The Warlord (Part 2)

As I wake, the Warlord and his demoniacs stand over me in a warm tent with animal-skin walls that stretch taut with the impact of sub-freezing winds.

“You are lucky to survive the venom of a witch’s blade.” the Warlord tells me.  “Making the Pact very likely saved you. The Dark Powers would rather you not die just as you have begun.”

“Thank you.”  I gasp.

“You earned it.  I don’t know if I could have fought them both.”

“They say you have never lost a fight.”

A moment of fear and pain flickers across his scarred face and to my surprise he hesitates before he says “We were all once inexperienced and weak.”

This tacit admission he has been bested before shocks me and I look to the Warlord in a new way, mighty, yet also, for the first time, as just a man.

By the morning, I am already strong enough to march.  We break camp in the long night of the far north and for the first time in many long months, finally march south.  The sun is barely grey and wan by noon as we come upon yesterday’s battlefield. We find our own dead and put them together in a pile soon be interred by ice, their place marked with thick long black pikes that will not easily disappear beneath the wastes.  In many long decades, they will still be there, aside from the ravages of frost, not remarkably different from the day they died. Then despite the solemnity of the moment our spirits are buoyant as we pass the spot where White Knights opposed us and now truly move Southward.

As we leave the dead behind us, the mood begins to lift a bit with every mile.  “Hail! The slayer of Jazan Gur, the White Death!” I’m told all day. Higher disciples of the Warlord and ordinary soldiers alike approach me in awe.  It is disconcerting to me to attract such attention. I meet men I know like brothers with whom I have dug latrine pits in the pouring rain and now they look on me with reverence at my accomplishment and my ascendancy to greater powers.  I try to talk to them like it’s old times. Old as just yesterday, but it’s no use.

Soon we begin to understand why the Warlord stopped our pursuit.  With every mile we find ourselves following a trail of fanatics, contorted and frozen stiff.
The Warlord explains, “When we slew their leaders and broke their ranks, their faith began to fail and with it their endurance.”

The word began to quickly spread.  The Warlord had lured their overwhelming masses where they could be destroyed by their own despair the moment their herd had failed to give them shelter and victory.  The coldness of reality closed in around them as they tried to flee and we found them now, their frozen eyes still wide open with their final panic, the grasping blue-white fingers clawing at air.  The trail of those who lost their faith did not abate, thousands and thousands more of them clad in rags crumpled pitifully and frozen the moment they had heard the news or had in their flight finally given in to despair.

That night, I was called into the tent of the Warlord and his disciple officers for the first time.  They heartily welcomed me one by one, shaking my hand in one crushing grip after another and slapping me on the shoulder.  These men who had barked grim orders at me yesterday suddenly treated me as one of their own. We sat around the circle by the firepit with the smoke disappearing through a small hole above.
“We lost many yesterday.” Announced the Warlord.  “But tonight…there is someone new among us.”
The dark disciples began to cheer in anticipation.

“He slew Jazan Gur as the vile Hag joined against me, in violation of an honorable duel between men.  He has ascended into the service of the Dark powers into which I was inducted by the Master long ago and into which you were all inducted by me.”

The cheering grew quieter now as the moment approached.
“The slayer of our great enemy has joined us in the Pact.  The warrior Daulan Sekk is now one of us!”

For awhile again everyone cheered and personally greeted me.  Again, it was an overwhelming experience to have my heroes regard me as a hero.  As I found my senses, I could only utter. “Do we have any wine?”

The ration for the soldiers had ran out some time ago but of course we all had suspected some was left in store.
Everyone gave me looks that I could not quite understand.
“Bring us the last of the wine!” commands the Warlord, “The time is right.”

Our chipped tin soldier’s cups that dangle daily from our swaying packs are soon brimming with the last precious red wine and I gulp of it, wishing desperately to expunge the fearsome slaughter from my senses for a few short hours.  Yet tug as I might, my troubled senses remain as clear as the starry sky outside.
I realize they have been watching me with amusement as they sip their own cups.  I take another gulp and still I feel nothing. Seeing my bewilderment, the Warlord finally says.  “Your ability to survive a witch’s venom also makes you immune to any drug. Enjoy the flavor of it.”
Dumbfounded, I throw my cup aside and the other men laugh uproariously.
More solemnly now, the Warlord adds, “In service of greater powers, no substance will affect you.  Nor as you grow in power will the need to sleep weigh you down. You will never age or die so long as you are not killed but in exchange you get little rest.”
A silence falls over the men and many pass a hand over their chests.
“Where did you come from?” asks the Warlord. “I think you are from the Center Lands.”
“Yes, I grew up in the Great City.”
There is a gasp from the men.
“I thought so.  How did you join us?”

“When I was young, I wanted to join the White Knights.  I often went to the shrine of Saint Suryn to pray there.  Her statue always seemed sad and I wanted to comfort her. I had heard the legends it would sometimes weep tears of blood.  Once, I went to the temple late at night and I saw it for myself. Worse, I could have sworn the statue’s eyes moved and its mouth twisted in indescribable agony.  I felt something was wrong with everything I had been told and I could never shake the feeling after that…When I was about twelve years of age, I watched them stone my family to death from my hiding place.  I could never figure out why. It might have been their pale faces and their agreeable manner. I will never forget how their gestures of good will only enraged them.”
I am unable to say more, my words punctuated by a sub-freezing gale that pelts the tent wall with a plaintive howl.
Then the others begin to erupt with their own stories around the fire and I hear great warriors speak of themselves as children and young men.  The hero Lazo Vazai grew up in a tormented household with the sins of his absent father laid on his shoulders. “I had pretty much left the house by the time I was ten, surviving on the edge any way I could.  I laugh at the silly weaklings who complain they are kept down. If they were worth anything, they’d have risen by now.” The hulking Kivan Rasaris had once been a frail scribe defrocked from the Savisian universities when he dared suggest that one people differed from another and the sexes doomed to be unalike, their goals in life asymmetrical.  “I finally broke and wrote a paper about what I really thought. I knew that it would not be charitably received. I was surprised though when I was thrown out not just by them, but by my family, by society itself. No one in Savisia would sell me food. I barely made it to the Center Lands without starving, my last tatters of sackcloth falling off of me.  I never forgot.”

It falls quiet again.

“Let’s give the rest of the wine to the men.”  I suggest. The others heartily agree and the last jugs are passed around the camp to howls of jubilation as the soldiers rush to bring one back to their comrades for a well-earned celebration.

As the fire burns low and my new comrades retire, the Warlord takes me aside.  “As a child you understood Saint Suryn far better than the hordes of fawning pilgrims.”
“Were you alive then?!” I ask in astonishment.  “That was a hundred years ago!”

“I knew her.”

I nearly fell as I thought of the Saint of my childhood as a living, breathing person.
“What was she like?”
“She, and the Master, made me who I am.”
“Uh…How?”
“You didn’t imagine the tears of blood and her pain.  They call her a saint, but she is damned to hell. If only they knew how everything they believe in is rotten.”
“You mean…You mean The Master you speak of is the legendary Demon that Saint Suryn sent into exile?”

The Warlord grins.  “The demon left by his own will after she was already dead.”

“But…What happened?”

“She murdered the Duke who summoned her while possessed by her final rage.”

I’ve spent years now as a rebel fighting in the Dark Army yet even so my jaw drops.
The Warlord continues.  “This is one of many planes but this one was a neutral ground that attracted little attention from Heaven or Hell.  That damned Duke brought the eternal war on us by bringing that Paladin here. One hundred years ago he destroyed my old life and drove me towards rebellion.  Your Saint Suryn made damn sure I would never stray from that path.”
“How does it end?” I ask.

“Only in the triumph of Heaven or Hell.  It has to resolve downward. Level by level.  The Master won his fight. Now it’s up to me. And when the time is right it will be up to you.”

“How do you know?!”

“He told me, one hundred years ago.”

***
Suddenly, unopposed, the Dark Army storms down from the North until tundra becomes sprawling pine forest until we begin to see the soft green leaves of deciduous trees with the first white blossoms of spring drifting down on bittersweet breezes.  The first garrisons we meet are easily subdued and totally bewildered that the all-conquering fanatics have abandoned them. For months the advance continues as we destroy the Heavenly Army wherever in our path it tries to regroup. The cold of the far north is still in the marrow of our bones as we bear down on the sun-gilded shores of Epir Siprali with its brown, sea-misted hills laden with date palms and olive groves.  Finally we come upon its famous walls drenched every morning with honeyed sunshine that pours over the inland hills. There we finally find a city guarded once again in earnest by the Heavenly Army with White Knights patrolling the battlements, their pure white surcoats trailing in seaborne winds. No commander comes out to address us, the defenders simply stand resolute on the walls, glowering down at us.

The Warlord holds council with our corps of demoniacs to discuss the matter.  The city would not be easily subdued but we had to consider that the further we went into enemy territory, the easier we would be pressed in a crushing vice, worse than that grim battle in the Itlavalutian wastes.
“We must secure our flanks and most important, discover who their new leadership is.” declared the Warlord.  “If we know their leaders we know them and how to defeat them.”

***

“Edrak of Savisia, I hereby make you Grand Master of the Order of the White Knights.”  intoned a raspy, androgynous voice. The figure that uttered the words sits on a palanquin obscured by a thin tissue of gold, silk curtains.  An indistinct silhouette is just visible by the light of guttering braziers in the drafty stone chamber in the deep foundation of the Sipralite citadel.

Edrak bows low, borne down by astonishment.
“I could never replace the leadership of the glorious and beloved Jazan Gur.  I beg you reconsider.”

“Jazan Gur led us to our most disastrous defeat of all time after decades of unending victory.  Do better.”

In spite of himself, Edrak flushes with rage but holds his tongue.  He well knows that the Sorceress Queen, called “the Hag” by men loosened up by their cups had been given authority over Jazan Gur and had called for the reckless and disastrous pursuit despite the general’s protests.  He had been there alongside his beloved commander on that doomed offensive to see and hear it. Yet the noble general had done his loyal duty to the end and was now canonized by his order. The insult is very nearly too much for Edrak to bear yet somehow he does, as he always has.

He leaves the Grand Equal’s chamber and begins his ascent up the stairs, toward the generous sunlight of a Sipralesian afternoon.  As the first rays strike him through tower windows, the import of his promotion dawns on him. Now he is in the place of the man he had followed and idolized.  He thinks back on Jazan Gur’s last speech before the disaster in Itlavalus. His characteristic bass voice and deliberate pacing as he spoke kept the seemingly endless crowds all around him transfixed.   “They are not just evil. They are on the wrong side of destiny! Our destiny is everlasting progress and they oppose that sacred voyage we all share. They want to go backward! They want to keep us mired forever in ignorance and injustice.  They want the strong to crush the weak! We will not let them hold us back! We will not let them hold us down! Today we crush them once and for all. And the last of them that falls will know in his final moments…we have overcome at last!” Jazan Gur had raised his arms to the cheering of countless thousands.  That was the kind of man he now had to be.
Even so, Edrak could see the Hag standing behind the Grand Master’s shoulder then, with a smug smile on her hideous face.  He shuddered. Who would they have standing behind him?

***

The siege begins.  Every day is full of the din of construction, the cracking of timber, the buzz of saws, and the creak of thick rope as jagged engines of war begin to take shape all about the walls of Epir Siprali.  Within a few days, the superhuman efforts of the demoniacs enable the first catapults to begin flinging missiles. A jagged steel tower arises, engraved with smoking runes. Within a week it rolls ponderously toward the walls.  It spans the whole moat with its girth and crashes into the ramparts. Its bridge drops and the city’s defenders are butchered by hulking figures in spiked black armor.
Siprali would have fallen then if not for a bold charge of the White Knights led into battle by a new captain.
That night, the Warlord says.  “They have finally revealed themselves.  They have replaced Jazan Gur with a man who might also be a worthy enemy.”

The war engines multiply around the city like swarming ants until the assault is carried out every hour of every day and the defenders can hardly get a chance to sleep.  The battlements begin to crack and fall away under the constant pounding. Reinforcements are on the way, but it has only been two weeks. Nevertheless, a force of mounted White Knight scouts emerge from the hills and wage a campaign of harassment.  They finally charge like men to aid the garrison of Siprali as it suddenly bursts out the front gate in a desperate attempt to break out of confinement. A spearhead of White Knights leads a sizable swarm of fanatics straight into the ring of besiegers with the scouts charging from the other side.  The sudden pressure is too much and the ring begins to crack. The standard of one of the demoniac disciples nears the tip of the white spear and its progress towards escape halts.

The Warlord holds up his hand as the entire army begins to rush to stop the city garrison and horns begin to blare all about the city walls.  “Keep discipline!” He bellows.

Even from a distance, a space can be seen clearing among the ranks.  Two small figures, one white, one black face each other. Then there are visible flashes of light and shadow as the duel begins.  Then, something gold and raised in the white ranks approaches the battle, a curtained palanquin. I see the Warlord himself turn pale and in that moment he spurs his black horse without a word and gallops toward the fight.
The curtains of the far-off palanquin flutter for a moment and the dark challenger falls dead.  Exhilarated, the white forces renew their charge and break to the surface of the stretching bubble that encloses them.  They are harassed by pursuers and take losses, but their escape is assured now.

The Warlord arrives at the site of the decisive fight and finds the body of one of his disciples broken and dead.  He lowers a gauntleted hand toward the body, but draws back. As I and other disciples begin to arrive at a dead sprint, he says “Power like I have never seen since my Birth.  After all these years I have found the one who has always stayed in hiding. An Equal. My equal.”
He turns to the men surrounding him and says to all, “We have let their army escape but because of your discipline, we have won the city.  Without its defenders, it cannot stand. We assault the gates tonight.”

