization causes a shudder to pass through my body, completely unrelated to the cold of standing alone at the top of a dune in the middle of winter. Water to my right is not nearly as interesting as the sand, although the tart, fresh scent it gives off is a kind of delicacy. The land to my left is covered in long, green and brown grasses. Presumably there are guards a couple hundred yards down the beach in both directions, but I can’t see them. Not a single discordant sound interrupts my thoughts, only the near-silent waves and the gentle press of the grasses rhythmically brushing against my knees.
I have to remind myself to look up every once in a while to perform my duties. I finally pulled an afternoon watch, and I’m glad. We marched for days to get here, arriving about a week ago, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to really study the landscape. Everywhere I look is beauty of a kind I’ve never seen, trying to woo me toward an unfamiliar peacefulness.
Were it not for the sand.
The dreadful sand penetrates my clothes and causes every inch of my skin to itch, not just the exposed parts. Every time I stamp my feet to warm them up I feel it grating between my toes. The grit of it in my mouth causes my teeth to grind and I spit again, uselessly, cursing under my breath.
Suddenly I can’t stand the sight of it, though it fascinated my attention just moments ago. It seems as if I can almost see each little grain marching toward me, part of the maddening, swarming whole. Working with intent, but brainless as well. Not one grain breaks rank. They can get anywhere the wind blows. They will never stop. They will never get to the end of their forces. They will never leave us alone.
But even with this incessant, aggravating sand reminding me of horrors I’d rather forget, if it were up to me, I’d stay on guard here forever. The last battle was the worst of my life, and I’m not eager to get back into the fight.
Our last camp was pitched in a terrible, barren desert, where we were shivering through the long winter, when suddenly he found us, as he always does sooner or later. Like I said, relentless. But I almost fell off my horse when I saw his forces coming at us that time. Right up front leading them big as life was my cousin. We hadn’t seen him in months, ever since he disappeared on a raid. Of course we’d assumed, we’d hoped, he was dead.
My older brother Peter came and stood beside me. He didn’t need to say anything for me to know what he wanted me to do. I knew we would have to get to our cousin or die trying. It’s one of the prime honors and responsibilities of our existence, to set free those who have been enslaved by our Enemy.
Once the fighting started I followed Peter as he angled toward our cousin, but by the time we were able to make it into his inner circle my arms were so tired I could no longer raise my sword. I remember my cousin’s eyes were glistening with tears as he raised his sword to swing against me and I knew I was done for — and I was almost relieved — when suddenly Peter came in from the side of my vision and absorbed the blow. His blood sprayed across my face and I was momentarily blinded.
When I could see again, it was over. My cousin lay before us, my brother standing over him with his right arm hanging limply at his side, blood flowing fast.
We took Peter back to camp and bound his arm. Even the smallest wound can be dangerous and must be closely watched. It didn’t take long, and I felt increasing dread watching the red streaks lengthen daily. As I suspected it would, the day soon came when he asked me to take off his arm.
It’s always a last resort, cut off the arm to save the life, and it was the most difficult thing I had had to do in a life full of difficulties. He would become a cripple by my hand. But in our world absolutely anything is better than succumbing to a wound of the Enemy.
He didn’t pass out as I’d hoped while I made the cut, but when we held a burning shield up to the stump at his shoulder — well, I still hear his screams in my dreams. Afterward, he thanked me over and over, but there was a dimness in his eyes that haunts me more than the screams.
For a while we thought it might have worked, that it might have been enough, but then he started to change. He started talking about things we don’t talk about.
In the past, I had always been the one who questioned the way things were, Peter never did. True, even though it’s what we’re all supposed to want, he didn’t want to be the Friend any more than I did. He only ever wanted to be a Storyteller, and maybe because he was so good at it, he was always asking questions and dreaming up scenarios. But they were never questions about how we lived or what the Friend asked of us.
Those were the subjects of my questions, and most of the time he would listen to me ask them without shaming me, which was good because I felt enough shame when I was alone with my thoughts.
Evenings around the fire, long nights marching to our next hiding place, standing next to each other on guard duty. Whenever I would complain about the way things were or ask unanswerable questions, he would patiently respond with the words we all knew. The memorized truth that we were trained to use to combat the lies that assailed us. Me in particular. He never seemed to have problems with the lies in the same way I did.
Which was one of the reasons I took it so hard when he began parroting my questions back to me. I tried to answer him with the truths, but they seemed hollow coming from my mouth. I could tell he didn’t believe them as solidly as he once had.
