by F. Charles Murdock
Nothing can change what the heart contains.
Words from his beloved.
NOTHING CAN CHANGE WHAT THE HEART CONTAINS.
Words from his foe.
NOTHING can change WHAT the HEART CONtains. NOthing CAN CHANGEwhattheHEARTCONTAINS.NothINGCaNNotChAngYoeuwhACantnothecHaertCOgYnatso.u...
Beard awoke in a cold sweat, his throat raw from screaming, his body a vessel of pain from his second battle with the Eastwood spawn. Four days he'd been in this condition, his mind possessed by those maddening words and their implications, his body a vast landscape of injury and agony. He'd awoken only once before and had stayed conscious long enough to summon his first mate, Crabs, to ensure that the wyrmship, Satrian Falx was on the prescribed easterly course. Then he'd slipped back into the void between slumber and death, that cryptic message finding him even there at the heart of nothingness.
The warrior strained to sit up in the bed he'd given to the hostage boy from Beg's hellish island only five days before; that nameless, pitiful whelp who'd succumbed to the same madness that’d hundreds of cycles ago ensnared his foolish father. Now the thin sheet of that bed was stained with stale blood and even staler sweat, the reek of both drawing Beard farther away from that damned darkness. He managed to swivel his legs over the side of the bed before an explosion of pain forced him to growl through gritted teeth. That's when he noticed the man standing in the doorway.
"Crabs, is that you?" Beard strained to say.
"Aye, cap'n, 'tis," Crabs said, his own wounds sharpening his tone. Two of his limbs had been replaced with pegs of wood fortified by whatever scraps of metal his comrades could find in the hull of the wyrmship. Phantom pains would come and go, but it was the real ones at the cusp of his gnarled nubs that had kept him up all these nights. Crabs had, at one point, prayed to Släfgeit, Overlord of Slumber, to take him, but to no avail.
"How fare ye, cap'n?" the maimed marauder asked.
"I feel flayed and torched," Beard said, wincing as a sudden chill made his skin crawl. "And you?"
"Tired and half-eaten," Crabs said, his smirk betraying the sadness in his heart. "I've come to tell you that..."
"Allow me a moment," Beard said. "I wish to hear any news as a ready captain."
"I don't think ye should be up yet for your wounds still be dire," said Crabs.
Beard struggled to climb to his feet, pushing Crabs' good hand away when the marauder offered it to his captain. After a moment, the warrior was standing, though his body had come to employ an awkward sway to counteract its own disorientation. Once sure of foot, Beard spoke, his voice as gruff as his throat was dry.
"Now tell me my business."
"As you wish," the marauder replied after pausing a moment to be assured his captain wouldn't collapse before his news was delivered. "The men have found something, cap'n."
The marauder produced a great square of folded cloth from the back of his trousers, unfurling it as he brought it before the warrior's eyes. He held it with his good hand clamping the only intact corner of the great white cloth, the others having been burned away by a quick fire and recently.
"What is it?" Beard asked.
"A white flag, cap'n," Crabs said. "'Tis a symbol of surrender in these parts."
"And yet it be burned..."
"Aye," the marauder said grimly. "Seems someone lacks mercy."
Beard knew of far too many men and beasts with such a wicked streak. Could he, perhaps, be counted among them?
"Where was this found?" Beard asked, taking the cloth to better inspect it.
"Portside not an hour ago," Crabs replied. "It was just sittin' there, aye, on the black waves, a small flame still churnin' on its face."
"Then it be an omen," Beard said, running his fingers along the fine make of the ruined flag. "And a fresh one at that."
The other men of the Satrian Falx were on the bridge of the wyrmship, engaging one another in pointless banter and filthy tavern jokes that had already been passed between them more times than could be counted. If they’d been keeping an eye out as Crabs had instructed them before leaving to palaver with their battered captain, they would have seen the strange shape bobbing among the distant waves. As it were, the men were tiring of the sea and its mysteries. Little did they know that such mysteries had only just begun for them.
Satrian itself was the first to spy the dark silhouette on the horizon. Just as Beard was reaching the door to his quarters, the voice of the wyrmship broke through the warrior's troubled thoughts. Beard winced at the booming words, his teeth set in a grimace of pain as his wounds burned anew.
