by F.Charles Murdock and C.M. Galdre
The reek of embers and ruin is in the air here like that of a smithe’s forge. The earth is scorched and the buildings of this once fair city are ablaze, the flame consuming the land reaching to the sky, its hunger insatiable. Though it be middle-night the light of the inferno mimics that of day, making the disaster far more tragic in its clarity.
A screen of black smoke pervades the land as burning buildings slowly collapse, flattening the landscape before the tall mountains in the distance. Though there be caps of snow on each of those jagged peaks, they reflect the flicker of the fire below, appearing as spear points of doom striking the black hide of nightfall. All but one of those peaks dances with the light of the ravenous blaze, but it is a single mountaintop that draws all eyes to it.
So, high above the burning kingdom of the North, past the bright smears of the red and gold and the churning black haze of smoke and ash, a new glimmer arises. This light is not borne of flame or reflection, but desire. So rests a grand sword from ages long past, its hilt skyward, its blade buried near the crown of Monduath. The weapon calls out for violent hands, promising death and damnation for he who brought ruin to the Northlands even while the Great Winter raged on.
And there it stands, asking for redemption as the world burning below, the screams of all those dying people filling the black skies above. Or, perhaps it is the blade that houses these shrieks as though all the lives it had taken since its creation are yearning to be put to rest.
And there the blade waits even now, its name forgotten, but its purpose renewed by the destruction being wrought far below by a dark conjurer’s hand.
Beard fell into darkness. The last thing he remembered was jumping through the portal made by the cyclopean twins, Fate and Destiny, in their castle Or’i. He had seen Släfgeit through the portal and had felt himself moving back into the Dream Realm, but that all ended with a resounding CLANK! And now he found himself tumbling through cold, black void. Occasionally, he felt the breeze off an unseen object against his skin as it went whirring by in the dark. Every instinct in Beard’s body told him to pull his limbs close and hold his body rigid as not to collide with whatever things may be around him.
Below, he heard the sound of metal ringing against metal -- it resembled the sound of a pebble being tossed down a dry well. The air moved swiftly past the falling warrior and he could feel a slimy wall coming into contact with his skin. Soon, he was sliding along the wall, which was curved and slowly starting to graduate into gentler angles. Beard had seen a device known as a “log flume” in his travels through the Storm Peaks where lumberjacks floated great pine logs down a long shoot from the forests in the mountains -- he felt that he was now, perhaps, on some similar device.
Suddenly, the warrior felt the flume turn less gently and, after a short curve, he started rocketing down the slime-slick surface horizontally. The warrior attempted to sit up, but ended up with a nose full of fetid slime as his face came in contact with an ooze-covered ceiling. He realized that he was in some kind of pipe, perhaps for sewage. He tried not to dwell on what it was that kept the slimes and molds he was sliding across nourished, but before he had a chance to wonder, he suddenly found himself shot out in midair, where putrid slime was the least of his worries. Beard landed in a heap of broken metal. The sound was horrendous, but at least it broke just his fall and left his bones intact. The normally nimble warrior found it difficult to get his feet beneath him, as the metal scrap into which he had fallen seemed to be made of varying sizes of pipe. The whole area into which he had fallen seemed to be a graveyard of broken pan flutes played by colossal gods.
The air was wet and cool and steam billowed from a few of the pipes, they all seemed to be part of some greater structure. The room was lit by a single flickering orb that hung from a thin chain that hung from somewhere in the jumbled mass above. Beard searched the room and found no exit save the dripping pipe that had deposited him into this weird enclosure. The warrior was about to start climbing when he heard a ringing in the distance. Something was coming and banging on the pipes as it came.
Oh, Hy dilo do no no
For me, didle do so so
I found me a pipe made of lead so ripe!
I took me a bite, but found it not right!
So Hey fiddle hi ti ti
I dreamed of pie wy wy
I takes me a taste
of not any old waste
for a taste is a waste
if the things go not taste
so I tastes me a thing not to be wasted
Beard listened to the strange song as it rang out from behind the wall of pipes. The voice sounded old and reminded Beard a bit of the old iron miners he had met as a youth, but there was something else to it, something that sounded a bit like a mouse being stepped on. The warrior found two pipes of good weight and relative dryness and took a couple practice swings before preparing himself for whatever might be coming. The song drew nearer.
Oh kicks me they did
and spits in my face
but never could they race
fas-ter thens me
I took their doodad
and ates it - and said
Don’t be sad, mad, or bad
I eats only things not to be wasted
Do rum dolili-o po
De di, dingle, ro no no
They calls me insane, but tis a misnomer
cus I be Bisbane and no one tis nobler
for I eats the things not to be wasted
Beard heard a loud clang and the sound of groaning metal, then PANG, an entire group of pipes went hurtling across the room as steam jettisoned from the hole in the wall where the pipes had been not moments before. A grizzled old face, attached to a mass of some rather magnificently disheveled white hair, poked through the hole in the wall and surveyed the room before disappearing back into the steam. There was some more clanging on the other side of the hole, Beard stepped back swiftly as a massive burlap sack came flying through the hole and landed with a crunch in a pile of pipes on the floor and with a single leap the grizzled old face and mass of hair came hurtling through the hole, dragging the body of a droopy old man flying along behind it. Despite his age and poor angle of trajectory, the old man managed to land feet firmly down upon the floor, his floppy sandals making a clapping noise as he touched down.