He could no longer fight. He who was once on the front lines was relegated to helping in the kitchen, and his spirit was broken. His stories became perfunctory and poorly-attended, until he stopped telling them altogether.
Everyone could see it, though I denied it fervently any time someone brought up the subject. And then one day I woke and he wasn’t there on the ground beside me. When I went searching I saw him at the edge of the camp. He showed me the streaks he’d been hiding, wrapping clear around his chest, and we wept together, holding each other tight.
Though it was my responsibility to set him free right then, he left before I could work up the nerve. I reported him missing as required and rode hard with the group sent to catch up with him. We made it in time to see him from a distance, limping into the Enemy camp and immediately swarmed by soldiers.
The leader of our raid turned to berate us angrily for not getting there in time, “they’ve probably already started eating him! That’s what they do, eat them to take their strength!”
My brother was one of us, one of the strongest, and I cannot bear that he is gone.
A sound at my back startles me and I bring my sword up quickly, like a natural extension of my arm. But it is only a bird, large and white, staring at me from where he landed on the next dune over. I laugh quietly and lean down to throw a rock at him, then laugh again when he manages to look offended as he flies away.
We can never be too careful. The Enemy can come by land, by sea, by air. Even tunnel in.
We call him Enemy, not because no one knows his name, but because we’ve been taught that to name someone is to honor them. To see them. We refuse to do both. If he walked into our camp right now everyone would turn their back to show their disdain, even as he cut our heads off.
At least that’s our training, I’ve never known it to actually happen. If it were me, I’d have a hard time not fighting, even though no one who has ever gone head-to-head with him has survived the effort. I’ve heard the stories though.
Horrible, terrifying, chill-inducing stories.
My first memory is about him. It’s a story we’re all told as children, over and over again, until it sinks into our skin.
In the night the story comes to me and plays across my mind as if it happened to me — the terror of running to exhaustion, fighting past reason, bleeding from every conceivable location. The Enemy takes me apart piece by piece, skinning me while there is still breath in my body. Then, right before death, he hangs me and leaves me to be finished off by buzzards. The pecking out of my eyes usually wakes me.
The Enemy is the boogeyman of our childhood, the ghost we’re taught to fear above all others. He sneaks into our camps in the night and steals our children. Two hundred men go into battle and only three return. We are constantly wounded and picked off, forever on the run and never let alone to live our lives as we choose.
He tells lies, he weaves spells over his followers. He makes them call him master and obey his every command. There is no room for dissent in his army. He calls it the Family, but we know better. We call them the Enslaved, and we work to free them. We give each a chance to come back to live free with us, but most of them choose death.
He is evil incarnate. Trying to eat us alive. He’s been trying to enslave us for generations, but we will not yield. We are fighters. Rebels. We live hard but we are free. We lose ground and make it up elsewhere. We lose brothers constantly and pick up others along the way.
It is a weary existence, but we understand the responsibilities we’ve been given and we take them seriously. We are led by the Friend and his council of wise ones. He leads us, surely, steadily.
Our training is hard, but the Friend wants us prepared. He wants us to be strong and to not flinch away from our duty when it comes. We fight and train every day. If we’re not in battle, we battle amongst ourselves. Only the strongest should survive, and each one strives to be the strongest. The weak among us are a liability. When we have to retreat we kill our wounded rather than allow them to fall into his hands because if he finds one of us alive, he does something unholy to them and sends them back to fight against us another day. Better to die by a friend’s hand than fall into his.
I remember the day I became a soldier. Sometimes at night I can see his face, the man I killed to earn my badge. He kneels before me as I grind in the knife. We are taught to prefer close combat so you can see the life leak out of the eyes. Fear is our only weapon. Terror. If they fear us, maybe they will leave us alone. If we make the price dear enough, maybe they will stop coming.
But nobody ever talks about how it never works. All our training. All our dogma. All the sacrifices. The truth is he never stops coming. No matter how high a price we exact, he always sends more of his forces. Into whatever dark hole we are hiding in, whatever hellish canyon into which we’ve escaped.
One time when I was a young soldier he sent zombies after us. I didn’t know what was happening or what to call them, I just knew they weren’t armed as usual and they didn’t fight back. I was so taken by surprise that one was able to grab me in a tight hug and I started to feel the burning.
It frightened me so badly I was able to fight myself free and took his head off.
After that the storytellers told us about other battles against the zombies. They come every so often, and they’re almost the worst type of army. They swarm us with unbelievable numbers and we cut them down with machetes like we’re taking down grass.