"Warrior, we are fast approaching something on the far horizon," Satrian said. "I advise you see it."
"I'm coming, Satrian," Beard thought to the wyrmship. "How fare ye?"
"I can float, warrior, and little else," the wyrmship replied. "And you?"
"The same," Beard replied and then severed ties with the ship.
The warrior followed Crabs through the section of quarters below deck and up the steep steps to the bridge, his ears pricking at the wooden thud of his first mate's false appendage. He’d thought Crabs beyond help when the warrior and two other marauders had harrowed the wicked isle that had captured him. The bastard was tenacious, that much was certain, but Beard also sensed something else in his heart, a longing for an end to this seaward life of his. Crabs had seen a great many thing at sea and had cheated death just as many times, but beyond the guarded heart within him, Beard could feel that such a life no longer mattered to the marauder.
"Crabs," Beard said before they'd reached the hatch that separated the bowels of the ship from the deck above it.
"Aye?" the marauder asked without turning.
"You've done well under me and..." Beard said.
"Thanks be to ye, cap'n" Crabs said, "but ya don't owe me nonesuch words."
Beard nodded and then followed his first mate to the bridge of the wyrmship.
The marauders fell into formation as Crabs and their captain made their way across the bridge. Neither said anything to the gathering men, didn't even spare a glance for their eyes were drawn eastward to the distant figure bobbing among the waves. Soon all eyes were gazing at it, a fog of wonder ensnaring each of their minds.
They all watched in silence, Beard at the forefront of the wyrmship, his gaggle of seadogs behind him, and Crabs always at his side. The midday breeze, usually refreshing, was muggy with a weight like extra gravity. Sol was near its apex, but not bright. This day seemed strange all around, then.
"Men!" Beard barked suddenly.
"Aye!" the marauders replied in chorus.
"Prepare arms," their captain commanded.
"For what, cap'n?" one of the underlings asked.
"We're to board yonder ship," Beard replied.
"Is that what that is?" the marauder named 19 asked.
"Aye," Crabs replied. "I can see naught but its broken mast, but aye, it be a ship." He turned to his captain with a thin smirk pushing apart the creases of his haggard face. "Your eyes be good, cap'n. Aye, very good."
Beard ignored this. "The vessel has been attacked, that much is certain. Those who carried out the assault may still be aboard or at least close."
"Then yonder ship might be bait?" Crabs asked.
"Mayhap," Beard said, "but we shall investigate nonetheless."
Crabs nodded and turned to the rest of the crew. Another nod from the maimed marauder sent them forth to prepare as their captain had commanded, though they were each grumbling as they went.
When they were gone, Beard let out the blunted moan he'd held within him since leaving the confines of his quarters. His pain was coming in overwhelming waves, his body possessed by the deep bite of his wounds. He stayed on his feet, but knew even that wasn't a good sign: his recovery was slow going. Was he ready for this newest discovery?
You see, it was that pinch of doubt that pained Beard the most.
Below deck, still in the tangled bedsheet of the ship's captain, a pulsing green light broke the darkness. The pulse of the cube that Beard had brought from the island he had only four days ago laid to ruin had kept the same tempo since he'd first received it as a so-called gift from the Dark One. Now, though, for every league the eastbound Satrian Falx cut through the sea, the green glow became dimmer and its pulse slower.
Beard had been far too ravished to notice this change and so would have to wait to learn its significance... for the next time he saw the cube, it would be dead.
When the men had reassembled on deck with their gear and weapons, Beard turned to them, the tattered flag of surrender draped over his blistered arms, the length of which was still as black as the rest of his body from the lampblack and whale fat that had rendered him incognito during the harrowing of the island to save Crabs. The warrior held the flag over his head so that all may see, to prompt their ears to hear well the words that would follow. Nothing stirred save the sea breeze, which now filled the vicinity with not the tang of salt, but the telltale stench of ruin and death.
"See this well, men," Beard said. "This is what happens when one pleads for mercy. Sympathy is a fool's dream in these dark times. Do ye hear me well, crew?"
