by C.M. Galdre
WAKE SON OF THUNDER!
WAKE DEVIL OF THE NORTH!
WAKE SO THAT YOU MAY DIE!
WAKE AND LIVE TO DIE AGAIN!
WAKE ONCE MORE,
OH BEARD THE IMMORTAL!
“The Eastshores are damn near full o’ the devils they say.”
Beard slowly opened his salt-crusted eyes, the banter of the shoremen calling him back from a dark dream in which he’d heard a voice strong and strangely familiar.
“It’s true I tell you!” the first man continued. “Some even say the sickness ‘s already reached us.” He whispered then. “You can hear ‘em. In the night they crawl out into the streets, all gasps and retching, then ye hear it… some beastial tone billowing from their ragged throats.”
“Drunkards howlin’ at the moon ain’t nothin’ new.”
“All’s the same, can’t hurt to dip yer knife in a bit o’ silver water before headin’ out.”
“Hurt my pocket book plenty. Silver water… where do you get these ideas?”
Splinters of black wood peppered the waves rolling over Beards scared chest, remnants of his once-great ship, the Satrian Falx. The warrior lamented its loss as he propped himself up on the dock support where he’d come to rest. The ship was unlike any other. It had been the last of the great Wyrmships, sentient vessels imbued with the blood and mind of the mighty Land Wyrms of old. It had also been the closest thing to a friend he’d had since his exile from the North.
The warrior sighed and closed his eyes, focusing on his inner-mind, grasping at the dark. The blade was there, the Tattered Edge, sword of the first revenant. Beyond the great blade’s shadow Beard could see the writhing fires of the mark of Ralmos. Beard had been through much since he’d left Thorgithe, even branded a murderer, a kinslayer, a king-killer.
“Of all that I was accused, I have become,” he said.
Beard sighed as he opened his eyes and gazed at the sea. From his ancestor-turned-revenant (for, by rights, was he not Beard’s uncle and a king of the southern kingdom?) he had stolen the Tattered Edge, had even struck down the spectre with the blade. And with that blade the warrior had slaked his thirst for revenge, down the length of Kytherion and even into the Southron Sea. In his wake the dead were stacked like cairns, a river of blood running through them.
And yet, you have not succumbed entirely, Satrian’s rumbling, serpentine voice hissed from within the shadows of Beard’s mind.
The warrior grinned.
“Listen, the middle country is wild at war and a darkness sweeps across these lands, I tell ye. Get Molly and the kids, come with me and Robert to the mountains. Kor, Bill, you can always smell a storm coming. Can’t ya even read the wind on this one?” The voice of the shoreman was growing desperate.
“Aye, I can smell this one, Thomlin. But it ain’t the wars nor sickness that worries me,” said Bill.
“Damn, Bill, at least wear the talisman I gave ye.”
“I know you follow the old wolf, but it can’t hurt, ey? I tells ya you should really come sometime to one of the gatherings. It will open your eyes,” said Thomlin. “Then you’ll be able to see.”
“I’m sorry, Thom, I must have misplaced the talisman. I’ll give a thought to what you said about the mountains. Talk it over with Molly,” grumbled Bill.
Beard watched as a small wooden token dropped into the shallow waters beneath the dock. Pressing against the barnacle crusted support, the warrior struggled to stand. His legs were half-buried in sand and muck. Wearily, he made his way to the dock edge where he’d seen the keepsake fall.
The northman grimaced as he reached into the silt and pulled the token free of the sea’s embrace. The relief was familiar -- a lidless eye, its gaze perfect and terrible. It was the eye of Ralmos.
What cursed shore have I fallen upon now? Beard wondered, for the cult of Ralmos was unheard of in Kytherion, a relic of times before his own. Had he defeated the Stormcoming only to land on some foreign shore?
Beard let the terrible token fall back into the sea before wading out from beneath the dock.
“Ho there, shoreman! What land be this?” Beard called. “My shipmates and I seem to have run afoul a mighty storm.”
“‘Tis Kytherion, stranger,” Bill called back. “Climb up and we’ll get you a stiff drink and a blanket to warm ye at the fisher’s tavern.”
“Thank ye, friend. I have a mighty thirst.”
“That’s the Butcher of Southport!” Thomlin interjected, pulling Bill away from the warrior.
“Get off me you damn fool!” Bill hollared. “It’s just a sailor washed ashore by the Ragewinds.”
“I tell you, it’s him!” Thomlin hissed, his eyes wide with fright.
“That’s alright, shoremen. I think I’ll just see if any of my crewmates washed ashore,” said Beard, sensing trouble and moving away from the pair. The warrior vaguely remembered an event in Southport while his mind was trapped in the dream realms and his wraithblade had wreaked havoc by haunting his body.
Beard waded down the shoreline, moving farther and farther from the docks, chancing a glance back now and then to see if the pair of shoremen was following. They weren’t, and, after a time, both they and the docks faded into the heavy fog rolling in from the sea.
The rocky shoreline was littered with twisted metal and splinters of black wyrmwood. The remains of the Aquario and Satrian’s former form. Beard dug amongst the strange gears and pipes that the Aquario had left in the wake of its demise. It had been the true cause of the Stormcoming, a strange device that caused a raging storm to tear across the Southron sea. Beard had understood little of what its crew had shouted at him of its purpose before he’d pierced its hull and brought it to ruin, but it didn’t matter now: the Stormcoming had terrorized the waters of the south for long enough and its destruction had finally brought the warrior home.
Through the fog Beard spotted a large obelisk of obsidian wood, the piercing bow of the Satrian Falx. Its hull had splintered the bow and now swayed limply with each wave. Thus the once-great ship looked like a fish picked clean by scavengers, leaving behind only the sleek wyrmlike head. Its bright painted eyes were gone, as was any sense of magic about the vessel.