As the sun sets, the arcing arms of the siege engines redouble their flinging and then they suddenly stop.  One by one, a constellation of flames comes into being as they are set alight. Then, we light several thousands of torches at once and march toward the already battered city gates with a ram.  Our thick black armor is barely scratched by arrows and stones from ordinary men who just live from day to day. The gate is flung open in minutes and Epir Siprali is ours. The night sky is transformed into an eerily glowing charcoal shade by the play of flames on drifts of smoke.

Then, just as we assert our control over the citadel in the dark hours of morning, a shrill shrieking becomes perceptible.  There have already been lookouts posted to the walls but the smoke has obscured their vision until now. “Fanatics! Fanatics are coming!”  They yell! The first of them had already begun to stream down from the hills tonight, the most faithful only a bit slower than cavalry.
“The gates!  Close the gates!”  The cry goes up. The remnants of the gate are forced shut and timbers taken from anywhere and raised up with astonishing speed.  Even so, the first fanatics leap through the closing gaps or even burst through solid wood, sending splinters hissing through the air.
Some of them are draped with pendulous curtains of fat, others are emaciated, leathery skeletons, all are divested by their ludicrous extremes of whatever identity they had before.  A seemingly female warrior with bulging, striated muscles and a bra that clings to her meaty chest swings a battle ax all around in a cruel circle that leaves red mist in its wake. A nude, drooling fat one stumbles right into a pike but that doesn’t even slow it down.  Impaled, it walks right up the length of the pole and the soldier on the end of it thinks he’s slain his opponent until the moment its placid jowly face contorts with rage and flailing flabby arms crush his helm and pop one of his eyeballs right out of its socket.

I charge into the fray and put my new powers to the test in battle for the first time.  I attack the warrior first. She’s still swinging her axe when I intervene. My hammer collides with her axe blade in midair and with a lightning-like explosion of sparks, it flies out of her hands in the opposite direction.

She tumbles to her knees, screaming inconsolably.  Both her wrists are grotesquely broken backwards with sharp slivers of shattered bone jutting from her stump-like forearms.  I immediately turn to the shambling fanatic that still drags a bloody length of spear behind it.

It makes no attempt to avoid me as I swing.  I leave a deep, square-shaped dent in its back that it somehow ignores as it reaches towards another terrified soldier.
“Leave it!”  I growl to the men.  “Kill the others.”

And so we do as they rally to me.  A swift one dodges my hammer and thinks he’s gotten past my defenses.  He darts in with his thin dagger, his pale, bloodless face fixed with a condescending smile until my other clawed gauntlet grasps him by the throat.  He gasps like a landed fish as his neck snaps and his delicate rectangle spectacles fly off his face as I fling his corpse into his fellow fanatics, knocking them down to the ground where they are easily finished off by my comrades.
Now that the first fanatics have been beaten and the gate sealed against the pounding of the rest, we turn again to the plodding yet unstoppable juggernaut fanatic.  We surround it staying just out of reach as it clumsily grasps all around.

“We’ve killed all your friends.  You are alone now. We won.” I tell it.

“Ugly! Disgusting! Fat!” The soldiers begin to mock and laugh.
Its steps begin to slow and the first tears run down its face as it is pelted with rocks and manure from all sides.  Then it begins to spasm, clutches its chest, and falls flat on its face. “By faith alone did it remain living.” I muse.  “In truth, it was already dead.”

I turn to the warrior.  I could not be of sure her sex before despite her clothing but now her blubbering, wailing, and gushing stream of tears is unmistakably feminine.  I stand over her as she weeps over her broken limbs. As her faith begins to wane, arteries slashed by her own fractured bones begin to spurt. She doesn’t have long.  I think back on what I’ve seen the warlord do, but I don’t have his knife. I clasp her face with the claws of my black steel gauntlets, press in my palms, and concentrate.
Suddenly, I feel her blood, life, and soul rushing into me.  Her struggles are so unpredictable and intense they are like a spasmodic bucking I feel will tear my hands off of her, break my own wrists, and throw me aside if I relent in the slightest.  I hold and I push until my arms, chest, my whole body is aching and crying out to let go, sweat drenching my whole body. I still hold until I pull the last of her essence into me. And then I discover the fight has just begun.  Her whole being lashes out inside of me tearing into my own soul and I begin to slash back at her to try to save myself.
We are locked in a battle for the right to exist, each of us full of the will to live, but this is my soul’s home ground while she has been ripped away from her place of power.  Little by little, her resistance chips away until she is confined in a lightless place like a muffled closet. Yet I feel the bloody stubs of her fingernails trying tear at the toughened parts of me that imprison her.  I keep closing in until finally, I can faintly hear the plaintive sniffling of a little girl.  And then the dark is complete.

The Warlord (Part 1)

Everywhere, they called him the Warlord.  In some lands he was Eshlaru in others, Issaraym, in others still, Kirnavir.   No one knew from where he came. He had a visage marred by strange scars, his scalp always shaved bare; for they said his hair would not grow upon the scars.  Some say in a lifetime of fighting under his shadow dragon banner until they turned gray, he’d never aged a day.

Now, even amidst the swirls of falling snow he rides his black horse that haughtily high steps, his barbed blade held straight out in front of him, shield ringed with spikes held at his side as he passes through the ranks of his men all beating their weapons on their shields, howling with bloodlust.  His face could just be seen through the sickle-toothed jaws that formed the mask of his helm. The Coalition of the Ascendant had pursued us even here far into the winter wastes of Itlavalus and after months of patient retreat our general had said the time was finally right. All through the long wait to fight some had lost faith and called our general a coward.  They had all long since left for warmer climes. Those of us who still remained were the best. We were far outnumbered now, but the repressed eagerness for battle was all the greater. When we had been rallied, an intense silence fell over us. Now, we could hear the massed ululating shrieking of the Coalition as they marched upon us. As they came closer we could see that even now, many of them wore little more than rags that were falling apart.  How they managed to survive such privation no one knew for certain. We supposed it was a power which only the High could have bestowed on them. Men and women alike, their faces every hue, hardly distinguishable anymore after all their fleshly bodies had endured, they frantically whipped themselves with lashes, screaming out their devotion against the outlaws of Humanity and their hate of the Hateful.

They were a terrifying force to the uninitiated and before the arrival of the Warlord, Yeleysh Issaraym, they had toppled one rich king after another though they wore rags and swore themselves to lives of humility and victimhood.  No one could seem to make sense of it, but now there was no need to. All that mattered now was to crush the life out of them on this battlefield.
The enemy knew a great fury and fanaticism, but it was the fury of the mob, not that of a man himself, or even of a band of men who knew one other.  Or even of anyone who had the least in common. That is why we had always beaten them before they had driven us into these arctic wastes with their overwhelming numbers.

We were grim and resolute now as they were fanatical and strident.  We wore bulky black armor adorned with spikes, our helmets closed about our faces.  Those who had grown strong in the service of the dark powers had eyes that glowed or were black and empty within their facemasks.  As terrifying as they were even to us, the Warlord’s presence was strongest as he led us on his black stallion. Our great war drums beat, their bass thrum felt down to the pit of the gut.  If we had not been able to feel it, the shrill wailing of the Coalition of the Ascendant might have drowned it out. They rushed at us headlong from over a mile away and somehow, their worn frames had the endurance to sustain the charge.  The mass of them had fanned out into irregular tendrils as if to envelop us, prongs of off-white and flesh tones coursing across great mounds of windswept snow. We had formed into our phalanxes in anticipation of this. Black squares that marched methodically across the white waste bristling on every side with wickedly barbed sarissas, needle-sharp lances, and long pikes.

Soon, we were completely surrounded.  The only way out now was to fight our way out.  We advanced toward their front line which we knew was probably stretched thin after so many had joined in the charge so we thought we might take advantage of their indiscipline.  But first, they were closing in quickly on our flanks and soon behind us as well. For every other opponent they had faced, this had meant total disaster within a crushing vice. The armies of great empires had marched forth only to panic as the Coalition had attacked them from every side and then perished as they discovered that the Righteous accepted no surrender from transgressors.  Once one had ever opposed them, no abasement or apology could ever appease them.

We knew our enemy, though, and kept marching in formation, even as the first tendrils of their host closed in on us.  The keening shriek of Righteous fury reached a peak as they crashed into us. At the beginning of their wave were the strongest and most fanatical, sped on by their superior devotion.  The best of them were the first to die. What made them any different from the rest, doomed them to death. It was no accident, it was what they believed was just. Even so, these ones were still the best.  The spearman next to me was just a little too slow and one of them got through. One slash of its nine-thonged whip cut his spear into multiple pieces and sliced through his armor with ease. My unfortunate brother-in-arms fell backwards spurting blood from multiple arteries, dead before he hit the ground.  I cursed in rage as I felt one of the thongs slice the skin of my forearm. The Ascended fanatic screamed back at me, its pinched face framed by filthy braids of unkempt hair. I brought down my hammer on that contorted visage with its wildly rolling eyes and its rictus of indignant rage and split it into an unrecognizable ruin a few chunks of brain tumbled out of.

Then came the rest of them all at once in a great press.  The odor of their masses, pungent even in the cold. These we held off with our outer ring of spears and began to steadily plow through them.  First the spears pushed them back and we advanced another few steps, those who tried to break through that outer barrier were slaughtered by the rest of us waiting for them just within.  And so it went all day. Like the rhythmic cries of galley oarsmen we bellowed in chorus every time we thrust with the spears, pushed further ahead, and then locked shields again. We advanced at a steady pace no matter how the mob pressed and pounded on us from all sides and all they had to show for it was a trail of corpses clad in bloodied rags trailing nearly a mile behind us, already stiff and well-dusted in snow.

We finally reached the center of the Coalition army and before us was no longer a rabble of fanatics but several orderly cavalry regiments stiffly at attention in resplendent white armor, riding pure white horses.  At their head was a grave figure, wearing an ornate plate of alabaster armor, with his silver scimitar raised in the air, his complexion almost ebony in color, his features narrow and aristocratic, his gaze fixed and intense.  Jazan Gur had led the pursuit for months and now he was there before us, under attack by those he thought were his quarry. The fanatics were still on three sides of us and as the Coalition general lowered his scimitar, the White Knights began to approach at a trot, swiftly gaining a rumbling momentum.  Jazan Gur gave out a harsh cry and the fatiguing fanatics came alive with a new buzz of fervor. They completely surrounded us again and this time they threw themselves screaming onto our bristling hedge of spears, pikes, and lances, faster than we could dislodge them, though we tried as the charging knights bore down on us.  Too late. The White Knights crashed into us with hardly any outer defense to oppose their passage into our ranks. The impact sent men flying everywhere in a great sickening crunch. Their momentum soon began to stall and they fought from horseback their silver sabres flashing back and forth. This strain was too much for the formation to hold and now the fanatics poured in through the gaps on all sides.  All discipline was soon gone, our fates to be decided in a general melee. Our now-useless polearms were dropped to the ground, everyone wielding their swords, axes, maces, hammers, and studded gauntlets at close quarters.

I saw one knight turn away from me as he slashed down with his sabre on his other side.  He started to turn back toward me but my hammer crushed him out of his saddle. With a great overhead swing I shattered his panicking horse’s spine and stepped past its twitching bulk to find its rider still stunned on the ground.  I, in my black armor of spiked, overlapping plate with a great wolf’s head carved in steel on my chest, the mask of my helm wrought with snarling fangs, was the last thing he ever saw.

I see a flicker at the edge of the vision my helm allows me and I swing without thought, honed instinct guiding my instant reaction.  A fanatic with a rusty kris knife upraised to strike flies backwards with caved-in chest and bloody mist spraying in a single burst from its upturned mouth like a profusion of scarlet fungus spores.  It was female, I think.

Then, the Warlord and his entourage of lesser demoniacs enter the fray all at once.  Moving with animal quickness even in heavy armor they dart in and out among the White Knights leaving corpses of man and steed as fast as the eye can follow, their victims often left cut cleanly in two by a single stroke.  The knights soon begin to panic and those not trapped begin to flee. Those left behind are torn down from their saddles and disappear into a dark mass even as they frantically try to slash with their sabres. The demoniac acolytes turn on the fanatics now but the Warlord himself walks in front of the army alone and points with his gauntlet adorned with razor-like projections and attached below his right wrist a crude black blade of what might have been volcanic glass but did not shine.  He bellows out his challenge to the enemy general in his harsh voice.

Jazan Gur solemnly dismounts his steed and approaches the Warlord with his silver scimitar.  The Warlord rushes towards him and soon their weapons meet in a clash that can be heard against the clangor all around.  Jazan Gur moves as swift and sure as a serpent but the hulking Warlord keeps up easily with the blinding speed of his attacks.  While they fight, a hunched over figure approaches them with the simplest of daggers. I rush towards the fray of those far greater than me to prevent this crass interference.  As I face the interloper, I see it is of indeterminate sex, with eyes that flash with feminine fury but with a hairy upper lip, with a matron’s flabby forearms and sagging shapeless breast tissue yet with a barrel chest and narrow hips.  I move to cut down the impudent Hag, or whatever it is, but I am stunned when the point of its rusty dagger stops my hammer as if I had struck a castle wall. As I nearly lose my balance the sneering creature slashes at me and I yell to lower hell as it somehow cuts through my armor and into my thigh.  I tower over my opponent that has just wounded me and yet it continues to attack quite confidently. With a loud ping I find the solid steel handle of my hammer has been severed from its head.  In the next moment I am thrown aside somehow into the snow as if I were but a feather.  I look up from the ground and to my dismay the strange Hag and the general Jazan Gur are attacking the Warlord together.  Now, he is barely able to fend off their combined attacks.