"Aye!" the men responded.
"Then we shall not ask for either," their captain continued. "We shall prepare ourselves to fight and will do so until our last breath leaves us."
Then men nodded, though unenthusiastically.
"Once again I will lead you into the unknown and, once again, I will ask you to prove your worth to me. If not for me then for Satrian Falx for the wyrmship has given you more than a gaggle of seadogs deserve in a hundred lives."
"For you, cap'n," 19 said, raising a fist that was as black as his captain's, a shade of which he was proud. "...and for Satrian as well."
The other men raised their fists in solidarity, earning them a grin from their captain.
"Good," Beard said, turning his thoughts to the wyrmship. "Satrian, onward to yonder disposed vessel."
"As you wish, warrior," the wyrmship replied.
The sea split along the prow of the ship like a loosepine trunk under a heavy ax. The black waves churned along Satrian's body as the wyrmship pushed itself along the water like a serpent, the belly shifting between that of a dragon and the fitted wood of its ship-form. This propelled the crew onward to the black ship before them, though the going was slow for Satrian had suffered greatly in aiding its captain and crew.
As Beard and his men closed in on the bobbing ship, the sea became pockmarked with litter and debris -- a barrel here, a length of rope yonder, and so many satchels of bread and fruit, all gone to waste. This upset the marauders, but also gave them hope of finding such supplies still intact on the ship. Only Beard's eyes had remained locked on the distant ship, his mind assessing the scant details of their destination to aid them in boarding.
The ship was large, perhaps twice-and-a-half bigger than Satrian, its bridge lined with high walls and a dozen cannons, making it a well-fortified warship. The main mast was broken near its base, leaning at a steep angle toward the brig, both sail and emblem missing. The air above the entire ship seemed to be thick with smoke, but Beard couldn't see any evidence of a fire above or below deck. Still, they would board with caution and advance with double that amount.
As Satrian sidled along the towering ship, the men upon it were stolid and silent, each of their eyes searching to make sense of what had happened therein. The men had seen their fair share of destruction, but none so shrouded in mystery. After a moment, a voice broke the silence.
"Cap'n," Crabs said. "If me eyes ain't deceivin' me... that be Deft Finnigan's ship."
"Aye," 19 said. "The Gunguniro."
"Aye," Crabs said. "Old Southspeak for 'the deceitful weapon.'"
"Who is this Deft Finnigan?" Beard asked.
"A sea-hardened man," 19 said. "Perhaps the deadliest saltdog to ride the southern waves, aye."
"His exploits be a thing of legends, cap'n," Crabs said. "Murder, rape, pillaging... any and all on any given day."
"Well, it seems such a life might've caught up to him this day," Beard said.
No answer save from the creaking ship before them.
"Perhaps we should discover his fate for ourselves," Beard said, the inadvertent double-meaning of his own words weighing suddenly and heavily upon his thoughts like a dragging anchor. Such a dark omen. The warrior turned his attention to the eyes of his crew and saw two things in each: obedience and fear. So it appeared "seadog" was apt nomenclature for men such as these. All but Crabs, whose eyes were filled with equal parts misery and latent vengeance. Beard knew well this volatile brew of emotion for the very same burned deep within him.
"Men, be ye ready?" the warrior asked.
"Aye!" came the chorus.
"Then we depart," Beard said, taking into his hands one of a dozen roped grappling hooks that’d been counted among the inventory of the wyrmship. He gave the leather rope a few feet of slack, letting the four-pronged iron hook at its end dangle by his side before whirling it like lariat over his head. A moment later, his mighty arm let loose and flung the hook over the high wall of the Gunguniro. As soon as he heard the crash of the hook smacking against the other side of that wall and the subsequent squeal of metal scraping along aged wood, the warrior reeled back the rope until the grapple caught the edge of the ship.
"We scale the wall thusly," Beard said, preparing his battered body for yet another trial of endurance. "On we go, men."
"Cap'n, shouldn't someone be stayin' put?" a marauder named Barnacle Bill interrupted. "You know, to guard the ship an' such."
Beard shot him a look of dissatisfaction, his hard eyes gleaming in the light of Sol above.