“TEN POINTS!” he yelled.
The old man stood for a moment in his landing pose, apparently waiting for something which never came. Dejected, he lowered his arms and shuffled over to his burlap sack. He opened it and reached deep inside, eventually pulling out a claw-footed cane that seemed to have actually been made with the clawed foot of some creature, the handle of which appeared to be made from a preserved dire-vulture’s head. He used the claws to scratch his back before turning to Beard and blurting.
“So what the fuck are you doing here?”
“I was pursuing a daemon in the Dream Realm and, after passing through a portal opened by Fate and Destiny, I found myself here,” Beard replied, lowering his makeshift pipe weapons. “So I suppose you’ll be wanting to get along then to wherevers you were headed, amright?” the old man asked.
“Um, right,” Beard coughed.
“Yesse,” the old man mumbled. “Well thens, we gots to find the right pipe then.” The old man shuffled over to Beard, who eyed him cautiously, and flicked his tounge in and out of his mouth, making a spitting noise as he tasted the air.
“Ah, yes’m. Got a bit of the ol’ ‘tainted aura,’” the man said with a wink. “Looks like you passed through Buildar’s Gate without propers permissions. The dark gate curses ya if ya do thatcha know. Kinda surprised you ain’t dead. Not much magick in the walls no more. But the gate... that little shit’s full of it.”
Beard did not know what to make of the man.
“Well don’t just stand there, tall and gawken! Help me move some pipe!” the old man piped up as he shuffled over to a rather innocuous section of pipe wall. The old gaffer’s wrinkly arms shook as he picked up a pipe and shoved it between two in the wall, forming a lever.
“There you go, give it the ol’ push pull,” he told Beard, motioning to the pipe.
Beard positioned himself over the pipe and stretched his steely thews before he took a firm grasp of it and gave it a massive push. It didn’t move, nor bend or break. It just stayed there, stuck between the two pipes in the wall. Beard gave it a heaving pull, the veins bulging out of his arms and his forehead throbbing. Neither pipe nor wall budged.
“Hmm... looksee like it might be a tricksy one, this un. Lemme give it a shot,” the old man laughed.
Beard stood back with a grin, amused to see this skin-and-skeleton man with a bushel of frazzled white hair try to succeed where he, Beard, had failed.
The old man spit on his hands and grabbed the lever. With a quick jerk like he was rowing a boat, the metal pipe groaned and a hole opened up in the wall.
“Musta loosened it for me,” the old man shrugged. “Elders first!” he yelled as he grabbed his burlap sack, plugged his nose, and then jumped through the hole he’d made, dragging the bag after. Beard shook his head and followed.
The hole they made opened into a vast network of tunnels. The sound of steam being released and the drip, drip, drip, of water condensing and dripping off of the cool metal pipes echoed down the various corridors. The old man seemed to know where he was going and lead the way, only stopping occasionally to taste the air in his funny manner before mumbling to himself and choosing the next direction to head. The tunnels all seemed the same to Beard, all jumbles of pipes and strange metal wheels with the occasional flickering orb providing light from above. Once or twice, the old man stopped to listen, but for the most part, the two walked on in silence. Beard did not know why, but he trusted this strange, strange, little man.
After about two hours of travel, the two stopped in a small alcove off the hall they were traveling. The old man dug around in his bag for a minute and then handed Beard a strange device, a small talisman that bore the face of Sol and had two arms that pointed to some tick marks made round the edge.
“Go on then, need to keep your strength,” the old man encouraged him, but Beard did not know how to make the talisman’s magick work.
The warrior stared at it while the old man rummaged around in his bag some more. Beard was about to ask the man how the thing worked when the old guy pulled out what was obviously some kind of cursed rune ward and began happily chewing on it. The warrior watched as the old man bit through metal and cursed magic with the gusto of a ravenous warrior digging in to fresh mutton.
“Not hungry? That’s a shame. That’s a good woytch you got theres,” the old man asked, motioning at the talisman in Beard’s hands.
“Um, it’s ok... you can have it, if you desire,” Beard responded, handing the thing back to the man.
“Your loss,” the old man said as he dropped the thing in his mouth and swallowed it whole. The old man burped and licked his lips while patting his belly. “The name’s Bisbane,” the old man said. “What do you go by traveler?”
“Beard,” the warrior grunted.
“Nice to meet you, Bjorn,” Bisbane said with a smile. “Almost there now, just be sure you keep up.”
With that, the old man began shuffling down the tunnel again with Beard following after. After another hour of navigating the tunnels, Beard began to wonder if the old man was really going to lead him where he needed to go or if they were just going to wander until Beard died of starvation or was forced to eat a “woytch.” Suddenly, the old man perked up an ear and pulled Beard down a side-tunnel, crawling over a few pipes until he found a small nook in the wall from which he motioned Beard to follow.