Filled with fury even as the wound in my leg throbs with agony, I take the head of my hammer and with a roar heft it with all my might.  One side of Jazan Gur’s face collapses like a melon as my heavy projectile hits its mark. He falls instantly, just like a common soldier.  The Hag however, fights on, her power inexplicably great. I begin to drag myself toward the fight as best as my furiously burning leg allows.  As I draw near, the Hag turns her head a little to take note of my approach. In that moment, the Warlord runs her through with the infamous blade on his wrist.  She gives out a shrill, grating scream heard across the battlefield as she tries to push herself off of the blade with all her might. To no avail. It sucks her back in no matter the strength of her struggles like a thirsty man tugging at a waterskin.  With each greedy glugging swallow, the contorted, hideous face grows more pale and her struggles more feeble. Finally, the Warlord casts the dessicated corpse sucked dry of life and soul aside. A rising penumbra surrounds him now like a flickering candle flame of negative light that he can barely seem to contain as he strains with his hands balled into fists, his shoulders and chest held back.

He says to me.  “You have proven yourself this day.  Will you make the Pact?”
I prostrate myself and reply, “Yes.  Yes! It is my honor.”

“Good!  It’s the only way you live now.”

He walks up to me and lays his hands on my shoulders.  In that moment, rivers of raw power he drained out of that terrible Hag flood through me.  I can hear her soul screaming with bloody terror and rage as her essence is siphoned away for the sake of empowering everything she ever fought against.  She thrashes and scratches with her whole being, until her being is no more. At first I am terrified but then I am able to let go and let the raging torrent all rush into me at once.  I am changed forever. Nevertheless the pain in my leg grows unbearable now as I come into my bodily senses again. I have had many wounds and I know something is different and terribly wrong this time.  The Warlord himself helps me to my feet and places my arm and my weight on his shoulders.
“Even now, you won’t easily survive that Hag’s venom.  We have to get you back to camp.” As I struggle against oncoming delirium, the battle rages on but the White Knights have fled the battlefield and the fanatics have been weakened by the deaths of their leaders.  The Dark Army is invigorated into a blood rage and as the slaughter intensifies, the milling swarms of white-winged locusts finally break.

As the pursuit begins, the Warlord sets me aside and gives out a harsh scream that echoes across the battlefield.  The nearest drums change beat, then horns blow as the message spreads across the whole army. The Warlord runs in front of his men, waving his sword, bellowing for them to halt.
In less than an hour the entire army is marching back to our camp.
The Warlord again returns to me and again personally comes to my aid, even though he could have anyone else do it. “No sense chasing them now.”  I am in no condition to even speak as I feel agony, bitter cold, and delirium creep through me. The brief winter daylight ends but the snowy clouds clear away, the night is more brilliant with the hard, glinting points of frosted stars and shimmering auroral ribbons rippling across the sky.  I see my fellow warriors as silhouettes against sheets of snow that sparkle like the stars even in the dark. Somehow, my state of physical shock makes the spectacle even more vivid and otherworldly. Perhaps it is also the senses granted to me through my Pact, all the better to perceive the world’s beauty.  The world begins to fragment into fever dreams as I begin to see the travails of war in the shimmering aurora veils, I manage to keep marching through heavy snow until we go over a hill that looks gentle yet concealed all our tents and horses from a distance. The warlord brings me to his own tent in the center of the camp, only bigger than any other tent to allow the officers to confer around the firepit.  He has a simple bedroll on the ground like any other soldier, though I hear he seldom uses it. In a hurry, he and a medic help me remove my armor and begin dressing the vile wound given me by the Hag. All they can do is bandage it and hope my newfound resilience can conquer the poison. Wrapped in furs on the Warlord’s own bedroll, there is nothing more for me to do but rest.

 

Apostasy (Part 5)

Dask had spent days just waiting to die.  He knew his master was still out there but had little hope anything would change soon.  There was little to do but think as indeterminate hours crept past.  Perhaps it was a mercy the Hate elemental was at rest now but it had been all his fault.  It had relied on him for direction and he’d failed even at that responsibility.  “I let down my companion, the only ally I had.” He admitted to himself.  He had indulged in death and destruction avenging a man he no longer was.  Instead, here he was.

“You damn idiot!” he told himself more than once.

If things had been just slightly different, he would still be contentedly joining barrel staves, going home to his son, and falling asleep with his arms wrapped around his wife.  Here he was living this cursed life, a ghost of who he was yet still breathing with blood on his hands, having turned against everything he knew.  He searched his memories back and forth.  Why had Kamilya left him, no, betrayed him?  He heard her words and saw her face in his mind’s eye trying to figure out what he could have done differently.  Then, unbidden, he heard her final pleas echoing through his mind and, in his situation of unrelenting sensory deprivation, he could not shut it out anymore.  It was a worse torment than any physical pain could have been and there was neither cessation or escape.  His son’s face surfaced in his already distressed mind and it was more than he could bear.  He felt a sensation of overwhelming agony burst from him and would have fallen to his knees had not the thick chains converging on him from every wall held him up.  There was something deathly cold now in his shirt front and it throbbed there with the pulse of his sorrow, guilt, regret, and hatred, for himself and for the whole world.  The chains bound him so tightly that he had to struggle to even touch himself.  It took longer to actually reach inside his shirt, barely able to reach with this fingertips.  Something cold and glassy fell into his hand.  It was the chisel.  Dask knew he had been stripped of everything before they had locked him up.  The chisel could not have escaped their attention; it came, and had come, from within him.  The Demon, impeded by the Paladin’s wards, had only been able to give him delicate guidance; the big push had come from him.  Dask began to carve at his enchanted chains and showers of white hot sparks that burnt into his flesh went flying with every stroke.  They did not seem to yield, and the manacles only seared him even more than before, causing him to dry-heave with pain until he could undertake the task again.  There was nothing else for him to do and if enough of those searing sparks might end him, all the better.

 

Suryn sped faster than a galloping horse back toward the palace.  She zipped past frightened faces and screaming crowds and the wind of her passage whistled in her ears.  Her wards could limit the Demon’s power within their sphere but the Shadow Dragon shattered that bubble all at once as it passed through it.  The beast swooped and descended past the inner walls.

By the time Suryn reached the gate, hundreds of soldiers were fleeing through it in complete panic.  She forced her way through and there, where the marketplace had been there was wreckage and broken corpses left behind by the Shadow Dragon’s rampage.  The hulking monster reared at the base of the keep as a shower of arrows and crossbow bolts rained down but slipped harmlessly off of its sleek, filamentous bulk.  It rammed into a crossbow slit in the wall, collapsing the chamber onto its occupant.  Then it reared back its head and let loose a jet of black, steaming venom onto the crenellated ramparts high above.  There was screaming as the poison consumed its targets.  Several soldiers jumped rather than endure the pain to its conclusion.  Suryn now rushed at the beast but it saw her coming.  With a great rush of wind it surged off the ground and rose above her reach, content now to attack the defenders on top of the keep from the air.  She immediately started looking around for the Demon and saw no sign of him.

 

With a barely audible hum, the wards surrounding Dask went dark and silent.  As complete darkness closed in on him, the pale Demonic vision took over to give him sight.  Now he found the chisel cut through even the heaviest chain links and manacles quite easily.  In just a few minutes he was loose.  He sliced his way through the cell door and began to make his way up the staircase, finding to his astonishment that there seemed to be no guards nearby.
He went up flights of stairs with still no one in sight.  A whole squad of guards burst into view and Dask tensed immediately for a final fight to the death.  Instead they did not even acknowledge him as they rushed frantically right past him.  “Go men! Go!  More supplies for the guys on top!”   As it turned out, there were many other groups of guards equally in a hurry, all ignoring him.  Just one sergeant stopped to notice him, pointed and yelled.  “You!  Get in your gear right now and get the hell out there!”  He turned away to accompany his men but abruptly turned back around and pointed once more.  “Don’t even try to disappear now!  I WILL remember you and make sure you hang!”   Dask continued his way up the staircase until he finally came to a great, flat landing.  There were great oaken double doors flung open wide and within was the great hall with long tables running nearly the length of the chamber.  There, at the other end, was a huddle of officers.  Some kind of group agreement was reached and most of the officers immediately rushed through the doors at the opposite end of the hall.  The man who all the officers had stood around remained with a couple of aides.  It was the Duke.  Dask had seen him on coins, in paintings and statuary, and in person from a distance when he had given speeches from the keep’s grand balcony.  In any case there was no mistaking his resplendent garb worn with a light breastplate, gloves, and sword.  Dask began to lose himself in fury as he thought of all he had lost.  He steadily advanced until the Duke turned and noticed him.

“You!” he said.  “You’re that Demon’s servant, aren’t you?  I thought she locked you up properly this time.”

The Duke’s aides drew their swords and began to advance nervously.

“Stay back!” he told them.  More guards came into the hall now and again the Duke held out his hand at them.  “Leave him.”  The men stood back.

With a hiss, the Duke pulled out his rapier and held the point at Dask.

“You took everything from me!” accused Dask.

The Duke appeared unfazed.

“From reports, I hear you have become strong and quick.  But I also heard you were just a common cooper.  Have you ever even held a real weapon?”  His dark eyes were locked on hawk-like as he began to slowly circle to Dask’s left-hand side, his every step fluid and controlled like a dancer walking a tightrope.  “Yet you think you are going to fight me with a puny piece of rock.”

A single breath would nearly have been audible as everyone watched the two men.  Dask waited until the Duke’s back was facing the wall and in a flash of movement, he attacked.  The Duke barely had time to react, but with the ease of lifelong practice he slashed Dask’s forearm and smoothly sidestepped away from the wall.  In a rage now, Dask barely even noticed the wound and lunged again.  The Duke slid smoothly out of the way with his perfect footwork and buried his sword-point in Dask’s shoulder.  The Demonic servant howled, feeling pain now, but it only fueled his rage.  He charged with one attack after another and the Duke clenched his teeth and stared intensely in a state of complete focus as he reacted each time just in time.  One misstep would have meant his death, but he made no mistakes.  Dask began to notice his body was not responding as quickly and without warning he found himself tumbling backward to the floor.  Through a red haze, he began to realize that his whole body was torn and blood-soaked.  The Duke casually walked up to his fallen opponent and looked down on him with a hard, clinical gaze.  Time suddenly seemed to speed up and he realized that the whole fight, like many fights, had lasted less than a minute.

“You were strong and quick, but so are many beasts.”

The Duke thrust down towards Dask’s heart and saw the defeated man swing his arm as if to protect himself.  Then he heard a metallic ping.  The sword was suddenly lighter in his hand and as he raised it up, he saw it had been cleanly broken off halfway down its length.  The Duke looked down at Dask in confusion and realized the crude piece of sharp rock had somehow cut through his steel blade.  A chill of fear passed through him.  He realized he had just put himself in far greater peril than he thought.  But he had won.  “Fine!” sneered the Duke. “I’ll let you contemplate your failure as you bleed out.”  He turned to his astonished men.  “Finish him off if he tries to move.”

 

Suryn entered the keep in search of the Demon.  Rushing groups of guards stopped to gawk at her but she waved them onward.  She worked her way steadily upwards, her bright sword held out in front of her.  She found herself at a familiar large room by the stone staircase.  She was almost underneath her own room.  She stepped toward the staircase, cautiously now, and watched the ceiling where she estimated her room was.  It seemed a logical place for the Demon to lie in wait for her.  A little too predictable, but she still had to be careful.  Now that she was focused, something seemed strange about the staircase almost like tiny voices crying out.  A feeling of inexplicable foreboding rose in her.  As she took a step closer, the window went dark behind her.  She sprung aside and the Shadow Dragon’s poisonous breath just missed her.  Light flooded in through the window again as the beast detached from the wall outside and launched itself back into the air.  This time it lurched high above the walls of the inner city and began to fly away from the battle.  The foulness of its attack had gotten everywhere and bits of it hissed and sputtered against her armor, not enough to do harm.  The real problem was the poison immediately started steaming into tendrils of black vapor.  In a few moments she was choking on it and struggled to see anything.  Without warning, a black blade of pure lightlessness hissed at her from that lethal fog, which she only parried an inch away from her face.  In that instant, she could feel its black energies sucking at her and pushed back viciously.  She felt the Demon’s weight fly backwards.  In that one moment of respite, she turned all her power and strength against the wall with the window and destroyed it utterly.  The light of the setting sun flooded in and a shower of heavy bricks rumbled down to the base of the keep.  The clouds of poison were swiftly leaving the room, so the Demon attacked with all its might in those precious seconds.  Suryn could not keep up as the fumes burnt her eyes and every breath.  She was cut by the black blade and felt deathly cold all through her.  She was cut again in the furious onslaught.  And again across her face.  Finally, the air had cleared and she could see the Demon right in front of her well enough.  She steeled her soul and gave everything she had.  Paladin and Demon were locked in combat in that exposed chamber in the tower.  They fought along the edge at times, each trying to send the other tumbling downward.  Their blades clashed and they sent forth flashes of dark and light which further demolished the ruined chamber.  Showers of bricks and mortar began to fall on them from the ceiling as well.  Then in between parries she grabbed the Demon by his robe and threw him to the ground.  She sent a stream of white-hot blinding light down towards him, trying to push through his dark energies and get close enough to deliver the killing blow.  There they were locked in total opposition for what seemed like forever, but she inched forward bit by bit until the tip of her blade was almost touching him.
Somehow, the Demon found the strength to throw her back across the room just as the tip of her blade began to burn him.  As both got to their knees, they realized they were totally exhausted.  Nonetheless, Suryn began to crawl towards the Demon as she had long ago up the steps of the shining cathedral.
He shot a glance over her shoulder, probably, she thought, another attempt at misdirection so he could get in another sly strike.  She ignored it.  The full intensity of Suryn’s fanatic gaze bored into the Demon as she continued to drag herself closer, sword dragging behind her.