"Satrian is a capable vessel," he said. "The wyrmship needs no protection."
With that, the warrior leapt from the wyrmship's starboard wall, swinging to the opposite ship as gracefully as a razorbird dips through the air to catch its prey. In a span of seconds, Beard was scaling the wall, the leather rope in his hands as taut as the bulge of muscles lining his great arms. Then he was over the wall and out of sight.
The marauders shot each other looks of wonder for though they'd sailed with their new captain for days on end, Beard still managed to mystify them with his physical prowess. The feat had ensnared the warrior in fresh bolts of pain, though his crew was none the wiser. Such is the discipline of the Thorgithen mind.
"Stop yer gawking!" Crabs barked, flinging his own grappling hook over the high wall of the warship. He, too, leapt from the prow of the ship, though his ascent lacked the finesse of his captain. With two limbs of knotwood, the maimed marauder could only shimmy along the leather rope, his body flopping along the side of the Gunguniro like an asphyxiating trout. Still, Crabs had boarded the warship even before any of the other marauders had managed to catch their hooks on its high edge.
And so, one by one, the crew of the Satrian Falx boarded the disposed warship of the infamous Deft Finnigan, a man who'd come to earn the name Grinning Death during his exploits along the Southern Sea.
By the time the last marauder had found purchase along the high bowed wall of the warship, Beard had already assessed where to go next. The bridge of the Gunguniro was colossal, but lacked much to break up the monotony save a few more cannons on the far side and the ruined masts near its center. With a quick sweep of the area, the warrior found the door that would inevitably lead down to the galley of the ship. It hung from a single brass hinge near the wooden floor, its face warped by a powerful blow that had splintered its top.
The warrior turned to his men, his eyes sweeping them as efficiently as they had the ship. Most were brushing themselves off, all but Crabs and the two who had four days prior accompanied the warrior in saving the maimed marauder, those named 19 and Barnacle Billiam -- they're bodies were still tinted with the means of stealth they’d employed before departing for the bewitched isle.
Beard nodded and, at once, his crew formed a semi-circle around him. The warrior felt a pang in his heart just then because such a formation reminded him of his late father, King Bergrin the Knowing, and how he would hold council with his warriors in the same manner at the lip of the bottomless ravine called Cōm-Labi. As much as his body pained him, memories such as these of times long past and lost hurt Beard much more.
"We will investigate the bowels of this ship," Beard said. "We're here for provisions and knowledge of what transpired to better prepare ourselves for the journey ahead. As such, we will not engage in parlay or melee unless such becomes necessity. Klar?"
"Aye," some said.
"Klar," said others.
Beard nodded again and crossed the bridge, his crew in tow. Their many weapons gleamed in the muted Solight above. The black mist hanging above the ship, that which had seemed so thick from a distance, was nothing more than a swarm of meatflies, drawn to some as of yet undetectable buffet of death, one neither seen nor smelt. And as eager as they were to feast upon carrion, Beard noted that the flies stayed they're distance, hovering twenty feet above the bridge, to the height of the broken mast's tip. What fell magicks repelled the vermin? And why was the swarm so eerily quiet?
At the door, Beard peered into the darkness below deck, noting the absence of torchlight. He turned back to his men and, with a tone barely audible, asked if any man had been wise enough to bring a light.
"Nay, cap'n," most answered in various ways, all but 19, who held out to his cap'n a small trinket of heavy silver. He flipped it open, revealing a source of fire. A clicktorch was the Northman called this rare device, though those of the Southern Sea knew it as a handfire.
"'Twas a gift from a friend," 19 said with a rotting grin. "Which is to say I stole it from one of the fancies I used to pay-'n'-lay when we docked in Southron."
As the rest of the men chuckled at this, their captain took the torch and sparked it with his thumb, holding it through the gap between the ruined door and its frame. While his eyes peered intently into the darkness, Beard prepared the Tattered Edge beneath the blistered flesh of his free hand lest an ambush be waiting in the depths of the warship.