Beard felt Satrian’s presence stir and tug in the direction of the broken ship. The spirit of the great wyrm still lived, but it was still a prisoner to another's form. At least the ship had given Satrian some semblance of its once-noble body. Beard felt Satrian’s spirit pull towards the ruined ship once more.
Calm friend, there is nothing there for you now, thought the warrior before a sharp pain ran through the warrior’s back.
Beard took a step forward before a muffled whistle whispered over the lapping waves and through the fog. Beard felt another sharp painful strike, this time in his lower back. Beard roused to the pain and drew an arm swiftly to his back where he found the thick shaft of an arrow protruding from his sun-leathered flesh. The air filled with the sounds of shouts and whistles, wooden shafts splintering upon the stony shore, some finding home in Beard’s shoulder and thigh.
The warrior turned, breaking the arrows off his muscled form like a bristling boar. A mob had gathered in the rolling hills beyond the coast. Their angry shouts drifted deceptively through the fog as they came wielding bows, spears, hand-axes, and billhooks. Beard felt the boiling black shadow of the Tattered Edge burning in his wounds and rising to his grip. His pale blue eyes began to burn with the bright ice-blue of the Revenant that came forth whenever the warrior was wounded and thirsty for vengeance.
The ragged blade blazed into existence in the warrior’s sword arm, a dangerous smile upon his face. Two more arrows struck the northman in the chest, their barbed tips sinking deep into Beard’s muscled flesh. He staggered back as another pull rooted deep within his troubled mind took hold. Beard let out a ragged bellow as his spirit stretched toward the broken bow behind him.
The warrior let out a beastial cry as if his very soul was being rent asunder. With a heaving chest and eyes ablaze, Beard raised his blade and took a step toward the raucous mob. They jeered the warrior, not knowing the danger they were in or the reach of his blade. As the Tattered Edge wreathed itself in shadowed flame, the mob recoiled in horror, not for the warrior before them but for the thing swiftly wriggling from the sea beyond.
Beard’s revenant rage was gone in an instant only to be replaced with the pain of serrated fangs tearing through his swordarm. The mob scattered at the sight of Satrian’s severed head brimming with both life and purpose as it tore Beard’s arm off at the shoulder. The people's screams were swallowed by the fog as Beard found himself facing the head of a great wyrm of old.
“Satrian!” Beard bellowed, gripping his ragged shoulder. “Why?”
The Tattered Edge flailed limply as Satrian chewed upon the arm that held it.
“To save us both, warrior,” the wyrm replied around mouthfuls of muscle. “The blade was never meant for you. All became clear to me as my spirit dwelled within your tortured form. The Tattered Edge and the Gates of Shadow are not meant for you. The Fleshswap showed the way: it could be removed, it could be taken, but only by a part of yourself.”
Beard fell to his knees, blood splattering the stones beneath him. “And what of the sword? Is it meant for you, Satrian?” Beard spat.
The wyrm chuckled a deep and gurgling laugh. “No warrior, it is but a means to an end. Know you not the heart of this blade? You carried it for so long, but did not sense its essence?”
“What is this prattle? It is the blade of the First Revenant, a mighty weapon and I its wielder.”
Satrian chuckled once more, eyes bulging, as the object in his maw resembled less the warrior's arm and more fresh carrion.
“Foolish boy,” the wyrm rumbled. “The Tattered Edge is one of its many shades for the blade has served countless masters and held many forms. Right now it is the Tattered Edge, as it is also the thing you call the Isenshrike as it is Clarent as it is Storm Call and so on. It is the blade that is called.”
“I don’t understand,” Beard said with a gasp.
“I will show you,” rumbled Satrian as he swallowed the remnants of Beard’s arm into its missing body, sword and all. But blade and blood did not sprout forth from the serpent's neck, no, for the head of the last wyrm shuddered and quaked. Satrian’s bright amber eyes sunk into their sockets like boiling butter. Its jaws snapped wildly, black flesh running like pitch staining the shore. Red-black smoke fumed from the puddle forming beneath the wyrm’s decaying head until all that was left was a black pool upon the shore.
“Satrian,” Beard growled, “what have you done?”
As if responding to the warrior’s call, a piercing blade rose from the ichor, heavy and curved. It was forged of mirrored silver and the length of a man’s leg. Its hilt was ornate with a serpentine motif, the blade sprouting from a wyrm’s open maw. As the blade’s long grip rose from the bubbling pool, the hand that held it followed. Obsidian fingers lightly gripped the blade, followed by a well-muscled arm. Then, from head to toe, a figure rose, a dark man both slender and strong.
“What sorcery is this?” Beard hollered.
With a slash of the blade the figure took definition and the bubbling pool dispersed.
The man standing before Beard was unlike any the warrior had encountered in all his long travels. His skin was dark but bore a metallic sheen, his eyes like glittering fire. His dark black hair fell in curls around his face and his beard and mustache rivaled the mighty Thorgithens in both fullness and luster. He wore a well-fitted jacket of black scales embroidered in gold, the whole of it open in the front. A white, loosely buttoned shirt was fitted neatly around his waist with a vermillion sash, and his sapphire pants were of the billowing make Beard had encountered among the corsairs at sea.
“I am Satrian,” said the man with Satrian’s voice. “I am reborn as an incarnation of the called blade. This is Satrian Falx.” He held forth the gleaming blade. “We are called and are one. Though this form of mine will not last much longer, the blade and I as one will remain.”
“Where is the Tattered Edge?” Beard shouted.