The Demon saw the Duke standing there watching, perhaps, he thought, just waiting to see who would win.

“I yield,” rasped the Demon.   “I concede you this plane, Paladin.”

“I swear on the powers of Hell and infinite Hate, an oath I make to you even I must honor.”

“I know well, Demon, but I will still kill you.  You just swore away your claim here for nothing.  You die a coward.”  She crawled closer still and now showed no sign of stopping.

“Please.”  The Demon was begging now.

Suryn was now beyond speech as she put her whole being into destroying him.  She saw herself again in her mind’s eye entering the ranks of angels for vanquishing a greater evil and being absolved altogether of the weakness of the flesh.

The Demon began to gather his body in concentration and she felt what was left of his power congealing.  She managed to push herself to her knees and struggled to close the distance.

With a humming noise and then a bass resonance, the Demon was gone.  Suryn collapsed and lay on her stomach, overwhelmed with both disappointment and relief. “Suryn!” The Duke came to her and gently helped her back to her knees and then her feet.  She gasped as she felt the wounds left by the Demon still eating away at her.

“He got away from me!”

“You beat him and you’ve saved this whole world.”

The Duke wrapped his arms around her and held her close.  Suryn snapped out of her fixation and looked up into his eyes.  At that moment, the staircase, slowly weakened by the Shadow Dragon’s acid venom, suddenly started to crumble away.  Those muted voices she had heard screaming out right before the Demon’s ambush suddenly became ear-piercingly loud.  She turned around and within the staircase was earth and mortar, and from that jutted the bones of tiny people, dozens of their skulls staring out at her.

“The children,” gasped Suryn.

Then she felt a cold shock from behind her and waves of terrible pain.  Suddenly her body would not obey her.  She fell onto her back.

The Duke stood over her, holding a bloody dagger.

“The Demon exiled.  His servant vanquished by me.  The flying beast fled to the far horizon.  And our dear guardian made her heroic sacrifice.  Perhaps I will have statues of you raised throughout the realm.”

Suryn tried to talk but nothing would come out at first.  Finally she gasped.

“What are you?”

“You might say I am the Grey.  There is the clash of principles.  I just care to win power by the rules of the mundane realm between Heaven and Hell.  They think it’s just an inert thing they fight to influence, but more power resides there than Dark or Light understand.  Because that is what’s real.”  The Duke clenched his fist as if holding a handful of sand.

“Powers divine or profane are but tools to make reality as I wish it.”  The Duke gazed down at Suryn, with a mix of detached calculation, amusement, and, for a passing moment, a flash of pity.

“Because you let me into your heart I could strike a blow even a Demon could not.  Had you not found out, I might have made you my queen.  Farewell, dear guardian.”

 

Suryn was flooded with a grief that went beyond any suffering she had ever known no matter how hard she had pushed her fleshly body, no matter what spiritual torments she had been through in her training and on the most horrific battlefields.  Now she came face to face with nothing.  It had all been for nothing.  She felt that subtle snap as her spirit broke one more time.  Horror welled up in her.  A broken spirit had made her into a Paladin of the Light and now what was left was fracturing into tiny pieces as her life ebbed.  She only hoped her body would die before the rest of her did.

 

As she felt herself descending toward void, there was a faint sound like buzzing and a knife tip swept across silk.

“That oath did not last long,” came a pleasant tenor voice.  “I made it to you.  With your life leaving you, it is void.”  The Demon walked into the room as the sun began to sink beneath the inner walls.
“We were all human once, but you were still so young.”

He pulled back his hood.  He had a young man’s face white as chalk; she did not know him, but she felt somehow she might have in another life.  It was a lean face with a high forehead and refined nose with a certain sensitivity etched about the mouth.  She thought somehow he would have been a good student under the priests yet he had somehow taken another path.  His eyes were black, empty, yet depthless.  Something was strangely terrifying about that gaze of ancient knowing and cynicism set within a bloodless mask of perfect youth.  Indeed, it was a mask, attached to a form of shadow.  He lifted a chalky, slender hand to touch his face and as his sleeve fell back she could see it was like a long glove on an insubstantial arm.

“Somehow my features always remain.  The same as the day I made the Pact.  The rest I have long forgotten.”

“That’s what I always wanted.  Nothing left.  No more pain.” gasped Suryn.

“I knew how you feel.”

“Maybe…I’m about to get that anyway.”

“Yes, you are dying,” he said, and somehow she felt there was some kind of compassion there.  “I can give you a short time longer.  But it will require a real sacrifice.  It is not trivial even for me to delay death.”

Suryn tried to shake her head but the Demon knelt over her and placed its hands on her.  She felt its cursed energies flow into her and crudely stitch up the wound that had pierced her heart.  She climbed to her feet, gasping, and groaned in agony as she felt the black slippery stitches of shadow loosen a bit.  The Demon was brought to his knees, weakened now by the strain.  She stood over him now wielding her sword.

“One swipe of this blade and you are gone.” she said.

“That would break the spell at once.  The risk I take placing myself at your mercy right now, is the sacrifice that gives it power.  You can only choose one and you’ve only just enough time.  You cannot do both.  Choose the other, the spell seals tight and you get a short while longer.”

The blade glowed white-hot over the Demon’s head and her hand trembled.  One move of her arm and she would die a saint in the eyes of Heaven.  She did not move.  In a few moments, eternity was decided.

Without a word, she raised her blade, turned away from the Demon and went downward.  As the spell locked into place, the weak slippery stitches tightened, feeling like hot steel wire.  Pain and black rage became one sensation.

 

The Duke lounged in his private study, reclining in a comfy chair after he had just poured himself a snifter of brandy.  The cheerful shimmer of candles just lit in the dimming of dusk seemed to congratulate him.  He sighed in satisfaction as he leaned back to enjoy the moment.  His power secure at last.  He raised the snifter to his face at a tilt so he could enjoy the aroma to the fullest and took a warming sip.  As he looked up he saw he was not alone.  The snifter trembled in his fingers.  The Demon was standing right there in front of him with his hood thrown back, his black form and deathly white face exposed.

“How are you here?!” blurted the Duke, “Your oath!”

“I made it to her.  Now she is no more.” replied the Demon calmly.

The Duke turned ashen. “You swore not to harm me!”

“I swore to you.  That is still binding.”

The Duke took a deep breath and tried to relax.  “Then I got immunity to you and all you got was my help in breaking out that servant of yours.  Lot of good it did you.  And she thought one of my concubines was behind it to the end.”

“What you got from me was worthless and I got far more in return than you think.  There’s no need to harm you anyway.  I got everything I wanted.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I just wanted to say goodbye.” answered the Demon with a hint of mockery.

“Very touching.” said the Duke acidly.  Yet he eyed the Demon suspiciously.  The Duke spread out his hands.  “What do you really want, then?”

“Really, that’s all,” replied the Demon. “And to tell you that you involved yourself in the interplay of powers far greater than you.  Powers you don’t understand and that your worship of petty things could never have revealed to you.”

“You came back here to try to talk down to me!?” spat the Duke. “I’m the master of an earthly realm, I’ve won at the trials of life.  I am a mortal man with just one life but look at you!  You never die but you’re a mere shadow drifting from world to world like a beggar, never living for yourself, a loser, a slave to self-denial.  For what?  A principle?!  You’re not that different than she was.”

“Yes, I know you thought it was like playing two sides of the same coin.  You really thought the affairs of Heaven and Hell follow the same rules as your politics and palace intrigue.  Anyway, you’ve amused me and I have to go now.”  The corner of the Demon’s lips twisted into a smirk.  “As I said, I just wanted to say goodbye.”  He was gone.

The Duke sighed and settled back into his chair, intent on taking a very generous swig of brandy this time.  The door crashed open.  The snifter fell out of his hand as he saw Suryn, ashen pale and blood-spattered, like an apparition, walking toward him, sword drawn.  Suryn sheathed her sword and the Duke looked right into the depthless rage, pain, and despair in her eyes.  His jaw went slack as the moment dragged on.  Then her hand shot out, grabbed him by his face and lifted him from the chair.  His struggles were like those of a small child as she pounded him, his ribs snapping like twigs.

At first Suryn took out her rage on the Duke but as she sank ever further and felt the stitches begin to slip again, he disappeared and she saw Kristyan from her village long ago before her as she pounded and disfigured his gorgeous face and heard his pleading degenerate into screams and finally into gurgling sobs.  Finally, there was nothing left of those piercing blue eyes, straight teeth and sensuous lips, and his broken remains lay in a heap.

She felt the Demonic stitches that held the spell together begin to unravel and she realized she had committed apostasy.  The room around her faded and she floated in void.  That pitiless, faceless marble angel drifted toward her, wings beating without a sound.

 

Dask and the Dark Man walked the next day through the market square.  The stalls were already being replaced and commerce continued as usual.  Dask carried a skewer of grilled meat dripping down his chin as he tore into it with gusto, though he was not truly hungry. It was the first real, human meal he’d had since he made his Pact.  He was whole again, his injuries healed up during the night, but the streak-like scars left behind as he had struck the enchanted chains remained and he supposed they would be there forever.  Parts of his scalp were scorched bare now, his hair still there in irregular patches.  Passers-by looked at him with curiosity and fear but he didn’t care now.
“The Duke was a fool, but not stupid.” the Demon explained.  “I saw him there watching.  I had already sent the Shadow Dragon away.  Then I was gone.  The moment she learned his secret, she was more dangerous alive than she was valuable to him.”

“How on earth was he able to harm, let alone kill her?  How’d he stab right through the Paladin’s armor?”

“She let him.”

“The hell do you mean, she let him?”

“She let down her defenses.”

“And why after all her searching did she not know what was right under her room?”

“She did not want to know.”

“I don’t understand it.  All that effort to destroy people who just wanted to go about their lives while he was close to her.”

“She would have done anything for him.  You will learn many things about the ways of humankind in the coming years.”

“Do I come with you then?”

The Demon gave out a chuckle, his hood drew back and suddenly Dask could see the pale face inside with its eyes of empty shadow.

“That foolish Duke thought he could stay in power by cheating the scales.  I came here because of the Paladin; imagine what sort of powers are drawn to me.  You must grow your power.  This plane is yours now to conquer.”

“But master!”

“You will know you are nearly ready, when, one day, you are able to go to the far mountains, find, and master the Shadow Dragon.  It waits for you.  Farewell, my disciple.”  A Doorway of negative light slid open without a sound and then the Demon vanished through it.  Dask stood confounded in the middle of the marketplace as the crowd stared in awe.  He cast aside his meat and swiftly made his way from the market square.  He acquired a cloak with a hood that would help obscure his disfigured face and in less than an hour he went out the city gates and into the world that had just been given him to conquer.

Apostasy (Part 1)

“Someone has been uttering heresies in the marketplace,” a grim guard informed Suryn, Paladin of the Light.

“You can tell the Duke I will find the blasphemer at once.”  Clad in a simple white robe with a hood, she motioned to her servants who rushed to bring her armor.  Short-haired, with a defined and resolute jaw, she stood dignified and still with her arms outstretched like wings as her shining silvery breastplate was strapped on and her great sword belt fastened around her.  Within minutes, she was marching to a gate of the keep in full armor.  She flung the heavy door open, emerging resplendent into the sunlight.  All around were colorful merchant stalls and bustling crowds.  Everyone quickly parted for Suryn, whom they regarded with a mix of wonderment and dread.  She reached out with her senses and sure enough, she could feel the forbidden words still hanging in the air at the very spot they had been uttered.  There seemed to her almost a foul vapor floating there before her, still slowly dissipating.  Now she focused and began to track the Hate back to its source.  The crowd looked on in silent suspense as she followed the trail.  After some time of this tension she held still for a while, then abruptly pointed and said, “You!”

The crowd melted away in a fright from the area she had indicated.  They were rushing to leave the area now while city guards streamed in with a rhythmic clanking.  Only the person Suryn had indicated remained there, a man stooped over in a dark cloak, his features not clearly visible.

“Who are you? Show yourself!”  For what seemed a long pause the man just stood there.  The guards tautened bowstrings, drew their swords, and began to close in on him.  Suddenly the dark man sprang into action, black cloak swirling about him.  Hissing black spikes issued forth from his hands lodging in the throats of some guards who immediately collapsed, clutching at their hopelessly spurting arteries, their boots jerking spasmodically.  The archers let loose a volley of arrows but the dark figure simply shifted away from where he had been standing as if he had simply re-materialized.

Suryn drew her sword with a resonant toll of steel and charged at the dark man.  Suddenly a shadowy force jolted into her and she stumbled backwards.  A blow that would have killed an ordinary guard just slowed her down but it bought the dark man the time he needed.  He stretched out and lifted his arms and several archer guards floated into the air, wriggling helplessly as blood started flowing from their necks in streams to the strange being they had encircled.  Suryn tried to charge again, but was actually thrown backward this time.  Now, drained of life, the guards were dropped to the ground and the survivors began to flee in terror.  The Dark Man and the Paladin of the Light were alone now.

Suryn launched a white hot blast of purity to incinerate her opponent but he responded with an assault of his own that intercepted it.  The two blasts canceled out.  A shower of incandescent white sparks flew on towards her opponent but caused him no discernible harm.

She tried attacking him a few times more but was rewarded with the same result.  Now he lowered his arms and stood there calmly.

“I am glad you came to me so quickly.” He said in a pleasant tenor voice.

“What do you want?!” Suryn challenged him grimly. She continued to circle him, watching for an opening to close the distance between them and take his head off with her silver blade.

“This realm has lacked any serious opposition for a long age now.  I would just like to inform you all; the days of ease are over.”

“Why are you here, Demon?”

“Because you are here. I am mystified as to why a full Paladin was sent here. I am the price they pay for asking your aid.”