The silence within the bowels of the Gunguniro was just as arresting as that above deck and the footfalls of Beard and his crew did little to beat back its influence. The creak of the descending stairs under their many worn boots matched that of the entire ship as it bobbed there on the choppy, black waves of the Southern Sea. Then there were no more stairs to descend, the sole of the vast ship finally beneath them, though their eyes were drawn to deciphering the secrets of the thick darkness beyond the glow of the clicktorch in Beard's possession.
Their advance was slow and cautious, their many weapons held to their sides in anticipation of Deft Finnigan's fabled wrath. In this way they trudged along through the Gunguniro like some strange hovering insect with swinging blades for legs. So they walked along the grand keel in the direction the stern where most of quarters and storage were most certainly located.
"Cap'n..." a whisper came from the rear of the ground.
"Speak not lest..." Beard began before spying a slick of blood just beyond the halo of light from the handfire. The warrior scanned the vicinity, looking for the body that had once held all that dark blood, but to no avail.
"Cap'n," the whisperer repeated, "there be bodies back here.”
Beard denied his curiosity and the urge to turn around for such would have reduced his guard. In light of the blood, he instead chose to trust the discretion of his charge, briefly halting their advance so he and his crew may prepare their senses for whatever might be watching and waiting in that haunting shroud around them.
"Though..." this whispering continued, now a beat faster with rising dread, "I'd not say they be bodies, aye, for there be naught but limbs and skin left. Gods, I see it now: the corpses be innumerable an' arranged in some queer artform."
"Stifle yourself," Beard replied, training his ears to probe the darkness. The warrior sensed something, though faintly, but nothing could be heard save the constant wind above deck and that damn creaking of the ship's ironwood bones.
"To the starboard wall!" Beard whispered gruffly, the Tattered Edge manifesting into his waiting hand. The marauders did as commanded, following their captain to said wall. All of their backs were then pressed against it to deny any foe a chance at sneaking up behind them. They shuffled along the wall in this manner, the soft light leading the way.
More blood. Another body. Then a wide strip of flayed flesh hung out before them like a morbid flag. It was suspended there by a sword that had been driven into two sealed planks of ironwood that made up a small portion of the high wall behind them.
"A pirate's blade..." Crabs whispered. "Fine be its make."
Beard nodded in stern agreement before ducking under the draped skin and continuing on.
A few dozen paces later the warrior spied a soft glow near the back of the ship. No, two... like slanted yellow eyes that bobbed in the dark.
As the crew advanced, those devilish eyes seemed to grow. Beard kept his own on them as they went, trusting his other senses to alert him to any movement other than that of him and his men. Now the Tattered Edge led the way, the blade thirsting to unravel the cycles of any man or beast that dared stand defiant before it.
A pair of short walls jutted out from both sides of the main structure near the center of the ship, effectively bottle-necking the interior of the Gunguniro and creating a narrow hallway that opened into several rooms, though they all appeared to be closed behind thick doors. There on the floor of this walkway were the perceived eyes of golden light. Only now could Beard and the others see that such was, in reality, two streaks of dancing torchlight emanating from the first two adjacent rooms, the twin glares reduced to mere flattened shafts of light beneath the gaps of their respective doors and the base floor of the warship.
Beard entered the enclosed hallway, his attention divided between both doors, his conscious mind awaiting his instincts to tell him which room should be searched first. He approached them slowly, his men creeping behind him, they're eyes wide with suspicion. The warrior took a deep breath, spying three other rooms beyond the light in his hand -- another pair of adjacent rooms, both without torchlight, and a room behind a large door at the end of the hall, a strange insignia carved into its center.
Just as Beard was eyeing the symbol, the door to his left flew open with a crash. The warrior turned and delivered a mighty kick at the rushing darkness, the thick sole of his Thorgithen boot connecting with something solid therein. Not a blink of an eye later, a man fell into the gleam of the clicktorch, coming to rest facedown, the bayonet he'd been holding having skipped off into the darkness upon his collapse with a series of jarring clangs. Then all was silent once more.
Beard and his crew stood around the fallen man in a tight circle, all eyes on the deep cuts that streaked his back, his long navy blue coat in tatters and bloodied by those gaping wounds. The warrior pulled his cursed blade back into his body and bayed the surrounding marauders to keep lookout lest there be others who would rise up to challenge the men who had invaded their ship. Then, after a moment of surveying the body, Beard turned it over with a sweep of his heavy boot.