“It has gone back to whom it belongs,” Satrian replied.
“And who has called you? You do not feel like my blade,” the warrior said through set teeth.
“You are sharp, Beard the Immortal. I am not your blade, but will serve as such until you can call your own blade for good or ill and I am given to the one who has called.”.
“WHO?!” Beard roared.
“They approach,” whispered Satrian.
Beard spat blood upon the stone shore as a short, flared dagger-tip burst forth from his gut. This was followed by two swift piercing strikes through his back and out his chest by a slim, straight blade. The warrior spun round on knee-point, striking out with a back kick with his remaining arm thrust into the ground for balance. His assailant jumped deftly out of the way, Beard using the opportunity to gain his footing. The warrior grabbed a smooth seastone and sent it tearing towards his foe with all the strength he could muster.
The stone struck, but only the flashing blade of the assailant. The warrior was rewarded with the sound of the blade breaking before immediately rushing to his opponent. Beard felt the mysterious attacker’s remaining blade slide into his ribs as he engaged them in a contest of grapples. The assailant struggled, pummeling the warrior’s face with a free hand, the other still pinned to their side as it pushed in deeper the blade piercing the Thorgithen’s torso.
“I HAVE HAD MY FILL OF TREACHERY TODAY!” Beard screamed before he spat blood upon the assailant’s face.
“Another might have died from these wounds,” the figure said with a gasp.
The assailant was dressed in curious cloth armor with layer upon layer of light linen and leather padding. Above the patchwork of bright blues and sandy yellows was a face obscured by a white hood and mask.
“What of it?” Beard asked, his arm wrapped tightly around the assailant’s neck for leverage as he squeezed.
“A test!” the masked figured wheezed. “The only way... to be sure.”
“A test?” Beard laughed coldly. “And shall I test your spine against my grip to see if I face a true warrior and not some spineless worm of an assassin?”
“I yield!” the attacker yelled. “I name thee Beard the Immortal.”
“A foul assassin could know my name and reputation. Speak no more,” Beard rumbled darkly. His muscles bulged to crush his opponent, new blood flowing freshly from his wounds as he tightened his grasp.
“Braxia!” the figure squealed.
Beard dropped the figure to the ground... alive, but only just. Then the warrior staggered back a few steps, his hand finding the pommel grip of this strange new blade that was Satrian.
“How come you by this name?” he asked in a voice both worn and strained.
“She sent me to find you, to gather you upon your return. She… she had a vision.”
“You lie!” Beard set the heavy, curved blade beneath the figure’s chin. The sword’s point pierced the assailant’s mask, sending a trickle of blood down the blade. “Though we parted on ill terms, she would never send one to test me as such. A shared memory, a placename of meaning she would give, no daggers in the back!”
“In the dead marsh you fought, back to back before the gates of the fallen kingdom. There you found the seven who were lost, and there the seven died as well. It was there you drew the wraithblade and the draught that cursed thee with the unlife you have suffered. This Braxia told me to say to you. The test… the test was my own.” Beard could see eyes flashing dangerously from within the hood.
“That I believe,” said Beard, lowering his blade. “How fares Braxia?”
“She is well enough. And she speaks well of you despite the loss of her hand in your company and the rumors that spread in your wake.”
“Oh? I am glad to hear she is well. I knew not that she had lost her hand entirely: there was much of that harrowing I lost in my memory to the fog of battle. Still, I doubt she has let it cripple her.
Beard paused, the splinters of old memories rising within him. At last he continued. “It was an honor to fight at her side. Now, as I recall, you said you are to gather me. To what end and where to? Is Braxia in need of my blade?”
“I know not Braxia’s full mind, but she has strength of blade enough with her own. No, I am sent to keep you from wreaking havoc through the Southlands as you journey northward. She knows you aim to return to your home, to reclaim what is lost… but Kytherion cannot survive a journey North in the same manner as your journey south.”
“And what stayed your hand?”
“What stayed your blade against the mob? I watched from a safe distance as you drew the fabled Tattered Edge. I saw the shadows swirling from it, the blade of the black-bearded butcher. I saw blue eyes blazing with fire and mouth spilling over with the fabled revenfog. That is how they speak of you. So, what stayed your blade?”
Beard sighed and gazed at his remaining hand.
“I very nearly succumbed to it to tell true. But that blade is now beyond my reach. The shadow has left me.” Beard gestured to his weeping wounds. “There was a time these would be stanched with shadow and flame. So as you’ve named me Beard the Immortal, I wonder if it is true.”
“Beard the Immortal you are,” the figure said, t pulling back the white hood. “Though time has changed you from what you were when you left.”
Beard’s eyes grew wide at the appearance of Braxia’s agent. Pale pink eyes with long, white feather-like lashes gazed at the warrior from a delicate, avian face. Their hair was like bristled plumage, a short crop sweeping to the sky in a flush of white and pink. Their skin was a tawney-yellow with full smirking lips the color of bright sand.
“You may call me Dalia of the Song” they said with a small bow.
“I have encountered one of your kind before!” blurted Beard. “Though their form was only as your own in death. I thought the Yisk had faded into myth...”
“You encountered one of the fallen,” Dahlia said sadly. “My tribe was spared the fate of my people, as they were… away when the Eye came.”
“Away?” Beard inquired.
“We should get going. That mob will regather its courage with drink. We should be well on our way before then.”
Beard took the hint and hefted Satrian over his good shoulder to leave.
“We should, however, patch you up before we go,” said Dalia, raising a feathered brow. “I left my pack and supplies in the dunes not far from here. We can gather them and be on our way.”
“You still have not told me where we are going,” grumbled Beard.