With some difficulty, the burly warrior was able to squeeze into the small space and was about to question Bisbane when the old man covered Beard’s mouth with a wiry hand and motioned for him to stay silent. Beard could see the the grave look in the man’s eyes and complied. Bisbane quietly rustled around in his bag and pulled out a strange contraption, a silver box that had small glowing gems on the sides and one flattened stone upon the top. The old man pressed this stone and the box began to pulsate. Whatever it was doing raised the hair on Beard’s arms and the hackles on his neck -- the old man’s white mane even stood on edge.
Suddenly the pipes all began to vibrate and the entire area filled with a strange humming like the drone of a thousand metal wasps or the sound of iron filings as they were poured over a metal sheet. The sound grew and grew and soon it was joined by the keen sound of whirling blades. Bisbane shook his head at Beard who was obviously getting excited about the battle-like sounds and pointed slowly through a small crack between the pipes. Beard peered through the gap and saw a brown, blood-stained robe floating down the hall they had just left. The thing was much taller than a normal man and, as such, it was cutting the pipes that got in its way as it went. Beard could barely make out how it was slicing through all that steel, but from what he could see, it appeared that the creature seemed to be wielding a form of every blade imaginable. After a few harrowing minutes, the thing passed and Bisbane pressed the stone again, which seemed to release whatever strange field the device was generating.
“You’re a newbie, an accidental traveler, but I will let you in on the first Pipers rule: always mind the butcher bird,” the old man said as he packed the box back in his bag.
A million questions were rising to Beards lips, but something about the old man’s demeanor caused them to fade away before he could voice them. Bisbane led Beard back out of the hiding spot and down a different path than the freshly sliced tunnel. A few more turns and the two of them stood before a large iron wheel stuck into a capped metal barrel.
“Here’s where you get off,” Bisbane said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Just keep your arms in and you should land all right.”
The old man shuffled over to the iron wheel and gave it a spin, the top of the barrel popped open like a cask, and the old man motioned for Beard to go in.
“Off you go now,” he said with a comical grin that did not match the thousand-yard stare he was giving.
“Thanks,” Beard said. “I know not all of which has transpired here, but I feel I owe you much.” “Yes, yes. Now get the fuck in,” Bisbane replied.
Beard lowered himself into the barrel, hanging on with his fingers on the edges. He was about to ask Bisbane one last question when the old man shut the lid, forcing Beard to let go lest his fingers be smashed. Down the warrior swirled into the cold darkness.
The blazing blue-eyed warrior was whistling. How could he be whistling? The constable thought as his men pushed him through the Southport Prison and Executionary facilities main door. He had, in a way, no reason to fear entering the complex as it was his complex after all. After twenty-two cycles of perfect duty in the Southport City Guard, working his way through the ranks, he had finally gotten a cushy desk job and now this had to happen.
The constable surveyed the interior. As a youth he, as many other Southron children had, divulged in sneaking peaks at the horrendous scenes of the nine hells depicted in Tedan’s Illustrated Devilarium. It was one thing to see an illustration of a man turned inside out and mounted to a chandelier, but was another thing entirely to see it dripping and swinging before him. The entire SPE (as it was called for short) had been turned into pages 97 and 98 of the Devilarium, complete with man shoved inside another man used as a club to kill a third man. For cycles beyond counting, experts in torture and the subtle and not-so-subtle arts of killing had debated if that scene could even be possible. The Third Man argument had still been a hot topic when the constable was enlisted in the guard’s academy. He had debated that it was not possible to some acclaim while he was there and so found it doubly disturbing to see a proof of concept.
The constable entered the room slowly and made sure his presence was known by clearing his throat an unnecessary number of times. The hulking warrior looked up at him and dropped the skull he had been polishing.
“Excuse me, sir. May I ask what your business in Southport is?” the constable asked, trying and failing to hide the fear in his voice.
“MY CURRENT BUSINESS HAS JUST CONCLUDED. NOW I REQUIRE A SHIP,” the warrior replied.
“I see,” the constable quavered. “We may have a problem there, seeing as you have just slain every murderer and rapist in this fine facility, which puts you right at the top of the list of Southport’s most wanted.”
“WERE THESE MEN NOT SCHEDULED FOR EXECUTION?” the warrior inquired.
“Yes, well... they were... just not for... well... today.”
“THEN I HAVE CORRECTED A GROSS INEFFICIENCY,” the warrior replied.
“I... I...” the constable stuttered.
“YOUR GRATITUDE IS NOT REQUIRED. I ONLY ASK FOR A SHIP.”
“I... well... um.” The constable looked pleadingly at his men, but they were gone, he could only see the tail end of the group as the ran down the hill, well away from the SPE. “I will see what I can dig up.”
The warrior followed the constable out of the blood-soaked complex, his massive shadow stretching out behind him, larger than such a man would cast, and it seemed to flicker, driven by an unseen wind. As they went, the constable tried his very hardest not to think about how the man’s voice sounded like a steel knife carving bone.