At that moment, she sprang at him flying swiftly through the air as her armor burned bright with her fury.  The dark man’s form wavered for a moment and then seemed to fold backwards into itself in a swirl of shadow.  He was gone.  Furious, Suryn drove her blade into the ground and it slid through the earth smoothly.  As she jerked it back out, bright drips of molten sand went flying through the air.

Despite her exhaustion, Suryn felt uplifted that night as she entered the chambers of the Duke.  He welcomed her with a friendly smile, his dark and intelligent eyes gleamed in the light of lamps and candles.  “I hear you saved us today from the dark powers. I see that I was right to request your presence here after all.”

“He will come back.” she admitted with dread and disappointment in the pit of her stomach.

“But imagine if you had not been here!” he insisted.  “If he’s a Demon this is the sort of threat we have not seen for generations.”  For a moment, even the Duke seemed worried.  At least, a shadow passed over his open face and was gone.  He took a step toward her.

“I just wanted to personally thank you for your valor today on behalf of the realm.”  He looked into her eyes earnestly.  In spite of herself, Suryn again found her heart racing in his presence.

“You have my full support to keep seeking out the heretics of speech and thought and deny this new adversary the power he might gain from them.  As always, if there’s anything you need, you need only ask.”  Suryn found herself only able to nod in affirmation.  The Duke stood nearly a head taller than her and as she looked up, her legs felt weak.  To her utter shock, he took her hand in his and squeezed it comfortingly.

“I trust you are unhurt from the encounter, at least in body.  I wish you rest as well as you may tonight.”  He let go of her hand and began to turn away toward his desk.

“Good night, brave guardian.”

Suryn’s hand seemed to burn as she returned to her own sparse chambers.  Unbidden she remembered Kristyan, the young man in her childhood village.  She had smiled at him every day and run her hand through her hair as she passed by until one day, she saw him with the wandering tinker’s daughter in his arms.  She watched the pretty giggling fool fall into his arms as if from nowhere and then soon after her belly began to swell with new life.

She had always been the best student of scripture in the village; the elderly priests doted on her as a child and even as she grew into a young woman.  She could cast blessings on the fields and help the sick.  She won the gratitude of everyone but the love of no one.  Then one day, she saw Kristyan and his wife gazing adoringly at their baby boy.  That dark night, lying awake, she felt something tiny yet momentous silently snap inside her.  Carrying almost nothing, she simply walked aimlessly into the hills, knowing even at that moment, she would never return.

One day, thirsty and nearly starved, she saw a white cathedral shining miles away.  No matter how she marched towards it, it always seemed just as far off.  She sensed somehow that her life was about to be decided and with complete determination, she ignored the pains of her body however it might punish her and as she did, the cathedral started to grow nearer and brighter.  Just as the last of her strength began to fail, she found herself somehow on its front steps.  Then she had hauled herself up those final shimmering marble stairs and into the portal beyond.

Now Suryn realized she was curled up in bed with tears streaking down her face.  Her hand was still seared by the pain of the Duke’s warm hand.  She had vowed to leave all thought of such things behind and if she was not careful, it would weaken her in her fight with the powers of Hate.  She repeated calming mantras she had been taught as an initiate until she slid into the dreamless sleep of exhaustion.

The next day, Suryn marched down every street accompanied by guards, keen for the slightest scent of heresy.  All the commoners she passed gazed on her with her shining silver armor in awe and apprehension.  She could sense their private fears though she could not know precisely what they were.  They all felt to her like the mundane sorts of transgressions, not worth singling out now.  Then, down a tight row of houses she felt a disturbance that gave her a sickening feeling in her gut.  Her guards immediately tensed up as they saw she was reacting to something.

“There.” Suryn gestured and they all rushed down the row to one narrow wooden house that looked little different from any of the others it was crammed together with.  They immediately burst through the door to find a simple abode dimly lit through a single window.  Other than jugs of cheap wine, empty ones strewn across the floor, and workman’s clothing, nothing was there to tell more of the resident. No one was home; the guards started to look around perplexed and awkward.  To them, it was a simple room with nothing of interest.  Suryn, however, was staring intently at the plain wall.

“I found it.” she said.  She could see something like a swirling darkness on the wall, a portal of sorts that had allowed dark powers to enter.  On the floor she could see from the dark marks lingering there, someone had knelt in supplication and sworn allegiance to the powers of Hate.  She reached out her hand and closed the dark doorway with a flash of light that startled the guards.  Then they stormed out of the house, questioning everyone in the area about the resident.  They soon found him at his job working at a barrel shop.  The guards seized him immediately and brought him to the Paladin.

The young man seemed surly and defiant. Suryn noticed he had piercing blue eyes that reminded her disturbingly of of Kristyan.

“Why have you done this?” she asked him in a grim, level tone.

“What are you talking about?” he replied with something almost like contempt.  Suryn felt anger flare in her.  No one ever addressed her like that.  Her suspects had always been frightened or just eager to be let free.

She pointed at him with a silver-gauntleted hand.  “Dask, you have pledged yourself to the powers of Hate and let them into this city.  I can tell that filth came from you.  You are now under divine tribunal.”

Back in the keep, Suryn had Dask brought before her and told the guards to leave.  Instead of cowering, the young man glared at her.

“I haven’t done anything. I just work my job to get by and pay the rent for a hole to live in. Doesn’t a Paladin of Heaven have more important things to do?”

“My work is to track down people like you.  I could see in your house that you spoke to the Dark Powers there. Why?”

“I never even mention the Darkness and I haven’t said anything heretical. Everyone knows better than that.”

“Your words or actions opened a Doorway.  You invited a Demon into this safe and peaceful city.  People have already died because of you.  Your only chance now is to tell me everything you know.”

Dask was chastened this time and shuddered at the thought of the brutally murdered guards everyone had been talking about.

“The doorway was by the back wall of your house.  You were kneeling at that spot when it was created.”

Fear and recognition passed over Dask’s face.  “The Dark Powers?  In my house?” he said with fearful wonder.

“What happened? Look here and tell me.”

He hesitated for a long while as emotions flickered across his face and he weighed his words carefully.

“I moved into that small room after the Duke’s judges gave my wife the house. The master cooper pays me well but that damn judge took away almost everything I had.”

“What did you do to her?” asked Suryn, her voice sinking into derision. “Are you a criminal against women?”

“No! One day she simply went to a magistrate and told them I had abused her.  They never even talked to me about it.  When I got home from work, I was shut out of my own house.”

“So far you have denied responsibility in any way you can. You have a lot to answer for now.”

“It’s not my fault!” he snapped “I don’t know how a Demon got in. I never even got to ask her why.  They wouldn’t let me see her or our son!”

“Take care how you speak to me. Your soul hangs by a thread.”

“God damn my soul and you too! I don’t care anymore.”

Suryn had had enough.  Her face went pale with rage and she ordered the guards back in.

“Whip him.” Her tone was flat but her voice was tight.  She watched intently as his shirt was stripped off his back and he was forced to his knees.  His body was well-toned from honest work and he glared at her with his blue eyes.  It satisfied her now to see this abuser prostrated on the ground.  A guard tested a cane for its snappiness and found it to his liking.  Then the whipping began.  Before long, Dask was screaming in pain.

“Stop.” she commanded.  She laid her hands on his lacerated back and soon there were ribbons of silvery smoke curling upward like a cauterizing incense.  At first he screamed again and then began to sigh deeply.  When she lifted her hands, his back was pale and unblemished again.  The guards stood dumbstruck by what seemed to them a miracle.

“Again.” she ordered them. Hesitantly, they obeyed not daring even to spare any force in their blows.  Then they obeyed again.  By the fourth time what had seemed miraculous sickened them.  The room was thick with that odd burnt odor of healing flesh.

“You can take him to his cell now.” she told them. Dask was completely passed out from the pain though his pale skin had not been left with a single scratch.  When he was recovered she was confident that he would speak to her with proper reverence. Servants of the Divine were not to be trifled with.

Dask lay trembling in fevered sleep as the sensations of pain on top of pain troubled his dreams.  In that maze of apparitions it came to him.  He saw himself in a drunken rage on the night he had lost his wife, his child, and his house forever bellowing and throwing sloppy punches at the cheap plaster walls.  Little paint chips had been embedded in his fists for a couple weeks after that paining him every day at his job as he hammered iron hoops into place around oaken staves.  He’d had to spend extra on some special ointment and bandages to heal properly at all.  It came to him again. He had held his bloody fists to his chest and full of rage had sworn himself against all this cursed land.  As this vision of revealed memory faded, he thought he perceived a man in dark robes hovering over him.

“There, there.” The figure said. “You will be alright in just a bit more time. She saw to that much.  Listen carefully, unless of course you want to stay trapped here answering her interrogations.  When you come to, look for a jagged rock in the corner.  If you want out bad enough you will chisel at that corner.  Do not stop, not to eat, drink, sleep, or relieve yourself. That chisel stone won’t break, trust me.  But it will exact a price of you.  How much are you willing to pay for your freedom?”

Dask sank back into his trackless haze of pain and unknown hours passed as he slowly began to become aware of his surroundings, his muscles taut as wire, his jaw and teeth aching horribly from clenching, grinding, and screaming.  More time passed before he dared to inspect his body for wounds and broken bones.  He could only sob in incoherent amazement as he felt himself over and felt only his smooth skin.  It was as though he had awakened from a nightmare and all the beatings had only been imagined.  He heaved in relief and rolled in fetal position for a while trying to internalize his odd situation. Dask reflected in anguish on how his whole life had fallen apart in such a short time.  His wife and child gone. Even his meager rented room and bottles of booze to ease the pain gone now.

He heaved back and forth in his pitch-black cell, the memories of overlapped anguish still overwhelming him.  Somehow he found himself crawling for the corner of his black cell and sure enough his groping hand found something smooth and glassy to the touch.  The chisel.  His heart jumped.  It was cold and sharp around the edges by which he held it.  He hesitated but then he remembered his rage and despair.  Then blindly in the dark he began lashing out at the wall, heedless at how his own implement sliced fiercely into his hand.

Even as his hot blood poured forth against the frigid shard of rock he only renewed his efforts.  Somehow in his gut he knew this was some kind of test on which his life depended.  At length he heard footsteps coming down the hallway and instead of falling quiet he redoubled his efforts, scraping at the wall like a madman, now with hot sheets of his own blood running down his forearms.  There was shouting outside his cell door but he ignored it.  He kept hammering and slashing, single-mindedly now, channeling the last of his will into the knife.  Just as the door began to creak open, he blindly lurched forward, expecting to smash his head against solid stone.  Instead, he tumbled forward into an incomprehensible emptiness and fell.

Reclaimer: Episode 3

Miner crouched silently, his hand tracing liminal rhythms across the smooth stone-face which barred his way as if, from the elements, he wished to draw some deep and forbidden knowledge. Behind him, 400 stood with her arms folded about her breasts, her blond brows slightly furrowed as she watched the peculiar ritual unfold, attempting and failing to take the measure of it.

The stone over the mine-shaft had collapsed after the steel brace-wall had given way, Miner noted, but it had not collapsed entirely. A small pin-point of light shown through the amniotic blackness like a ghostly candle. At length he drew back slightly from the lump of rubble and gestured to the pinprick in the darkness without turning.

“That’s my lantern,” 400 noted soberly, “Unity energy cell still going strong; was one of the old issue ones, they just don’t make um like they used to; newer issues fail twice as fast.”

WE don’t make them like we used to – the praeteritum – UNITY at large makes nothing; only components produce; yet how often we repeat the fiction that every action transgresses the bounds of production itself and that the source is the whole, that no center for the work itself is to be found. From birth we have been taught that everything which is accomplished is for the whole, by the whole, of the whole; yet one cannot abstract the act from the man – the solis organize, the praeteritum build and the foras luxuriate. The state of things is undressed, but none dare brave to see, as if gazing thereupon were some bawdy exercise, a destructive Eros propelling the subject towards thanatropic density. Truth is a thing of the past; failing knowledge of this, the silent fiction of the present transmogrifies itself into the “facts” of the future. 

Miner was surprised by the sudden surge of vivid bitterness which arose through the marauding haze of his mind, saturated as it was with ana-gel, now subsiding. He was particularly confused at his inner choice of words, he felt their weight and understood their meaning but knew not their origin. He scribbled away in the whirring clockwork of his mind as might some fevered novelist penning his magnum opus under the auspices of the maddening moon.

So many words do I utilize without a firm understanding of their origins. My people, our very name, ‘praeteritum,’ wherefrom did this notation come, so peculiar and distinct is it’s nature; so alien, yet so intimate… 

Such sudden realization disturbed him greatly. He waxed grateful for 400’s earlier ineptitude, had she not nearly gotten them both killed, had the shifter not triggered his exo-gel-system, had he not descended to the abyss, trammeled through the darkness and traced the laylines of the stone he might not ever have struck upon the precise mixture of component parts to assemble the puzzle, the pieces of which he had carried about his brain for the entirety of his life without ever realizing it. Discovery of the puzzle left him rent, as if a hole had been torn somewhere within him, tracing out the dimensions of some realm beyond into which he feared to tread.

Balling his fists, steeling his mind and unfolding himself from his ritualistic pose, Miner set himself to the task of excavation and hoped the puzzle’s nagging would leave him to the stern detachment of work.

*

The earth-shifter’s sensors detected a peculiar form moving towards it at great velocity. It’s metrics took the precise measure of the thing which bounded across the smooth grey silt, exposing the brown-grey earth below, yet the measure did not match it’s pre-programmed index. The mapped object should have been human but it’s velocity was such that “human” as conclusion faltered.

Unity Com Officer V-4 turned with excitement from her console and spoke with dire purpose to the Magister Von Karr.

“One of our earth-shifters has detected a biological anomaly, Magister. You may wish to take a look.”