“To the Western Waste,” replied Dalia as they disappeared among the grassy dunes along the shore.
Beard awoke to a searing pain rippling across his torso. Dalia stood above the warrior with a firm grip on the staff now hovering over the warrior’s welt-reddened abs.
“You are slow and sleep too easily.” Dalia scoffed.
Beard ignored the reprimand, seeing well the dent in the sand where his shoulder had instinctively grasped out for his lost blade with a limb that was now only a phantom. The blade Satrian Falx lay at his left, gleaming in the morning light, his left hand barely gripping its hilt.
“I was told the warriors of the north fought instinctually with both hands. ‘Born with a blade in their hands and a bone in their mouths,’ as the saying goes,” Dalia said with a titter.
“No,” said Beard gruffly. “We are trained from birth, struck with reeds till we learn to sleep without sleeping. Beaten and bruised until we are as tough as the mountains that wall our home. If we preference an arm too greatly, it is bound to a weight until the other is as nimble. We are trained, and I more than most. I thank you for the reminder of what I have lost.”
“You’re a cheerful one aren't you?” Dalia sneered.
“Wake me each morning in the same way, and if I make it to breakfast without a pink belly, then we’ll both have a good laugh, Beard said. But as I am now, I am a danger to us both.”
“Gladly!” said Dalia, striking Beard hard in the abs again..
The two settled in to a breakfast familiar to those road-travelled and world-weary: mouthfuls of dry, over-salted meat and whatever edible roots and tubers they could findt washed down with water drawn from small puddles and streams..
After the sparing meal Dalia lead them northwest along a winding stream, avoiding trodden roads and staggered farmland as they went. Even keeping their distance, Beard could both see and sense the devastation and doom sweeping across the Southron. The very air smelled of disease and corpses. Great flocks of carrion birds darkened the skies like noisy clouds, circling and diving upon ample feasts outside of villages and along roads. The skies were dulled with smoke and dust and the fields thick with wasteflies and bone-beetles.
The pair kept to the streambed or thick forests when they could, keeping a low profile as they traveled overland. Beard followed Dalia closely and obeyed their every word. All the while the warrior found himself growing curious as to the origins of this young Yisk.
“How is it that you came to live amongst the Southron?” Beard asked as they cautiously navigated around a log jam in the stream.
“My kind has long lived among the discordant.” Dalia replied briskly.
“I, too, am an outcast from my people,” said Beard in a tone most solemn.
“We weren’t cast out,” said Dalia as they headed into a deep ravine, “we left. Now be quiet. We’ve followed this path now for three days and it's often inhabited by bandits. Plus you’re a liability.”
Beard did not raise his voice to argue -- it was clear he had touched a nerve and he didn’t want to make an enemy of Dalia.
That night, they camped in a hole dug from the soft sandstone walls of the ravine.they made no fire and chewed their humble meal in silence. Once finished, Beard set to training quietly with his new blade. He worked to adapt the forms of the north to the new blade and the loss of his arm because in Thorgithe none were left without a limb.
A warrior who lost an arm in battle had it repaired posthaste by the bloodsayers, not made whole of flesh as it was, but bound in bone, wood, and steel into a new weapon. The Thorgithen viewed limbs as tools and the body as a machine forged for purpose. There was no dishonor or stigma on those who bore damaged forms for such simply had another tale to tell and a new tool with which to learn their craft, be it war or farming.
Beard battled to control the balance of the blade. With two hands it would have been a fine sweeping cleaver similar in manner to the Tattered Edge and the Learning Blade before it. Had it been lighter or the balance closer to the hilt, the sword would have fit the slashing forms of a heavy warsword, or closer to the end, a weighted hand axe, but no form seemed to fit the blade. Beyond this truth, Beard could remember Satrian’s cryptic words about wielding him, that the blade was not meant for the warrior. He briefly wondered if Satrian was fighting him, but thought against it for such a struggle would be just as dangerous for a blade as it is was for a warrior. A pair out of synch could be lethal in the wrong direction.
Beard worked on his form until he set the blade down in dejection and focused instead on rebalancing his reduced natural form. This equilibrium came more naturally for the ancient Thorgithen arts took into account instances when an arm was bound or it was encumbered by carrying a friend or grappling a foe. Just as he felt satisfied with how he was progressing, the warrior felt a small hand upon his arm, cold and light.
He turned, surprised to see Dalia squeezing his arm to get his attention, Satrian held deftly in their other hand.
Dalia released Beard and motioned for him to be silent and watch as they backed away from him, carrying the blade.
Beard grinned at the sight of them being unbalanced by the blade’s heft, remembering well his own damnable struggle. But as Dalia found a piece of suitable ground, they suddenly switched to a reverse grip, the curve of the blade contouring to their body, the blade facing out into the night.
Beard stood transfixed as Dalia swept through a number of dancing forms with the heavy, gleaming blade. One second, the blade was held close to their body as they twirled in shifting toe-to-heel circles across the sandy ground, the edge a near-perfect circle of gleaming death. The next moment, Dalia was striking out like a great sandkite stretching its wing, the blade humming like a reaper’s scythe through the air, their stance low and wide. In such a fashion Dalia danced with the blade, sweeping high and low, and then tucking back into a deadly circling dance. When they were finished, Dalia turned to Beard and held the hilt out to him, bowing with their other palm open to the sky.
The Thorgithen bowed in turn, took the blade (reversing his grip as Dalia had done) and began to practice the forms the Yisk had pulled off so seamlessly. Beard struggled at first but found understanding as Dalia began to perform the moves alongside him much as the warrior’s mentor, Brog, had in his youth. But Brog had been harsh where Dalia was determined and, by the time Sol’s light began to fill the sky, Beard had mastered the basics.