It’s happened a few more times since. I hate those battles. I don’t understand the zombies. But most of his attacks are armed. Sometimes they come with terrible weapons and cut huge swaths through our forces. We can be decimated in moments by bombs that take out whole sections of our armies. I was once in an ambush where only Peter and I escaped, and we barely made it out alive.
I hate the Enemy. I hate everything about him. What he stands for. His desire to make me a slave. To take away my freedom. He sends his men on suicide missions and we cut them down. I feel the weight of the lives I’ve taken and the burden is growing.
I feel bad about it, but he gives us no choice. He’s the one sending to their death those we would welcome with open arms if they wanted to come home. They once were with us, but he poisoned their minds.
So we fight each other. We kill. Why can’t he just leave us alone? We live in peace when he’s not attacking. If he would leave us alone long enough, I’m sure we could build some kind of civilization, some kind of life.
The Friend is a harsh leader because he has to be, but at least he’s a fair one. We all respect him. He’s the first through each trial. The first in each training fight. And if he ever weakens, a challenger can arise and fight him to become the new Friend.
We’re told that once we were all part of the Family, but back in ancient memory we broke away. Our ancestor had both the courage and the strength to break the chains that bound him and walk into freedom. He was our first Friend and we revere him. Our history tells us that we have had seasons of great victory and times we have been nearly wiped into extinction.
In my lifetime we’ve been in pitched battles nearly without end. We can never be sure when the Enemy will come, and we must always be aware. The Friend says he is always roaming around our world, seeking ways to devour us. We have to stand firm, have our eyes open, and always keep watch for the wild coming of his family, drunk on the blood of our brothers.
There is no corner of our world that he will not send his army into. No stronghold that is completely safe. There are stories of strongholds that weren’t taken for a thousand years, and then one day they fell from within.
But we have stories too. We have victories. We sit around the fires at night and listen to our histories. We remember what has passed, those who have gone before, the good and the bad. We have Storytellers of such skill that they can make us weep and cut ourselves in our agony and despair, who can describe victories with such clarity that we will stay up all night dancing in delirious ecstasy.
Those were Peter’s favorite stories to tell. He was a good fighter, not one of the best, but solid and strong. But as a Storyteller, though young, he was already unmatched. His stories were the best attended, the most frequently requested at the Council. Until he stopped telling them.
Another sound startles me and I realize I’m jumpier than normal. We’re supposed to be above it, we’re trained to be without emotion other than the hate we cultivate for the Enemy. And yes, I hate everything about him. Hate is the strongest emotion I feel. But there are others, and they’re hard to erase no matter how long and hard I try.
Like fear. I would never admit it to anyone, but I fear the Enemy more than I hate him. I fear him turning me into one of his zombies. I fear I will be weak and not able to take my own life if necessary, if I’m ever wounded. I fear that I value my life more than my freedom and that he could enslave me because of it.
There’s sorrow. I feel it piling up, year after year, death upon death. We are taught not to form bonds, but it is almost impossible when you’re fighting side by side with someone not to care for them when they fall.
There’s despair. We live this life on the run, always trying to get a leg up on him, but never quite winning for long. We win sometimes, we take ground, but eventually we lose it. We always lose it.
And shame. I feel shame squeezing out of my pores most every waking moment. Before he left, Peter was the only one I could admit it to. I hated the offensive raids the most, but even when we were acting in self defense I hated the killing. I felt like these were my brothers, that we should be giving them more opportunities to come back to us. That they could have been me if I’d been born in a different place.
I knew they were deceived, but did that make them bad? Obviously the Enemy was evil, but were they? It is not an unpopular opinion. In fact, some of our Friends have been less war-like, trying to make peace, trying to recruit from the Enemy’s forces rather than killing them. Our current Friend is one of the most brutal we’ve had in awhile. He says they have made their choices and we must respect their decisions.
I don’t agree with him, and neither did Peter. But Peter said what was the point of thinking about it or questioning orders? Neither of us wanted to be the Friend, so we would never be in charge, so we couldn’t do anything about it — so why worry?
He always said we should just do the best we can to follow orders and get the job done so we can come home and enjoy another evening around the fire.