The Magister turned from where he stood over the edge of his desk, a container of ana-gel cupped delicately between his meaty hands. He was a large creature, ungainly and possessed of a stuttering voice far higher than his considerable size suggested. He moved slowly, like a wayward seal, gel dripping from his nose and his whole body trembling under it’s influence. At length he managed the arduous task of perambulating to his co-worker where she sat in her stim-suit, plugged into the control chair. He wished to think of her as his subordinate but such thought was anathema – he knew that if such bio-patterns were assessed he’d be summarily refigured, he might even, he inwardly gasped, lose his post. Such terror prompted another dose of gel and with it a quiver of muscles reposed. When at least his nerves were sufficiently suppressed he bent to study the screen.

“What zone is this, V-4?”

“Uh… the shifter is in… Zone 8-83, Magister. One of the newer praeteritum mines.”

“W-well, um, what do you want me to do about it?”

“You’re the one’s who programmed them so I thought-”

“I have no idea what that thing is – g-goodness it’s fast!”

“It looks… like a… man.”

The speeding humaniod figure dashed ever closer, the silt spraying up in it’s wake as if the very ground were being rent and liquidated beneath the creature’s majestic passage. It was now only around 100 feet away and a voice, vaguely human, sounded from the being. A warcry.

With one quick look back at the helpless, wheezing Magister, V-4 furrowed her brows and bit her lower lip, the only semblances of stress which could express themselves from the haze of the stim-suit bioflow.

“I’m actuating defense systems. Terminate exigent threats.”

“Y-yes. Good. Can’t have anyone i-interfere with the-”

“TERMINATE!”

The magister cowered at the crackling outburst of his typically docile cohort. Through V-4’s visor he could hear the crackling affirmation of the earth-shifter, “Executing protocol.” Through the crystalline com-screen, the great mechanical spider dispensed, from it’s upper thorax, fired off a volley of bullets at the encroaching runner.

Then, a strange noise, like an electric-buzz and the ear-ringing after a grenade blast. The bullets tumbled backwards through the air as if blown aside by the breath of some fathomless beast as the humanoid figure’s velocity suddenly doubled and it shot up into the very face of the earth shifter with such force that the construct groaned, legs buckling neath the entropy of the assault. As the shifter fell to the silty ground a tan, scarred face, half-masked by a digimetric-visor, emerged into the machine’s sensor cams. He smiled and grabbed the cam with both hands, screaming.

“I’m coming for you, ya hear me, Unity scum? I’m coming for you all! First I’ll burn your mechs. Then I’ll burn your homes. Next I’ll rape your lovers, right before your children as you look on in horror, your legs, broken – arms, mangled – jaw, distended or torn free – unable to fight, or flee or scream. Then I’ll burn them too. One big fucking pyre. One city of steel-frames and marrow. A charnel tomb for charnel minds. But you filthy, backstabbing sonsofwhores… you needn’t worry, I ain’t gonna kill you lot, I’ll be keeping you around for a good long while. We’re gonna have ourselves a grand ole time, right up until the very end of it.”

Then, with a wild jerk, the man crushed the steel camera-frame with his armor-plated hands as the signal clicked off into nothingness. Slowly V-4 rose from her chair and turned to Magistar Von Karr with the expression of one who has seen the risen dead.

Karr mouthed but a single word and the whole of his body trembled with the uttering.

“Eidos… Kryos.”


 

 

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Tomb of the Father: Chapter Two, Home & Hearth

Gunvald woke in the dark and buried the brigand upon the northern hill opposite the shepherd’s encampment and departed from the old vaquero wordlessly, before his waking, as the halcyon sphere drifted up across the high, jagged peaks of the far mountain. He made his way over the thin, reedy grass from the northern hill and from there to the stony outcropping where he’d slept as the sheep bawled and yapped like insane children and then passed down between the precarious tors into the lowlands which were spotted here and there with small tufts of shrubbery and strange boulders incised with markings from some people that had since passed from the world’s collective remembrance. The man stopped as if the stones had rooted him to his shadow by some eldritch witchery and slowly reached out to touch the curious monolith before him, gingerly running his dry and cloth wrapped hands across the smooth-hewn crevices of the mighty artifact. He closed his eyes and inhaled and exhaled deeply until his breathing became as rhythmic as a drumbeat and he felt as if his hands and those that had wrought the arcane inscriptions where one and the same. Past called to future. Dead to living. As if the stone were whispering to him, tales for forgotten times and well lived lives and those less well lived and what their folly entailed for the ignorant persisting. It was a peculiar feeling, one that the weary traveler struggled to rationalize but felt powerfully all the same. At length, he opened his eyes and slowly withdrew his hand from the stone and retreated a pace and looked over the monolith entire, from tip to base and judged the breadth and width; some eight feet high, some seven feet wide. The weight of the thing the gods only knew.

When he’d taken in the stone in all its facets he turned full from it and made his way out through the quitch and bracken and past other stones, both larger and smaller than the first, and all similarly marked by ancient hands, the symbols there incised beyond the travelers reckoning. Here and there a recognizable representation, half-masked in abstraction: a man, a woman, a wolf, a bear, a fish, a snail, a tree. The symbol most oft represented was the wolf, over and over again it was inscribed, with near mechanical precision and a primal beauty that he’d scarcely witnessed in even the most lavish of paintings. He could almost hear its call.

Beyond the rune-stones the ground flattened out with astounding brevity, the bracken and quitch giving way to queer lichen and strange vines with small purple shoots and thick, raw swatches of muddy-clay, filled all with fetid water that buzzed with insects of ever size and shape. The further out the man cast his gaze the larger the water-filled depressions grew until they merged unto a singularity, one vast marshen heap of rain-catch and sod and sand and silt. Bogland.

He recalled the old man’s words, “The first false step means death, to man or beast.”

Suddenly there came a raucous calling, a intonation, nearby and strangely human. The traveler whirled, spotting, some forty yards out into the mire, a huge male ram, only his forelegs, chest, neck and horn-crowned head clear above the bog-hold. The creature struggled a moment, flailing its powerful legs against the silt and sand-water and then, quite suddenly, it vanished, sucked down at last; even the tips of its horns sinking below the grim surface of that plane of death.

Gunvald watched the unhappy affair with a mixture equal parts despair and fascination. It seemed too sudden, the way the earth could so swiftly devour. Such a thing to the traveler’s mind was as fantastical as copper turning to gold or water to dust. The bog had not been there when last he’d traversed the moor, those seven years ago. It seemed a whole panoply of lifetimes compressed into the scattered crystalline fragments of his memories and dreams.

He recalled the long march beside his kinsmen, How high their banners flew, the colors of all the clan houses of Tor; after decades of internecine violence, united at last against a common foe, the gray-men of the Hinterlands, those they called, Rimners. How young and wild and full of lofty opinions they had been!

As Gunvald looked out across the moor his opinions flew at considerably lower altitude.

*

Finding no passage through the peat, Gunvald opted to travel round it by the southernmost way. The trek lasted two days and brought him past all manner of queer shrubs and bone piles and dying trees that looked more akin to the phantasmal skeletons of some macabre stage-play. Beyond the surmounted wetlands lay a quiet vale through which ran a babbling brook, girded on all sides by dry forest and vine, the ground verdant-lush and teeming with all manner of skittering things both foul and fair. He sat by the snaking divet and withdrew a wood cup from his travel satchel and dipped it in the water and drank deeply, the liquid sweet and cool to his parched and desirous throat. Then he watched the solar plumes play across the waves as a small school of fish nudged up to the surface, their huge, lidless eyes gazing upon the sun-scorned figure as if appetent of conversation. Gunvald withdrew the last of his stock, a dry half-loaf of bread and broke it into small pieces, eating some and then throwing the rest to the fishes who gobbled at the flotsam and then nervously retreated, wary of Man’s latent, yet ever present perfidy.

Moments later, the sound of creaking wood could be heard all throughout the vale, followed swiftly by a muted cascade of footfalls. The sound followed the wake of an old cart, rope-dragged by four men, filthy, disheveled and dressed all in furs. Their faces were covered by cloth halfmasks, securing the nose and mouth from nature’s multitudinous ravishments. Gunvald rose to observe the strange and solemn congression, eyes widening with horror as he beheld their vessel’s grisly cargo.

Bodies.

Some fifteen in number, human and decaying under the harsh auspice of the sun. They were male and female alike, from babe to crone, covered in all manner of hideous rashes and boils, their skin ashen-red and peeling like the hide of some overripe fruit. Whatever disease it was that had snatched from them the breath of life seemed for the moment to have no hold upon the cart-pullers who paused momentarily, all turning to the man by the river.

One of their number addressed Gunvald sharply, as if in reprimand for some past transgression.

“What easy fool is this?”

“No fool, sir. But a traveler.”

“Those that here make passage are foolish enough to warrant the epithet. Canst thou not see our sorry wares?”

“Tis a pitiable sight. Wherefore didst they meet Dactyl’s scythe?”

Upon the utterance of that most singular name the men collectively gasped, the former speaker, a short man, bow-backed, balding and scarfaced, muttered a muted prayer and then gestured towards Gunvald as if casting some devious vermin from his presence.

“Sound not that unutterable traducement!”

“I meant no offense. Superstition has surely deranged thy temperament.”

“Enough, heretic, we darest not tarry, lest thy, with your calumnious tongue, conjure some new evil to surpass the one that now burdens our aching backs!”

The other workers nodded as if there was great wisdom in the bald man’s words and then they adjusted their masks and ropes and muttered another prayer and bent once more to their toil and moved out across the rutted and grassy way, vanishing at last beneath the cavernous canopy of the wood, swallowed whole by the shadows therein.

Gunvald watched them go and decided to follow the cartmen at a distance, for their path and his were, for the time being, one and the same.

Gunvald rose and gave chase, passing through the thick and tangled forest of oak and ash and fir and gave silent thanks for the thick moss-bed beneath that masked the clattering of his bulky armored frame. Over moss and stone and leaves, dead and alive, he walked, keeping himself well hidden and well apart from the odd foursome and their rickety old cart. After a couple hundred feet the forest opened up, the trees and shrubbery now growing more sparsely, the grass turning from green to yellow-green to a dull orange-yellow. Dying. The cart-pullers took a sharp right and passed fully beyond the forest unto a thin, dirt road that stretched out to the gray northwestern hill-lands like the great and ossified tendril of some mighty leviathan. The road ran down a slight decline in the hummock ridden surface of the world and then diverged, one track splitting off to a small city to the south and the other branching to a butte which rose as the pass to the low, south-eastern mountains. Gunvald waited until the men had disappeared beyond the curvature of the earth and then took the lonely path towards the town stopping by a small wooden sign, hastily constructed, which read:

Ħaberale

The sign was adorned with a large off-white arrow, comprised of some woodland dye, which pointed towards the clearly present outline of the town in the short-off distance, half obscured by small tussles of old trees which poked above a field of withering wheat and the ruins of some primeval fort that lay there beyond. Before the man had fully risen from his observation of the sign the sound of thundering hooves rose up from somewhere nearby, plumes of dust whirling up towards the immediate northern road. Shortly, a fearsome cavalcade stood before the weary and cautious wayfarer, five in number and all armed and armored in strict uniformity. Knights or sell-swords or something worse. Gunvald knew instantly they were not of this land, by both their expensive attire and peculiar breed of destrier, he fancied them denizens of Tor, a kingdom someways off and rarely concerned with its outlying provinces. The leader of the group and the eldest, a man of middling height and some fifty years, at length addressed the armored wayfarer.

“Hail, traveler. A moment to query?”

Gunvald nodded in wordless acquiescence, though he knew that it was not a question proper.

“I am Cyneweard, second-commander of Tor. Word of brigand raids have reached our gracious Lord, Cenhelm, and by his leave we make way to Haberale to rope the misbegotten scoundrels.”

“If that is your venture then you’re headed the way all awrong. Your foe lies beyond the northern forest, past the bogland in the high moors.”

“You’ve seen them?”

“The night last I was assailed upon the moor by three fiends, peasants it seemed.”

“Three you say?”

“Now two.”

“We thank thee kindly. Might I inquire as to your business, traveler?”

“My business is my own to keep.”

“Suit thyself. One word of parting, take heed in Haberale, the town is much changed. For the worse I am afeared. With thanks, we leave you, sir.”

Without another word the knights straightened in their leather saddles and flicked the reigns of their war-beasts and clattered off down the road toward the moor. When they had gone all was silent save for the heavy breath of the western wind that sent the traveler’s long, wavy locks all aflutter. He brushed his locks from out his eyes and adjusted his scabbard-belt and wondered at the knight’s words. Haberale had always been a sleepy little idyll, the only heed one had need to take was of how uneventful it was likely to be so as to better remedy the doldrums. Then he thought of the bandits and the dead men in the cart and the living ones pulling it and the strange masks on their faces, all deep, emerald green. Times had changed indeed.

Gunvald left off down the way and crossed through the fading wheat and the hard clay ground and made camp in the ruins of some old fort as darkness closed about him in minacious plume.

*

Gunvald woke in twilight and passed through the northern archway of the quaint little conglomeration of hamlets as the sun rose full and fierce above the distant mountains heralding the end of Night’s devious reign. Through and beyond the northern stone archway ran a well worn path of rough cobbled stone which merged with the town’s main thoroughfare. It was at this junction that a statue of the goddess Marta lay, a man standing beneath it. The man was young and slim and dreadfully pale and wore a thin leather patch about his left eye. He was dressed all in tatters and sat cross-legged upon the ground beside a little wooden bowl which he glanced at from time to time as if he were afraid it might grow legs of its own and run off to be with its own kith and kin.

Gunvald’s footfalls sounded in short order upon the little, tatterdemalion man’s ears at which point he languidly raised his shaggy, windswept head and affixed the traveler with a most marvelous gold-green eye.