Satisfied that Beard would would no longer be a danger in combat, the two spent the morning resting before heading on down the ravine. If there had been bandits inhabiting the gully, they had long since abandoned it for the traveling was swift and uneventful. By day Beard and Dalia traveled and at night they trained, strengthening Beard’s skills wielding Satrian. They spoke little for sound carried far off the smooth stone walls, and what they gained in stealth by traveling amongst them, they lost in the ability to spot any threats that may lie above.
At the end of the fourth day traveling the winding gorge, they came upon its source waters, a pool fed by some underground source. The waters there bubbled with gasses and smelled of lime and iron. Indeed, the shores were stained with bone like growths where the lime had gathered and the water’s edge was stained with red, rusty sediment.
“Carn’Uice, the bloody pool,” Dalia sighed. “Beyond this lies a stagnant marsh, which grows in to a dark swamp.”
“And then?” asked Beard.
“Slievescainad… the dagger peaks. They form the southern border of the wastes, my people’s fallen kingdom.”
“We best be on our way then,” grumbled Beard as he began to climb the the fragile walls of the sanguine pool.
“We cannot leave here just yet,” said the Yisk, their voice haunting and calm. “It may be nothing, but... legends speak of a daemon that guards this pool. An ancient creature of misfortune. I had in truth hoped we would encounter bandits in the ravine, for then this would be easy, but now… other arrangements will need to be made just to be sure.”
Beard raised a questioning eyebrow to Dalia. “You didn’t bring me all the way out here just to kill me for some Daemon did you?”
“No,” replied Dalia “This was the quickest and safest way. I know of your reputation Beard the Immortal, but you seem to have grown wiser in your travels. The daemon that lingers here demands blood and I dare say we are in no condition to fight it. What will we to do, mighty Beard? The thirst of the creature is great. We could have slaked it with the blood of a bandit, but now… now I do not know.”
“Hmm,” mumbled Beard. “You are right, I would not force a Daemon fight, not untried as I am now, and not risking the life of another. I will mark this place by its stars and return to unmake the thing that dwells therein, but for now let us both give blood till it is slaked and neither of us will be too weary to advance.”
Beard slid down from where he’d climbed and joined Dalia by the side of the pool.
The adventurers stood side-by-side and held out their arms, wrists reflecting in the ruddy water below. Dalia drew a long dagger across Beard’s wrist and then their own. The blood poured swiftly for the Thorgithen, but Dalia’s dripped like sap from a weeping tree. With each rose-pink droplet that fell from Dalia’s veins, the young Yisk shuddered, growing pale and anemic. Beard, realizing the Yisk’s avian appearance may hint to other physiology, swiftly gripped Dalia’s wrist closed within his massive palm as his blood continued to pour freely into the pool.
“I can handle more,” Dalia sputtered.
“I know, but I’ve got plenty,“ said Beard. ”Besides, you know the way best. You need to be in top form.”
As the ruddy pool turned from rust to crimson, a deep sigh bubbled up from the deep. Beard deftly flexed and twisted his wrist to staunch the blood flow as Dalia retrieved strips of linen from their bag. They wrapped their wounds swiftly, Beard accepting Dalia’s aid in the binding. Taking a quick drink from their waterskins and chewing on some saltmeat, they climbed the walls of the pool together and entered the great marsh beyond.
For six days the pair wandered the terrible marsh. The air was cold and damp and swarming with knot-flies. The sodden ground was rank with the stench of decay and lousy with chiggers. But that was not all that inhabited the marsh. The warrior and the Yisk had passed many a skull-fetish upon the marsh. Woodsfolk, merchants, peddlers, mercenaries, travelers... all united by the shared look of horror upon their deathmask rotting upon the foggy moor. Beard could not help but notice how their necks and jaws had been sheorn, not cloven with a blade, but torn from their very bodies before being placed upon the wicked bog-blighted pikes.
“I had heard tales of a cult of the blighted living out here, but I didn’t believe anyone would choose to do so willingly, especially with so many farmsteads and villages abandoned upon the plains,” Dalia whispered as they passed another rotting skull.
“In my experience,” replied Beard, “cultists of all kinds settle in the most unsavory of places.”
The fog parted and the marsh grasses gave way to a copse of massive pines with tangled roots, and sickly willows covered with mold and moss.
“It seems we’ve reached the swamp,” sighed Dalia.
“That is not all we’ve reached,” said Beard, pointing to a structure amidst the trees. Dalia turned to where Beard was pointing and choked down the groan growing in their throat. Amidst the spores and bracken was a woven weir and gate guarding a dark town. Sickly yellow lights glowed from within. And woven into the tangle of wood and moss were the heads of countless Southrons, their mouths agape and flesh wet.
Dalia and Beard attempted to circumvent the walls for several days, but the winding weir kept them ever out of reach of the mountains beyond. They had come upon several other gates, but whatever force had constructed the structure would be too large to storm for the builders were clearly-well versed in the ways of the swamp.
Then there were the tracks. No man or woman had ever made such tracks, nor were they those of any natural beast. No, these were the prints of something inbetween.Terrible hoofed toes pressed into moss and mud, raking claws tore bark and bracken, and massive fingered paw prints lay at the bottom of sill pools.
“Each day we stay in this fetid swamp, we risk detection by these creatures. Even now we may be hunted,” Beard whispered as the pair came upon another grim gate.
“You are right, Thorgithen,” Dalia replied. I had hoped for stealth, but it may prove best to choose our battle and force our way through. Are you up to it?”
“Aye, whatever fight lies ahead, it’s better than another night in this swamp. Let us break through tonight when the fell things are out and the shadows are with us.”
