The sound was discordant with the scene of blood and eviscerated corpses all around him. The god of War stood over a battlefield and enjoyed the early morning smell of charred flesh and destruction. The bitter stench of brimstone and gunpowder wafted on the morning breeze, tingling his nostrils and reminding him of battles in other places and other times, each as memorable, in their own way, their signature of violence, unique in that moment. He surveyed the landscape with a practiced eye and was pleased with what he saw. The conflict, while relatively small, was satisfying for all of its human suffering.
War was not like the other younger gods. War was not unnerved by the loss of human life. The Others felt that the younger gods should strive for harmony with mankind, harvest their worshipful energies, teach them how best to serve, and glut themselves on that spiritual effluvia. War had no such compunction. If anything, he had no interest in the direct worship of man. Instead, man was his plaything, his action figures; he felt humans were built for war; petty, selfish, mean, childish, hateful. They had so many handles that could be manipulated. It was only natural for them. This did not mean he did not respect them. No, War had a healthy respect for the destructive nature of man, the same way a dog trainer was cautious with a breed of dog known for biting, he trained men to bite everyone but him, and then sent them to attack other men when they got the idea to attack War instead. They were so predictable, it was almost no fun.
Through the fog of the early dawn, the landscape promised to be arid, dry and hot. There was not much left to see but the rising smoke from the fires, dirty soldiers making their way back to their field commands, and occasionally stopping to put a man out of his misery. They did not shoot those men. Bullets were expensive, so the work was very personal. War was pleased. He began walking toward his tents, where his retinue were packing up and preparing to move on to the next campaign area. His troops were mostly child warriors from nearby Darfur, with a smattering of older and more experience soldiers, really bullies mostly, leading these groups. There were about a dozen mercenary groups hidden away at a nearby base awaiting instructions. They would arrive by helicopter only if the expendable troops were not able to get the job done.
War was dressed in the body of Mani Kunjufu, an African warlord, about two meters tall, strongly built, well fed, with a harsh countenance that his troops found unnerving if he stared too long in their direction. He had a terrible scar on his face, running down his right cheek from a knife wound. It had healed badly and had a puckered, unhealthy appearance. War was sure to show that scar to anyone who would question his authority.
The tale associated with it was told around the camp whenever he was not around. One of the bully guards was beating a child soldier at the end of an encounter. The boy had failed to hold his ground and ran from the fight. As the bully was disciplining the boy, he made the mistake of impugning Kunjufu's desire to engage in combat; something about him being weak, dirty and unable to fight like a man, hiding behind his soldiers. Before War claimed him, Mani Kunjufu might have been all of those things. War did not choose him because he was a good soldier. He chose him because he could do what was needed. It was clear that he did not know about War's possession, having only recently been hired and like most bullies believed his own bravado and toughness could not be matched by some new warlord come to town.
Unfortunate for him, War was nearby and keenly aware of the discourse. When the bully guard was finished beating the boy, he retired to his tent and waited for one of the camp whores to show up. War visited his tent, instead. When War was seen leaving the tent, he was covered in gore, and there was a deep cut on War's face, oozing black blood. Each drop of War's blood hit the ground and burrowed sinuously into the sand. The man was found in his tent, from the neck down, flayed to the bone, blood and organs everywhere. His throat had not been cut and yet he did not make a sound. A knife handle was found in his hand, but the blade was nowhere to be found. The next day, his tent was gone, viscera and all. No one knew what happened to it; everyone was too afraid to go near it. Rumor was that giant black worms rose from the ground and consumed it, body and all, in the night. No one contested those rumors. There was no more dissent.
War, a consummate professional, his uniform was a set of local khakis, dun in color and baggy. He only carried a relatively small 9mm on his hip. Finishing another cigarette, he looked around and noted if he needed a firearm, there was a surplus of them all around him. And if he was really pressed... well let's just say, he had been killing men for several hundred years now, and knew of dozens of ways to get the job done with and without using Essence.
As he was leaving the battlefield, his sharp senses heard the snap of a twig two or three hundred feet behind him. Turning, his senses already targeting the unknown movement, he could already tell several things about his target. Tall, physically massive approximately 125 kilos, deliberate movement, not making any attempt to hide, moving in his direction, confidently but haphazardly, as if he were lost or drunk; first this way, then that. War found that strange but waited patiently while nearby carrion birds screeched their pleasure at the excellent feast before them.
The man approaching him seemed to be out of place, his brow furrowed in the morning light. Clean-shaved, also wearing a set of khakis, but it was not apparent what was wrong with the look of him. Then War realized what it was. The man was crisp, tidy even. No blood, no dirt, no offal, no debris, as a matter of fact, there was not even dust from the road on him. He appeared cool, even in this blistering Congo morning and he carried a small clipboard as he stepped officiously through the carnage. He was making marks on the clipboard with some regularity, and occasionally would stop to roll a body over before moving on.