“Greetings and salutations, m’lord.”

“I’m not yer lord, beggar.”

“Not yet, good sir, not yet. Give it goodly time.”

Gunvald wondered momentarily if the man were mad, decided that it mattered not; he was pitiable all the same.

“Wherefore do thy wear that mangy patch?”

“Tis not for fashion, sure enough. But for those necessities of form that civilized men do aspire to. When War upon the Men of the Rimn was declared I, to my everlasting shame, made to abscond from those duties that bind blood to blood. Alas, I failed even in my wretched treachery and was apprehended and press-ganged to the front lines in service to Tor. It was there mine eye met the fearsome edge of a grayman’s axe, hence the patch.”

“Then thou must except my apologies, I myself am a veteran of that heinous enterprise and would never have spoken so tersely to thee had I known…”

The yellow eyed man held up his hands in entreaty and shook his head sadly, knowingly.

“Tis nothing. One as wretched as I am deserving of no apologies.”

Shamed to silence, Gunvald stood a moment in awkward contemplation, his thoughts coming to him with unusual langoriousness. It was in that meditative reverie that he spotted a small cloth mat, rolled and neatly bound with an old vine. A sleeping cover more suited for a cot than the rocky, pitted ground.

“Have you lodgings?”

“No, m’lord. All that I have I carry on my person. Everything else I lost in the war. Now I lodge with the goddess, who, in her grace, has embraced me warmly.”

With a look of horror and self-vexation, Gunvald dug into his left pocket and withdrew a small handful of coins, silver and stamped with the Royal Seal of Tor, a stylized chimera perching atop a proud, jagged spire of stone on one side and on the other the stylized face of King Chester III, Sovereign of Tor.

He proffered the mintage to the faineant without hesitation.

“I can’t accept that, m’lord. Tis far too great a sum.”

“If you shan’t accept my gift I shall force it upon thee.”

“Your magnanimity exceeds all expectations, sire. May Marta bless thee!”

The man-at-arms cracked a wry smile.

“Of that, she’ll have a most arduous time. Tell me, vagrant, what do I call thee?”

“Frey, m’lord. Jameson Frey.”

“Well met, Jasmeson. I am Gunvald. May Marta bless thee likewise.”

“One word, before your leave-taking, m’lord.”

“What is it?”

“The town overfloweth scoundrels.”

Without another word he turned and left off from the shrine as the pale vagrant bowed respectfully as if to some imperial magistrate. Some forty feet down the road Gunvald entered the town proper, passing through the old, low, stone archway which let out into the thin and winding main thoroughfare, passing between two old cobblestone huts, their smokestacks painting the sky gray with their exhaustive alcahest. He followed the road aways, passing between row after row of small cobbled huts with low hanging roofs of laiden brown thatch, small circular windows exposing the heads of a silent and solemn population who gazed out upon the lone wanderer with a mixture of wonder and fear. Their eyes spoke volumes, the unmuttered words those of caution, a collective flashing of looks that seemed to say, “Beware!”

His pace quickened in tandem to his pace, soon he settled into a light jog and closed his hand about the door of the fourth house to the left of the entryway. He braced himself for the coming encounter and feared his heart might wake the inhabitants with its knocking. Then he entered.

Inside there was only a old woman who looked up without surprise, as if she had been expecting him. After a moment, her eyes adjusted and a look of somber knowing came unto her face.

“I remember that face. Gunvald Wegferend, it pleases me to see you alive and well, dour faced as ever.”

He remembered the old crone, Paega well, she the former nurse-maid to his beloved and a fishwife at that.

“I trust you’ve been well, old fox.”

“Ack, don’t try your charms on me, I’m too old for flattery.”

“Very well.”

“To answer true… I’ve been better, all here have-”

He interrupted suddenly, unable to contained his excitement and curiosity.

“Leofflaed… is she here?”

The fishwife paused and gave a long, sad sigh before answering.

“Leofflaed is gone.”

“G-gone?”

“Due your feelings for her I shan’t keep anything aback. Her father sold her to Lord Eadwulf, the cattle baron, I trust you remember him. She lives with the lord even still, in that old stone manse upon the southern plain.”

“Hamon sold her?”

“Yes.”

“For what purpose.”

“To pay off a gambling debt.”

“What purpose for Eadwulf?”

“It were better I not say.”

Gunvald face was red with wrath, his fists trembling. He wanted to loose his rage without hesitation and would have had Eadwulf been there before him.

“My Leofflaed, sold like a common whore!”

“Hush, now, young master Gunvald. She was never promised to you. All vows made were between thee and she alone and none other. Now come, sit, you must be weary with your travels.”

“Nay, but I thank thee for thy troubles, Paega.”

He turned to leave but the old woman rose and grasped his forearm.

“Do nothing rash, young master, Eadwulf will not permit it and-”

“I’ll not be lectured to, especially not by a woman. Now take your hand from me this instant.”

She did as he commanded, fear and worry mixing in equal measure from the dull pallor of her withered cheeks and the slight glint in her weathered, squinting eyes.

Without another word he left off out of the house without closing the door and stalked through the streets with a lion’s fury. For a moment the man was directionless and then he remembered the old inn. A drink would well enough calm the nerves as it dulled the senses. For the present the soldier wished to feel nothing at all.

As he made way to the old inn Gunvald was perplexed by the empty streets which, in his youth, had been so full of mirth and gaiety and merchants haggling their glitzy baubles and minstrels singing songs of heroic struggles of some olden, mythic age, all of lion-slaying and monsters and magical princes and damsels and goddesses so fair they would blind all mortals who dared gaze upon their supple, naked forms. Now there was nothing but silence, broken at sullen intervals by the cracking of the old flags, green and emblazoned with the chimeric crest of Tor, that flew above the ramshackle houses from the watchtowers where they stood before the low, stone walls, overgrown with moss and unkempt as if in abandonment.

It looked liken to the domain of the dead.

He continued along the thoroughfare and passed beyond the low-born housing and moved on to the town square and passed the shuttered armory and the barren fish-market where only a few shadow-faced gypsies sulked, and moved to stand before the inn as an icy wind blew in from the north and crows gathered in the sky and landed upon the eaves, cackling as if with malicious mirth at his present plight. The looked to be Loessians, those curious folk what had crossed the great desert that moored itself to the World Spine and bulwarked the whole of the Kingdom of Tor from the other noted lands. Gunvald wondered at their presence: What were they doing so far from home?

Abruptly, one of them looked to Gunvald with keen interested and muttered something in a foreign tongue to a younger compatriot. The younger man drew himself up and instantly ran off, headed for inn to which Gunvald was headed. The armored traveler paid the boy no minded and moved to stand upon the low, flat veranda of the venerable establishment. He barley recognized the place, so hewn with odd etchings and strange graffiti was it, all in some foreign hand. Loessian, he fancied.

A old man sat upon a overturned bucket upon the leftmost side of the wide porch of the itinerant’s lodge. He was a sunken-eyed creature, dour and vacant, garbed in a thick fur coat and hat, a long wooden pipe gently set between his small, yellowed teeth upon which he puffed from time to time with methodical regularity. At length he spoke without turning.

“You know what they say? Those wall-scrawlings?”

Gunvald shook his head.

“I’ve little penchant for symbolism.”

“Tisn’t symbolism, tis Loessian. I don’t like the way they leer. Like cats.”

Gunvald waited a moment, expecting the old man to say something else and at length, after a long, meditating puff of his wickwood pipe, he did.

“You know how to swing that sword you carry?”

“Well as any.”

“You’ll need it shortly. The sword and the knowledge of its swinging.”

“Is that a threat, old man?”

The withered smoker screwed up his face, as if insulted and then spoke with forced restraint.

“Nay, a warning. I remember you. Gunvald, wasn’t it? Allotar and Aedelstein’s boy, but a boy no longer.”

“I don’t recall ye, old man.”

“Didn’t expect ye to. I knew your parents, knew them well. Thyself I met but on two occasions, ye but a babe, dew-eyed and grasping.”

“I do not wish to be rude, but I’m in no mood for chit-chat.”

“Fine then. To the heart of my warning. This lodge is owned by Lord Eadwulf’s right-hand man, Baldric, a very dangerous and intemperate man. His cohorts are seldom better. It is also, formerly, the favored haunt of the Loessian gypsies you see leering at us so ill-mannerly. Baldric can’t abide the Loessians and they, likewise. There are often fights. Killings. There are other places to drink than here and for a triumphant Son of Tor, I would gladly spare the whole depth and breadth of my samovar twice over, or more.”

As Gunvald opened his mouth to answer the doors to the inn swung open at the behest of a powerful hand, a powerful form swiftly following. A man, some six feet tall emerged, looked left then right then left again towards the duo and moved to stand before Gunvald. Gunvald turned full about and beheld the newcomer. He was some forty years of age with a thick and well trimmed beard all of red set below small black eyes and innumerable scars that ran from temple to cheek and from chin to neck. Gifts of the battlefield.

For a moment all was silent as the scar-faced man gazed upon Gunvald with great intensity. The next moment he surged forwards and latched Gunvald with a powerful embrace.

“Valiant Son of Tor! Welcome back, welcome back! A venerable procession I would have prepared had I known of thy arrival!”

Gunvald returned the old battle-hound’s embrace with a merry smile.

“You’re looking well, Uncle.”

*

The men sat around the rickety wooden round table in the center of the raucous inn. The lodging was all of thick-cut timber, with a small chandelier made of antlers and bone and which illuminated the laughing faces and the amber brew, overflowing, below. Gunvald smiled faintly as he looked about the old establishment. Exactly as he had left it. It was good to know at least some things had remained the same since the passing of the war. The room was still long and rectangular. The pitted, polished bar still stood in the back left corner, arranged all with brilliant crystalline glasses that proudly shone down upon the stuffed animal heads that lined the walls like curious spirits and the chortling merry-makers who swilled their hearty brew and smoked their oversized pipes, dancing light like dutiful sentries. Prune-faced was the owner who barked orders at the service wenches, their youthful limbs, limber and fast dancing about the shuttered ambit, wheeling great mugs of ale and mead and some strange smelling concoction that escaped Gunvald’s ken to the baying host therein who clacked their heels and struck up a tune here, or there quipped back and forth, arguing over a game of cards. The whole of the place a whizgig of energy and motion. A pen of mirthful chaos.

Gunvald starred down into his mug, watching the light play across the contents halcyon surface as Baldric conversed with his men, they all armed to the teeth and red-nosed with alcohol. At length he turned and raised his glass to the meditative veteran.

“Here’s to Gunvald of Tor, Hero of South, Scourge of the Gray!”

“To Gunvald!” The men exclaimed with ecstatic unison as they tipped weighty flasks to lips and downed half the contents therein. They were young to middle aged, armed and armored, but poorly, and each bearing the sigil of Lord Eadwulf, a furious, brass bull, upon the pommels of their well-sheathed swords.

Gunvald at length raised his own glass and looked to each and every local visage and then intoned imperiously.

“To Tor, and all her bloodied men!”

“Here, here!”

After the cheers the Baldric ordered them back to their posts around the perimeter of the town, leaving the gruff vassal alone with his nephew. He turned to Gunvald and glanced to his cup; empty.

“Well that surely won’t do. Not at’tall.”

“I’ve had well enough.”

“Of mead, perhaps, what say you to the other delectable treats afforded us?”

Baldric smiled mischievously as a sultry waitress sided up to him, bearing a bowel of nuts and two fresh pints of mead, which she set gingerly down before the two seated warriors. She looked first to Baldric then to Gunvald and smiled pleasantly. When Gunvald made to pay her she shook her head and held up her heands in entreaty.

“For a hero such as thee, tis on the house. As many as you like. Tis our pleasure, m’lord.”

“I thank thee, and you’re old master,” Gunvald responded stoically, his eyes leaving the dark pool of his cup only briefly, then returning to distanced reverie. The bar maiden stood uncertainly for a moment, as if she wished to speak but could not formulate the words until at last she bowed, saying only, “Well, I do not wish to disturb thee any longer.”

Baldric gave a laugh and, as she left off, slapped her straight upon the bum.

“Get ye off to the other guests, Ebba, my pretty, little minx.”

“Incorrigible scoundrel!”

The bar maid made a show of huffing and puffing but crack a delighted smile despite herself and whirled away tsk-tsking.

“Have ye lost ye manhood entire to the cup?”

“Nay.”

“Ya didn’t even spare Ebba a glance, an she a right ole looker – oh how she makes my heart leap with every new visage! Should go after her, I saw the way she was a’looking at ya-”

“That isn’t what I want.”

“Well, what do ya want? Hell, you and the rest of the town haven’t yet realized it, but you’re a bloody hero, you can have anything you want. Anything. Hear me, lad? I should know, I read you’re letters and the missives tracking your legions movements through the Rimn. When I read the last one my soul nearly leapt from my body, my heart, ceased it’s knocking and… I don’t mind saying it, tears sprang into me eyes. It had come by wing from one of Eadwulf’s falconers; it read:

Fenrald’s 3rd Legion surprised by Grey ambush at Rivenlore.

No survivors.

“Upon its reading I froze and there starred at the words and read them again, but they did not change. The horror was immovable. So many of my friends. Dead. Buried or burnt all. The worst of it was the casting of my mind to thyself, my dearest nephew – to have lost you to that stony, ice-wrapt waste… I know not what I would have done! And yet, here ye sit, glum and stolid as ever, but here and well and alive none the less! I was o’erjoyed when the next letter came – the war was ended; the Grey Chief slain. Split from knave to chops and shoulder to shoulder, his head unseamed from his villainous corpse! And by none other than by thee, my dearest nephew.”

“I’m surprised ye have yet to send for Eadwulf. He’ll be desirous to know of my presence.”