“It will rain tonight as well. Should keep our scent out of the air.”
“How do ye know? I myself am learned in reading the signs of sky and earth, but I can smell naught but peat and rot and the fog hangs heavy in the trees blocking out the sky.”
“I can feel it on the breeze,” said Dalia, their voice far and dreamy.
“I believe you,” said Beard after a quiet moment. “Tonight then?”
A cold breeze blew through the swamp and over the wooded hillock where Beard and Dalia had taken shelter during the day. From their hideout they were able to watch the gate and rest for the coming battle.
As the fog cleared, revealing the storm-brewing sky overhead, the pair watched as horrible figures began to exit the steadfast weir. A disfigured procession of nightmarish creatures marched into the swamp. The skies darkened as Sol set beyond the black thunderclouds and a bolt of lightning split the sky. The flash of light cast the horrific horde in too-clear detail -- gnarled muscles and tufts of fur, knobbly joints and bestial eyes. So the bipedal beings hobbled into the swamp for fresh flesh.
Beard recognized the strange creatures, had encountered their kind upon a dark isle -- islanders touched by the curse of Ralmos. These, however, seemed all the more terrible, their bodies greatly deformed and tumorous, their skin sallow and thin.
Dalia and Beard waited patiently for their hideous forms to disappear into the greater swamp before breaking cover and making for the gate. They crept among the jutting roots and clinging mosses, their weapons sheathed and wrapped in cloth to keep them from reflecting each piercing bolt of lightning. A deafening bolt split the air, filling the swamp with an ambient static that made the warrior’s skin crawl uncomfortably. Then came the foretold rain.
Great sweeping sheets of rain poured over Beard and Dalia as they struggled through the muck and mud to reach the gate. Dalia tapped the hilt of Beard’s blade to let him know they were ready. Closing each of their eyes, the pair waited for a burst of lighting to flash across the sky, wrath rising in their blood and bones..
The sky quailed and the two warriors were off, treading water as they advanced on the gate. Beard, with his muscled girth, split the swamp waters like a charging boar. Stopping short of the grisly door, the warrior leapt, throwing all his speed and weight into his feet as he landed a heavy kick to the gate. The doors burst inward and, as Beard fell into the muddy waters, Dalia came leaping over him and through the opened gate, the delicate Yisk’s blades dancing free of their sheaths and finding home in the gnarled forms of two stunned guards standing watch on the other side.
Beneath their breath Dalia whispered, “I am sorry death is the only comfort I can give you.”
Beard regained his feet and shot past Dalia as the dying guards slid off Dalia’s blades. He could not tell for sure in the driving rain, but it looked as if the young Yisk was crying. He made a mental note to ask them about it later as a twisted, bull-like creature and something that looked vaguely hawkish bore down on him.
Beard unfurled Satrian from his cloth wrapping, the blade gleaming bright in the night. He held the blade before him as he had before, only switching to the reverse grip Dalia had taught him when the two creatures were nearly upon him. As they converged with horn and talon upon the warrior, Beard danced between them, catching the bullman in the ribs as he passed and the hawkman in the neck as he turned on his heel and extended the blade like a great reaping wing. The feathered monstrosity fell, clutching at its throat as if it burned with an invisible flame. The bullish beast clutched its gaping wound and turned to gore Beard with its massive horns, but fell, bellowing into the mud before he could gain speed. Dalia leapt over the bull’s body, the creatures hamstrings still spurting blood from where thin blades had done their work.
Beard and Dalia now stood in the middle of a savage settlement. Chaotic wattle and daub huts encircled massive fire pits filled with ash and bone. The wet skins of their victims hung stretched over cane hoops in bestial urine pits. The ground was stained in blood and misery.
The hackles raised on the back of Beard’s neck as he surveyed the scene. Daliah wept.
“We must do something!” growled Beard.
“We must get you to the desert,” replied Dalia through ragged breaths.
Beard stared at the carnage around him, disgusted that it carried on down the wall and far into the distance. It seemed to stretch the entire length of the weir.
“You… are right, Beard relented. “This battle cannot be fought now. Lead on, Dalia.”
Swiftly the pair dashed among the violent hovels, dashing past bone and blood, heading for the treeline at the base of the mountains. The settlement was massive, however, and the deeper they infiltrated, the more grisly it became. The mud-daubed huts gave way to flesh-covered mounds and long halls. Terrifying obelisks were formed out of Southron spines and at their peak a grim symbol lashed together with rib and skull… the unblinking eye of Ralmos.
The buildings grew larger and the stench unbearable. From within massive mounds of stinking flesh the pair could hear the wet coughs and growls of massive creatures. Bright yellow eyes peered out of massive bone doors and followed the warriors as they passed. A cry rang out like the squealing of a dying hog and a horrendous chorus of howls answered it from whence Dalia and Beard had come.
They were being hunted.
Frantically the pair raced towards the treeline and the mountains, hoping to take shelter among the rocks and crags (for anything would be better than being brought down in that fetid encampment).
Gargantuan paws and talons grasped at them from within the hill-like mounds of flesh and mud and bone. Behind they could hear the baying of countless bestial creatures and the splintering of bone and brush as the fiends trampled towards them. Ahead the ground began to rise from the swampy pools into scrubland and the stone roots of the mountains. As Dalia and Beard crested the first rocky foothill, they heard a horrible explosion behind them, turning to see that one of the flesh-huts had exploded -- or, perhaps, “hatched” would be more accurate for the thing that crawled out of its gibbeting remains could only be described as a fledgling nightmare.
“A Daemon!” Beard gasped. “But how?”