"A lapdog here to do his master's bidding I see," War's sarcastic tone was unconcealed.
"We have a mutually beneficial relationship, and I am simply doing company business. I am sure you understand," was the polite reply, punctuated with the grunt of a body being turned over and a notation being made on a clipboard.
"If your master were doing his own work, he would not need me to fill the graves and your tallies, Reckoner."
"My Master appreciates your work and knows that you are simply fulfilling your destiny. It has always been in his best interest to work with you, despite your alarming propensity for grandiose displays of destruction--would you mind stepping over here, I need to see that man's face."
"What is the point? All of these men are dead, why even bother to mark their passing?" War steps aside while the Reckoner continues his task.
"Their deaths mean nothing to your office, you are the god of War. Their dying needlessly and aimlessly is your specialty," a tone of bitterness tinged the Reckoner's remark, but he continued his work, attempting to maintain his objectivity. "I on the other hand, must reckon with the dead, their lives, their families, and their spiritual continuance, of which you know nothing, care nothing and discount as empty mummery, not even worthy of your respect. I am merely a servant of an Aspect. You would do well to remember that." The Reckoner stops his work and turns to the god of War.
"Ah, some backbone after all." War smiles and lights a local cigarette. "Want one?"
The Reckoner looked at him, shook his head and replied, "no thanks, those things will kill you."
"You know," War began after a deep drag on the cheaply made cigarette "your Master will not always be here to protect you and yours. Rumor has it your agency will be experiencing a change in management. If I were you, I would make a point of deciding where you stand when that happens."
"We hear the same rumor, every sixty years or so. Not much ever comes of it. But thanks for the warning," was the chilly response. "Here he is." The Reckoner pulls a number of bodies off of a young teenager. "Lumumba Kisimba, age 16, survivor of the Shaba massacre." The Reckoner pulls the boy to his feet, turns him about and inspects him. "No lasting injuries, just a couple of scratches. Are you well, boy?" the Reckoner's voice is quiet and non-threatening.
"Yes, sir," was the meek reply. The boy is looking at War and moves behind the Reckoner.
"There are no survivors of the Shaba massacre, Reckoner," War's voice was low and threatening. "He will not be leaving here, these people are dying to make a point, resistance is futile. If he survives, he threatens that."
"Be that as it may, I was sent to recover the boy. Are you saying your reputation might be stained if one boy survives? Surely you can bear it." the Reckoner's voice sounds almost jocular in its pronouncement.
War flexes his muscles and grabs a hunting knife from his belt with one hand and pulls his nine millimeter with the other. "Give him to me, I will not be denied. Nor will I ask you again."
The Reckoner, turns his back on War, putting his arm around the boy and begins walking away. "You would not violate the Compact to try and kill me, War. I claim the boy as a Hero-in-training. He cannot be touched by you or anyone else until he is done or dies in training. His name is Lumumba Kisimba, War. Remember it, I am certain he will remember you."
"He will not be remembering anyone. He is not a Hero yet." War's combat knife began to glow with ethereal Essence. His 9mm begins to shimmer as well with a darker flame. "Give him to me, Reckoner. I have no quarrel with you or your Master. But this deed must be done completely; no survivors."
"No," the Reckoner turned toward the boy and the air began to shimmer like the desert on a summer day. Sand began to swirl at his feet, a subtle power began to build.
"Damn the Compact, there is more at stake!" War's weapons, both glittering with Essence, let fly. The knife is thrown with deadly precision. The Reckoner, turns and using his clipboard as a shield, catches the knife, its blade clearly penetrating the surface, but stopping short of cutting through the board. As their two powers meet, there is a displacement, partially physical, partially spiritual, akin to an exploding shell and the boy is blown backward to the ground. The gun's staccato voice resounds in the morning air, a killing sound, literally; the carrion birds and anything else within a quarter mile, drops dead. Meanwhile its projectiles appear to streak in slow motion toward the boy.
Lumumba Kisimba, Hero-in-training, sees his death and is resigned to it. He sees War as he truly is, a monstrous being of dark energy, barely contained within the shell of the evil warlord, Mani Kunjufu. He sees War extending his tendrils of force toward him, but those energies are moving slower and slower, as if he were watching a film that had stopped. Then he looks at the Reckoner, and sees him for what he is, a man powered by a more powerful and more ominous force. As powerful and fear-inducing as War is, when he looks at the Reckoner, it takes his breath away, this overwhelming spiritual pressure. Which makes the next sentence he hears even more strange and impossible sounding.
"Listen carefully to me, child, for in a moment, I will be dead."