“Oh, no ye don’t, I know you’re ways, ye want me ta call him so that ye can return to the dutiful fold of His Grace. So that you can get aback te fighting! Well, ya’ave slain well enough and now, to rest.”

“Twas four months in the crossing from the Rimn to Tor alone. I’m rested well enough. Now send for Lord Eadwulf.”

“Ack, that kin wait – looky ere, tis Freyda. Isn’t she just the bonniest thing-”

Without warning, Gunvald slammed his fist hard into the table and turned frightfully upon his uncle, his eyes wide, intense and burning with some effulgent property that filled Baldric’s mind with a sudden terror.

“Spare me the bar-room whores. Take me to Eadwulf. Now.”

Tomb of the Father: Chapter One, Traveler On The Moor

The sky was dark as the carapace of the beetles which scurried hither and thither beneath the flinty, scattered boughs of the gnarled and dying trees as the man moved over the khaki hillocks of the endless moor, the traveling lamp unshuttered the world in its eastward descent unto oblivion as if following the lonely soul in his argent passage. Wind-chaffed and weary, that solitary figure trudged over a low slope and descended liken to the effulgent sphere above him as a scattering of sheep ran zig-zag about him, fleeing off down the incline to congregate about the fires of some aged vaquero. The cowherd bivouacked in a stony vale, buttressed all about by a high semi-circle of tors that girded he and his odd-baying wards from the buffets of the world. To the left of a fire-pit which had been hastily constructed and ringed about with the scarce, ashen sediment of the moor stood a diminutive palfrey, outfitted with naught but a loosely strapped saddle-cloth and whisp’d reigns of hair.

The stranger looked on a while and then adjusted his leather belt and heavy pack, his shoulder o’er thrown and looked to the storm-wall building up in the far-flung distance and then back again and made haste to the camp seeking harbourage from the ravishment encroaching.

Small flickering tongues of flame hacked away the shade from the rocky outcropping and illuminated the face of the beasts and men alike and for a brief spheres-turning all was silent save for crackling stutter of burning wood and the muted shuffling of the graze-beasts upon the heath.

The vaquero looked the stranger up and down and then bade him to the warmth of his shelter, the invitation, readily accepted.

“What queer business brings such as thee to this long-forsaken vale?”

The stranger set himself down beside the fire and warmed his aching bones and then turned to his benefactor with a countenance both dire and faraway, as if he were intensely enveloped in the contemplation of something from a time long past or yet still to come.

“No business but chance. I make pilgrimage to Caer Tor, but upon my way my horse didst fall; eaten by ague. So, with a heavy heart, I put sword to spine and ended the sorry beast’s suffering and continued on my way afoot; this barren waste the last obstacle o’er which I must leap to reach my kinsmen’s warm embrace, they unprimed of my arrival.”

The cowherd nodded as if sense had been made of the thing and some semblance of trust both established and reciprocated.

“Thou mayst call me, Ealdwine.”

As the stranger took the old man’s hand and shook it firmly he spoke with something liken to shame frittering about his dulcet tones.

“Gunvald Wegferend.”

“Curious name that, such that it sounds not of this thede, nor any other.”

“That alone is a story in the retelling.”

“The isolation of the moor doth unfix the tongue from its rightful wagging – but worry not, I shan’t pry. Thy business is thy own and thine own to keep.”

“I mind not, old man, but would thank thee for the comfort of thy wild-twinkling foyer, the effulgence of the firmament, for all its dazzling brightness did little to gird me from frost’s fell grasp. Hark! Hear ye that sound?”

The old man half turned upon the old log on which he sat, cocking an ear in the direction of the wide, outer dark. Then he shook his hoary head and returned his attention to the wayfarer.

“Nay, I hear nothing.”

Ealdwine leaned closer to the stranger, his grizzled visage demon-like in the interplay of dark and flame.

“There are always noises upon the heath. Sounding with great regularity, not all tricks of a frightened mind at that. There are skinks, efts, wild dogs and shrews and grouse and geese, adders and crickets aplenty. Oftimes the big-horned rams from the far mountains loose themselves from that stony prison and, wayward, wander in quizzical vexation about this lonely place. Wild hearts beating with the echoing confusion the land sings aplenty. Upon such happenings, I see them stray into the marsh which stretches like a great and black-blooded gash across the earth at the far southern end of the moor, like a wound from some titian’s own brand. If so they stray, they will invariably fall prey to the silent monster with maw eternal-arced and hunger endless and strain against the bog-hold, crying out, strangely human, into the fire-pitted welkin where nary an ear but mine can hear tell of their sorry plight. At last their rangy heads and heaving flanks will vanish beneath the sinkhole and with that disappearance so to do their cries subside and all is at once, silent and severe.”

Gunvald, sensing the old herder sought his fear, crossed his thick and iron banded arms about his cuirassed chest and raised a brow.

“Canst thou not aid the poorly beasts?”

“Fools errand that twould be, none but a scion of God could navigate that blasted place with sureness of foot. The first false step means death, to man or beast. For there is naught living that can escape that fetid pit when once it has thee in its soggy grip.”

“Tis a fine thing then that I am no horny ram.”

“You should not make light of such turnings, for there is a ordering to things beyond our comprehension and a truth it seems to me that those who scoff at the plight of that whom The Creator hath deigned to snatch away laugh also at Him, for is not such cessation but part and parcel of his plan? What greater sacrilege could there but to scoff at the very pathing of the world. So take heed, traveler, thy laugh at thy own peril for thy laugh unto the very face of God.”

Gunvald furrowed his brows and then adjusted his belted scabbard such to bend better towards the heat and there a moment refreshed himself and then straightened and addressed the old man.

“Thy words well become a man of your occupation. Tis rightful that men of the earth should, with their deeds as with their tongue, extol it.”

“Yes. But ye yet say naught pertaining to the truth of it.”

“It is not for men of my station to interpret such eldritch things. I’ve not the brain for it and, lacking the intelligence, lack also the words. My voice is in my sword for redder conversations than this.”

“A soldier then?”

“Aye. Hark. Again I hear it.”

Before the old man could speak three vast shadows subsumed the rocky outcropping and footed there, three men, feral eyed and brigandined. There was between them several swords and daggers, all of which reflected like ghostly fires neath the cool sheen of the shrouded, waning moon.

The cowherd and his compatriot rose with suddenness, Gunvald’s hand flying instinctively to the leather-bound pommel of his gilded blade, gifted him by his father, late. He drew the blade in the same instant and stepped forth with a fencer’s feline grace, eyes steady as poise, emotion cold as the brand which glinted orange with the low-crackling fire.

“Who goes?”

“Put that away afore ye hurt yeself,” a pudgy member of that ratty trio mouthed with a wide, sinister grin.

Another, the shortest and ugliest member of that threesome, a hunchback, swiped the air with his weapon, a cudgel as loathsome as the visage of its wielder, which caused the sheep to bah-bah and retreat civilly to the very edges of the high, stone cliffs.

“Looks as if we’ve a froggy one! I’ll take him myself and to our master bring his head!”

“Silent and still be the both of you,” Thundered the tallest member of that sordid corp, a man some thirty years of age, angular of face and form, he wielding a grain scythe in his leather-strapped hands.

Gunvald knew not the providence of such beings but their intention was plainly writ; the Narrow War had made many such fell creations, the ungainly trio being but lesser manifestations of the insurrections twisted deviance. Their movements furtive. Eyes more beast than man.

“You must excuse my friends, tisn’t oft we chance upon such ill-girded company.”

Gunvald smiled fractionally.

“So you think.”

“So I know.”

“Try me then, brigand, and may Marta bless the better man.”

Malefactorous, the night-stalker advanced hesitantly across the muddy ground, well-slicked with welkin-mourn, farm scythe held awkwardly before him, as if it were some mighty polearm. All the while the thief drew forth Gunvald moved nary an inch, his eyes and bones and blade fractions of a singular whole, still as the stone surrounding. At the last, as the dread-scythe arced through the air with a furious humming, the soldier tore himself from his rooted shade and feinted the blow with the mid-side of his great-brand and delivered a sunderous riposte that severed the brigand’s arm from its socket.

A faint mist of red fluttered through the air like tiny moths from some otherworld of dreams and portents and landed upon the ground as the gory limb flopped down beside them like a huge and malformed fish. A startling howl tore from the rouges’ throat, as if it were his soul that had been rent from the body rather than a mere arm, the sound resounding throughout the high towering outcroppings and fading up into the night as if suffering were drawn unto the dark.

The flock bah-bah-ed nervously and stomped their hooves as their Shepard starred on, wide-eyed but resolved.

Gunvald turned to the remaining cretins who paused a moment, looking to the triumphal warrior, clad in moon-glint mail, then to the leaking appendage that still clutched the scythe and then to the man to which the arm used to belong, some seven feet away, flat on his back, writhing like a punctured horseshoe crab, his agony so great that nothing now but muted moans escaped his wide spaced maw, lips flexing like roiling bait-worms fresh off some fisherman’s hook.

With a startled cry the felonious duo turned tail and fled off into the night, their lanky shadows odd-angling under the skies auspicious glow, shortly thereafter wholly swallowed up into the hazy outer null. Gunvald made to swiftly follow but was held aback by the vaqueros cry, “No! They fly to the marshlands. Heed my words: Let them fly, no man can traverse such cursed terrain under the pall of night!”

Gunvald nodded and watched them fade off into the wide sea of black and then exhaled heavily, as the old man looked mournfully towards the dying thief.

Then all was sheep-call and bird-caw and fire-hiss and the hideous bleating of a lost and dying soul.

At length, Gunvald turned to his fallen foe who instantly began, once more, to shriek unto the vaulted sphere of night. His eyes bugging into enormous disks, strange-lit by the dancing flames of the softly crackling fire. Just as swiftly the man’s howling was silenced by the point of Gunvald’s blade piecing his armor and heart, there pinning him to the ground as he wriggled like some great and misshapen insect. Then his eyes rolled up in his head and a final gasp of breath escaped his mouth, issuing high up into the moist and roiling air. Then nothing but the clacking of hooves and the whistling of clay-scented wind, raving out over the great and scoured ambit of the rain-washed plane.

At length Gunvald, put his boot to the silent brigand’s chest and pulled free his bloody brand and then bent to the dead man and from his head cut a thick and charcoal lock of hair. He moved from the site of execution to the firepit and knelt before the red, closing his eyes and uttering a strange mantra unto the dancing embers, as if they’d ears to hear it.

What has gone, is what is come.

And from my hands, I give to yours.

That which is rightfully owed.

His life to your light, now and forever unending.

Give us both your pardon.

Let him keep his rest.

May your light engulf the world and every other.

When the soldier had finished his prayer and tossed the lock of hair into the fire and watched it burn with keen intensity, as if revelations would speak in shocking tongues from beneath those puffs of thin, gray smoke. When they did not he rose from the ground and set himself down upon one of the flat stones which the vaquero had hauled to the pit to keep himself well clear of the ground as he warmed his old bones. The vaquero looked to the knight a moment, then the fire, then the knight and spoke, his voice uneven, afeared.

“The hunchback mentioned they’re master.”

Gunvald nodded vaguely and gestured towards the old man for something to drink for which he was rewarded with a flask of sour, salty rice-wine. The soldier grimaced but downed it all the same, feeling a hot sensation in the pit of his stomach. He leaned over the flames, cradling the flask between his heaved gloved hands and addressed the cattle-herder with deadpan seriousness.

“Likely to me it seems that such those that fled were but part of some larger band. Raiders. From the hillands. Long have they warred with Tor. The nature of the conflict lost to the annals of history and the sands of time. T’would be unwise of thee to tarry.”

“Aye, they were at that. Though lonesome it may appear to thee, across the bogland there is green grass than this. It is there I’d graze my woolly friends were there space to do it. Alas, the land is owned and off I’d be run in not half a minute. Greedy land owners to the south and bloody thirsty raiders to the north, such is my plight, traveler, so much as it might behoove me to pack up and flee, I’ve no where to go.”

The vaquero fell silent a good long while, his eyes cast to the flames, as Gunvald took the information in solemnly and stroked his burgeoning beard as if in meditation. When at last the old man raised his face from the fire there was great sadness in his eyes.

“Ye didn’t have to kill him.”

Gunvald paused a moment and then met his elder’s gaze with dark amusement shinning in his steely eyes.

“So even thee questions the order of the world. Thee, thyself said it twas paramount to a question of the very nature of God. Is this your project, vaquero?”

The old man, shocked by his own hypocrisy, fell silent and did not respond. The soldier continued on, heedless.

“Of course it is, what else could it be. It is the project of any and all sane and questioning men. It was this very project that led me to reject The Eternal Being, for such a presence, he who is eternal, all powerful and everywhere at all times and places is said to lack in nothing – a fatal error, he lacks in one thing and one thing alone, limitation. As such there is none to bear witness to He, none to say that He is this and they are that. A being beyond witnessing is thus a being beyond our ken.”

“A warrior-poet. How singular. Yet you keep to Lady Marta?”

“The Prayer of the Dead you mean? Something my mother taught me – an old habit. Nothing more. Nothing more.”

With that silence fell once more over the stony outcropping as a chill wind swept in from the norther mountains, bringing in its wake a dreadful downpour that washed the blood from the body of the arm-less brigand and carried it out and down the trough of the encampment to puddle in the sodden moor. In that fetid broths reflection were the wings of a dozen crows who cawed madly and scrapped the sky with their metallic talons and torn off in wide wheeling circulations through the closing storm-wall as thunder and lightening fell upon the plain and redressed the world in the garments of the mad.

Their cries were like lamentations.

For the dead. The dying.

And all those still to die.


Sample from my forthcoming novel, Tomb of the Father, provided for the purposes of critique and commentary.