I don’t know how he did it, separating his mind so easily. I cannot separate. When I’m sitting around the fire trying to enjoy the stories, a part of me is always back in the battle, remembering the look in the eyes of the last person I killed. I am ashamed. Both that I killed and that I cannot be single-minded. Either kill without shame, understanding the righteousness of our overall cause, or work hard to become the Friend and change the rules. Sitting in the middle is weakness, and I understand at my core I am weak. Peter never seemed to have any regrets, whereas I am full of regret.
How I acted or should have acted. What I did or didn’t do or should have done. It’s exhausting. Suffocating. Inescapable. And the only thing I have to look forward to is the stillness of death. That might be the thing I crave more than any other. Just to have this be finished. To set down my sword and be at peace.
I can’t talk this way out loud of course, I would be executed for poor morale. Or if I wasn’t that lucky I’d be sent into reeducation. Our first education is bad enough, being reeducated is worse than most kinds of death.
Someone materializes out of the haze of wind and sand in front of me and I raise my sword again, instantly on alert, but quickly recognize my Lieutenant and relax just slightly. He’s probably checking on me. He’s been keeping a close eye. It’s protocol when we have a free will defection. They usually come in clumps, like group suicide, a phenomenon of broken hopes and dreams, of weariness, of saying — if he could give up, why can’t I?
This is the first time I’ve been allowed on watch since Peter defected, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lieutenant has been out there somewhere all afternoon watching me. I don’t mind. I don’t feel completely stable.
But as he comes closer I see he’s not just checking on me. He has a look on his face I’ve never seen, one I struggle to describe.
Peter has returned.
He walked into camp a few hours ago. We don’t know how he found us, but the whole camp is on high alert when I follow my Lieutenant back. There are extra guards going out. A squad runs past and I could swear every one of them looks at me as they trot by.
Peter has earned the traitor’s death, of course. There are no excuses. He will be skinned, then pieces of him will be taken off slowly, over time. A good executioner can make it last weeks. He will be cut, bandaged, fed, given water, but every day a new piece.
We call it the flaying, and the only way to stop it is to repent of your treason. That will earn you forgiveness and a quick end.
It is a difficult job, one very few like to do. Those that do like it are considered to be diseased in the head. It has only been done a handful of times in my life and I remember it still in my nightmares.
I stand with the others outside the Council Tent, waiting for their judgment. I can see they are leaving space beside me, but I am not bothered by it. The Friend comes out and nods at me, and for a moment I am filled to the brim with utter loathing. Why does he force us to reserve the worst punishment for one who used to be with us? But of course I will never ask this question out loud, we’re not allowed to criticize our leader unless we’re ready to challenge him.
He begins speaking, but I lose time. When I tune back in he is saying the Council felt I could perform Peter’s flaying with the most love. Showing him we value him as a member of our family. Giving him the best chance to come back to us.
I realize he means slowly, and I lose time again.
There is no allowance for disobedience, not a minute for reflection. The Friend walks toward me and hands me the ceremonial sword, then guides me with one hand on my back. I should be taking notice that he himself is walking me over, but I cannot appreciate the honor he is showing me.
We arrive quicker than I hoped and I say the words mechanically, looking straight into Peter’s eyes but not allowing myself to feel anything. The first cuts are the worst, like I am cutting myself. My hands tremble. I hand the sword back to the Friend and barely maintain an honorable pace before reaching the outside of the camp and throwing up.
Each afternoon it is the same nightmare. The Friend meets me at the square where Peter is still tied. He hands me the sword, freshly sharpened, and I walk forward. I must meet Peter’s eyes when I say the words, asking if he is ready to renounce the enemy and rejoin our family.
Every time we start he looks at me clear-eyed and refuses my offer, no matter what method I try. I weep, I plead, I ask him why he is forcing me to do this to him. But he never changes his mind. He cries out in pain, he groans in agony, but he refuses to repent.
He is so sure of himself. His deception is total. And it infuriates me.
After awhile he starts to cry when he sees me coming, but somehow I know he is crying for me, not himself. He knows how much I hate to inflict pain. I hate it. And he can see what this is doing to me as I lose weight and sleep and begin to shrink in front of him.
But pain is our crucible. It is the way we know we are on the right path, how we are able to see most clearly. Pain is our most useful tool, our greatest gift and strongest weapon. We believe that with enough pain we will be able to finally see through the lies the Enemy spins like a web around us.
It is the basis for the flay, and as the days go by I begin to believe in it completely. It is either that or lose what is left of my mind.
I make it last as long as I can. I think perhaps it is a record, although I don’t want to know if it is. I flay my brother for weeks. Piece by piece. Day by day. But somehow as his body literally comes apart by my hand, I can see that his soul is growing stronger. I see surety in his eyes, the same surety he used to project when I came to him in agony over my questions.