“Who CARES?!” screamed Dalia as they grabbed Beard’s arm and pulled him further into the foothills and toward the jutting slabs of stone beyond.
The Dagger Peaks were an ancient ring of mountains thrust forth from the the womb of creation in the elder days There name was apt for they were sleek and sharp, hardly even touched by time. Beard and Dalia reached them just as the howling horde began to clamber into the foothills.
“Where to know?” Beard asked, looking for a path through the sheer rock face.
“We wandered off course to the entrance I know, but there should be another around. Quickly we must split up and run along the rock face,” Dalia replied running along the wall away from Beard. “Listen for the Song!” they shouted.
Beard did as he was told and ran in the opposite direction from Dalia as the clamboring horde and the shambling hill-born daemon closed in on them from the hills.
In his hurry Beard nearly missed it. As he dashed past a small outcropping, he heard something like the chiming of a bronze bell. Deftly pivoting and returning to the spot where he had heard the sound, Beard ran his hand along the wall, sword still held within, his fingers outstretched to the stone. The vibration and sound hit him all at once, a sad and lilting tune. Beard could not place the instrument that made it whether it was voice, flute, or horn. All the same, It tugged at the warrior's heart and Beard fell to his knees in tears.
For how long he sat and cried as the sad music played within his mind, he did not know… only that he was awoken when he was suddenly tackled by Dalia.
“You musn’t listen too long!” Dalia hissed in his face. “The song can be fatal.”
“That would have been nice to know earlier,” groaned Beard from under the Yisk’s slender form. “Shall we?”
“What?” Daliah blushed. “Oh, right.”
Dalia rolled off of Beard and stood flustered before the rock face, eyes closed, listening to the subtle tune.
Beard held his blade at the ready as the encroaching horde grew closer, the rocky terrain slowing them, paining their malformed joints and twisted limbs.
Dalia’s slender fingers danced through the air as if conducting a song only they could hear. Beard watched in silence, as a seam in the rock face began to appear.
The crevice grew and spread into a hole, and then into a door barely large enough for Dalia much less the tall Thorgithen. Then Dalia’s fingers stopped their conducting. The shambling horde nearly upon them, the two warriors crept into the darkness beneath the mountain, the door silently closed behind them.
“Be careful,” Dalia whispered. “These tunnels once belonged to my people, but there were other things that dwelled here as well even in the best of times… and now all in the dark is their domain.”
“From one death trap into another,” muttered Beard.
“As if you were used to anything else,” Dalia quipped.
Beard chuckled. “And how will we find our way through the dark? Already I can feel air currents that tell of great chasms and caves that must lie farther in.”
“In all things there is the song and the song tells us what is and is not and where and where not if only we listen and sing,” Daliah replied.
“You can hear such a song?” Beard marveled.
“Most of the time.”
“What does it sing when you kill?” asked Beard, remembering Dalia’s tears during the battle.
“My kind are the only ones who know that song and its silence. It is why my tribe had to leave the Yisk. There was no room for that song in the capital, necessary though it was to protect our people. It is addictive to listen to. Many of my family became deathsingers, Yisk that live to hear the song of death. I myself oversaw my parents’ deathsong after they fell too far to the tune. There's a price that comes with a blade, warrior. Remember that.”
Beard asked no further questions as they journeyed in the dark.
For six days, Dalia and Beard journey in silence and the dark, always on edge for what may lay beyond, trusting only Dalia’s hearing of the song. Vast echoing chasms surrounded them with cool, damp air while plummeting ravines greeted them with blasts of heat and the scent of sulfur from the deep. They dared not speak and slept only lightly.
Dalia spoke some as they camped, as the rumble of the mountain deep and the groans of the earth granted kept their words from traveling far. They spoke of the old guard, and of the things that dwelled deep beneath the surface. Creatures long forgotten by those who dwell in the bright realms, remembered only perhaps in song and the oldest of legends. But Daliah’s kind remembered. If they took a wrong turn, if they journeyed to far from the song, they would find the silence and that is where old things dwell.
The pair could hear them sometimes as they felt a dark breeze pass over their goose pimpled flesh. The sounds seemed to speak in a terrible unintelligible language, not words but sounds that conveyed emotion. They spoke of fear, hunger, pain, and death. And always there was the scent of malice that drifted in from the silence.
On the seventh day, they ran into a dead end -- a sheer rock face within another vast cool cavern. There they both could hear something slithering in the dark, even as Dalia began to search for the rough outline of a doorway. The air filled with a terrible stench like a battlefield left to bake in the sun, or a corpse bloated upon a lake at night. Beard drew his blade and readied himself, pressing his back against Dalia’s so as not to lose them in the dark.
Dalia began conducting the song. A slim crack began to grow in the stone wall and the warrior's’ eyes burned as light flooded into the cavern. From the corner of Beard’s squinting eye, he saw a warty tentacle the size of oak trunk slither away from the burning light. A terrible sound drifted in from the dark, by the gods Beard had not heard such a terrible sound. It was the voice of the silence, a creature had left the quiet to feed.
“I do not wish to rush an artist, but I fear we have an audience,” Beard whispered.
“Not long now,” replied Dalia.
The slithering tentacle squirmed along the growing edge of light, testing it as the beam spread into the chamber. Beard watched as it advanced and then shrunk away, advanced and retreated, advanced and retreated. Finally the disgusting appendage held itself in the light, confirming that the light only felt that it burned. Like an agitated asp readying a strike, it slithered swiftly towards the two warriors.
“Its done!” Dalia exclaimed, pulling Beard by his belt-sash through the narrow door. Beard parried a grasping strike from the tentacle as the two friends fell into the sands beyond the mountain. The force of the blow pushed Beard and Dalia down a sand dune, both landing in a crumpled, dusty heap at the bottom. A terrible squawk echoed from the chasm within the mountain as the tentacle slapped at the dry sand and recoiled at its stinging touch for here was something that burned the fleshy limb true.