He had been my rock and my fortress through all my years of doubts and fears, and here he is completely and utterly on the other side. But how can he be so sure of himself now, when he was so sure before? What could have happened to have changed him so completely?
I lay awake at night, tormented.
I think it is this fury that sends the last thrust of the sword too deep. Fury at what he is making me feel, that my foundations are shaken to the dust. It ends sooner than it might have if my eyes had seen more clearly.
As he is taken down, the Friend comes up to me and pats me on the back. He says loud enough for all to hear that it’s unfortunate it ended so soon, that Peter might have changed his mind if I could have made it last one more day. I bow my head in shame.
I ask for and receive permission to bury him, and I weep the whole time I am digging. I promise him on my knees beside his grave, I will avenge your death my brother. Even though it is not our way, I will go alone. I will kill the Enemy.
I have to wait more than a month for my Lieutenant to allow me to stand guard duty alone, but I prepare a little every day, so when he finally agrees I am off within minutes of taking my post. I travel the majority of three days and nights, drifting to sleep briefly in the saddle from time to time, trying my best to keep my mind a blank slate.
Finding his camp is the easiest part because the Friend is obsessed with his location. Wherever we run, however far we go trying to hide from him, one squad is always assigned to keep the maps updated.
Once I arrive, I find the guards pitifully unprepared. I make quick work of them, silently slitting their throats with the ceremonial sword which I stole right before I left. I feel none of the usual compassion or conflicting emotions, and certainly none of the shame. For the first time in my life I am single-minded, whole-hearted, like this is what I was meant for. Maybe all of what has come before has led up to this moment, this assignment. Maybe I was even meant to be the One.
And if not, at least I will be released and not have to struggle anymore. At least it will be over. I crave the stillness we are promised after death more than almost anything.
But as I move from tent to tent, deadly, cutting them down left and right, waiting for the alarm that never comes, I begin to think that maybe I will be the One. The One the Storytellers often speak of, the One who will finally bring peace, end the war, free everyone by bringing an end to the Enemy’s reign. After all, the One must come eventually. Why couldn’t it be me?
Maybe I can be the one redeem the suffering of my cousin, my brother, my people. Maybe I can make him pay for what he has done to all of us. Maybe I can make the pain stop.
I lose track of how long it goes on, how many I have sent to their freedom, but each one gives me more strength, more surety that my mission is ordained. When finally I reach his tent in the center of the camp, I see him sitting at his table, looking at his plans and his map. So confident of his dominion, his power, his security.
I burn with hatred. My body hums with power and the righteousness of my cause. I think of my brother and my cousin and the thousands upon thousands who have been lost, and I want him to know what is coming.
I want him to know that he has lost. That he will no longer torment and enslave us. That we will be free. I scream as I rush him, but as he turns and I look into his eyes I hit a wall. He doesn’t appear to move, but I would swear he just hit me full in the chest with a sledgehammer.
For an endless moment I cannot breathe, and then lightning starts racing through my body. It feels a little like being electrocuted, which I know because it is part of our training, but this is much, much worse.
My whole body is on fire and I drop the sword and start flailing my arms around wildly, trying to pat out flames I can’t see but nonetheless feel licking at every part of me.
It is excruciating beyond any training I have ever experienced. His eyes never break focus, nor let mine wander from his. I am going to burn to death, I realize, and start fighting harder, every cell in my body filled with hatred.
He is the demon of my nightmares, the Enemy of my soul, and the look in his eyes is so much like the look in Peter’s at the end that I wish I could burst out of what is left of my skin and annihilate him. But it seems I have lost my chance. My lungs have now caught fire and I stop flailing to grab hold of my chest and try to beat the smoke back out. I fall to my knees, and in that motion finally break eye contact.
It is then that I notice he’s taking a step toward me, and panic like I have never known races through me. Everything I know, everything I am, boils down to one single thought. I have to kill myself before he touches me.
The sword is within my grasp, and as my fingers close around the hilt I begin to weep from the relief. After all my doubt and uncertainty, I finally know in my core that I am not weak. In the end, I will be able to kill myself and need not be ashamed.
I move as quickly as possible and the sword has just pierced my chest when he grabs my hand and stops the motion.
I can’t describe his touch, it is beyond sensation. But I am both blinded and deafened when I come to know what is true for the first time in my life.
The Enemy is me.