As the tentacle retreated within, the door closed and Dalia and Beard broke into uncontrollable laughter. They took to grinning like fools and slapping each other on their backs, sending up great clouds of dusty sand. They had survived the dark and the silence. A feat not done since the days of old if Dalia was to be believed.
“What now, Dalia?” Beard said with a grin. “This has been a fine adventure so far and we are at your desert, so where to next?”
The smile slowly fell from Dalia’s lips. “Now, warrior, you make your way across the wastes alone. My part in your journey is at its end.”
“Surely you cannot turn back now. You cannot go back to the darkness and beyond the camp of beasts. Is my company so foul you can stand it no longer?” asked Beard.
“No, warrior. Truth be told, and do not let it go to your head, you’re not so bad… for a barbarian.” replied Dalia. “But all the same, our paths here diverge. I must make my way over the mountains, slowly but safely, farther north and then back east to my heart Braxia.
“I understand,” said Beard, his voice warm and strong. “I will not keep you. She has found one who is honorable, kind, and brave. You are lucky to have each other.”
“When first I laid eyes upon you, Beard the Immortal, do you know what I saw?” asked Dalia.
“An enemy by your greeting,” Beard chuckled. “But I do not blame you.”
“No,listen. Please. I did not see an enemy or a barbarian or even a man. What I saw was a monster, a plague, ablight sent by some god of old to sweep across the land and destroy all before it.”
Beard furrowed his brow, but his face was not unkind.
“And what do you see now, Dalia of the Song? What does the song sing?”
“The air is still about you, Beard, the song too quiet to hear as if far in the distance. I cannot tell if it carries the beats of war, thunders of our destruction, or heralds this world’s salvation, but it is not a joyous song,”
They closed their eyes as they strained to hear the song.
“But when I look at you now, I see not a man or barbarian, a blight or a plague. I see a storm. You are no hero, Beard the Immortal. You cannot be. You are the flood and the thunder, the lightning, and the rain. You are the wind and the tempest. No, you are a force too great to be called a hero. Whatever lies ahead you will sweep across this land destroying all in your path and dragging the rest along in your wake. Whether it is darkness in your path and innocents drawn up in your wake or the blood of the free peoples your path and the shadows your herald is up to you, Beard the Immortal,” Dalia sighed.
“And what do you think?” Beard asked, grasping the young Yisk’s hands in his own remaining hand. Dalia’s soft, long, and slender fingers clasped gently in Beard’s rough-scarred and massive palm.
“I think -- I hope -- you will thunder across this land as a cleansing rain, washing away the darkness and leaving a crisp blue sky in your wake. You are your mother’s son, Beard Wolf-Warmed,” said Dalia, pulling their hands away from Beard’s grip and fishing beneath their light mail to withdraw a small pendant.
“The course of a storm may be changed by that which it encounters. A raindrop forms around a spec of sand, a small imperfection, a token in the air. I have carried this pendant all my days and I give it now to you in the hopes that it guides you true,” said Dalia, placing the pendant around Beard’s neck.
“Dalia, I am honored, but how can I accept such a mighty gift? I have nothing to give in return,” replied Beard as he turned over the pendant with his hand, admiring its beauty.
“It is a pendant of my people. It will mark you as a friend of the Yisk, as one who may walk in the song. In return, promise that in your journey you will remember Braxia and those who have aided you. In return, remember me,” Dalia said stepping gingerly away from the warrior.
Beard bowed deeply, his hand held out and up to the sky, his long black hair falling around his face, revealing his unguarded neck to the young Yisk.
“This I promise to you, Dalia of the Song. I greet you as one of the people of the North, and as that of family. Long may you live and when you die may it be in the place of your choosing and with the wind always at your back,” said Beard.
Daliah choked back a laugh between their tears. “She always said you were a bit too grand.”
Beard raised his head and laughed. “I hope we meet again, Dalia of the Song. Walk where the wind may find you.”
“And if that day comes, I promise not to stab you.” Dalia laughed.
“No,” Said Beard. “Do not promise that. If I am a storm as you say, I hope that I am a storm that will sweep away the darkness that plagues Kytherion. But if I come as a dark rider, If upon my heel there is only death and the black clouds of destruction, I need to trust your blades will do me a greater kindness than I deserve.”
Beard rummaged in his haversack for a moment and pulled forth a small pouch. It contained the sacred rendered fat of the direwolf that the greatest of Thorgithen warriors carry. Beard’s supply was nearly gone after having been away from his home so long and with so many battles in his wake. The warrior drew Satrian Falx from his belt sash and drew its edge across his chest where the blood would flow freely. He sheathed the blade and drew the pouch up to the wound, letting his blood flow into the fatted interior. A tiny waterskin full of Beard’s curious blood. When the bag bulged with the warrior’s blood, he shut it and used the wolf-fat at its rim to grease and close the wound on his chest.
“You have given me a mighty gift. In return, I am afraid I give you a mighty burden. Take this back to Braxia. If you can find someone who can unlock the mysteries of my blood, find a way to kill me true for if I am the storm that darkens the skies, I trust in you to be the hero I cannot,” said Beard, thrusting the pouch into Dalia’s speechless hands.
“It has been an honor,” said the warrior as he turned and walked into the billowing sands of the Western Waste.
“I promise,” whispered Dalia to Beard’s slowly disappearing back. “If there is a way, we will find it, Beard the Immortal.”
Beard the Immortal by Alexandra Douglass