"Why... that be Deft Finnigan if I ever saw 'im," Crabs whispered.
Beard saw well the pale face staring up at him from the floor, the silver eyes muted by a film of congealed blood, the flesh thereon pulled back from his jaw to the apex of his skull. He saw well the skeletal smile, some teeth black and rotted, others corked with gold or silver. His tongue, a fat gray eel of a thing, dangled over his cheekbone as freely as the skin that had once been attached to his narrow face. Grinning Death seemed a fitting name for the man after all.
"So dies the tyrant of the Southern Seas," Barnacle Bill said, pulling off his dirty bandana to place it on his heart in mock sentimentality. "Does any of you mind if I take his gol' 'n' silver falsies? I've my own teeth to dazzle."
Nobody said anything let alone an objection to the posed question, so Billiam stooped to claim the trove. Before he could reach in to pry apart the grim smile, Deft Finnigan's body jerked to life, leaping at the confounded marauder. The pirate grabbed Billiam around the worn collar of his shirt and pulled him close as though lunging to take a bite out of the marauder's cheek. With eyes widened by some unspeakable horror, Deft Finnigan spoke to them his last word in the living realm.
"Shh..." Finnigan began. Without lips to tighten the sound, it came out like the hiss of an angry serpent.
"Is he hushin' us?" one of the marauders asked before a stiff elbow to his side shut him up.
The looming marauders leaned closer to the battered man to catch what he was saying, Beard among them.
Finnigan continued struggling both with the word and the breath behind it. He gasped once, aimed his grimace at Beard, then forced the word past his skeletal smile.
"Shrike," he said, then felt back to the floor, his eyes unmoving, his lungs empty.
"Wait, wait!" Barnacle Bill exclaimed, prying apart not the pirate's mouth, but his fingers, which had locked around his collar in a deathgrip. "'Shrike' as in 'Isenshrike?' The God-killer be here?"
Beard pulled the marauder to his feet just as he was escaping the dead man's hands.
"Mayhap," the warrior said, "and if the bastard is here, I'm certain your shrieking has given us away and will prove useful when the whirling blades are mangling your pitiful body."
Barnacle Bill averted his eyes from his captain, his face red in shame and fear. Such fear was contagious, forcing the eyes of the other marauders to dart about. The once placid darkness now seemed to jump out at them, shadows created by their addled minds seeming to crawl into the light that still flickered in the mighty hand of their captain. Just as quickly as the fear had gripped them, the marauders were brought back to their senses by a new crashing noise behind them.
Beard had kicked open the door across from the small room where Deft Finnigan had assailed him and his crew. The door had splintered, revealing a small compartment filled with a single torch casting its dull light upon a large metal bin full of rusty tools.
"Search the next pair of rooms, men, and I'll take yonder room," the warrior said as the crew set their widened eyes on his face, each mind behind them wondering if he'd gone mad. Before the marauders could voice their concerns, Beard turned away from them and started down the hall.
"Weapons up!" he said.
The warrior came to the strange symbol carved into the center of the door, a multitude of interwoven concentric circles the shamans of the North would call a gyroglyph. His fingers were eager to be run across it and as raised his hand to touch the delicate carving, the door crept open. There the warrior was faced with naught but darkness.
Beard could hear his men approaching, the gaggle of marauders splitting into two teams to search the remaining pair of rooms as their captain had commanded them. The warrior stepped into the darkness at the end of the hall, the clicktorch in his raised hand doing little to penetrate the unseen. Thus the Tattered Edge was thrumming in his mighty arms as he entered the quarters of the late Deft Finnigan.
By the scant details of disarray he could see by the light of his handfire, the warrior could surmise that a rather dramatic struggle had taken place in this room. To the right of the doorway a large desk was overturned and splintered, a pile of loose parchment covering it like a death shroud. The pungent smell of alcohol brought Beard into the center of the room where he found several smashed bottles of spiced rum, their contents now a black pool beneath the glass. Miscellaneous debris filled the room from there, forming the scene of the suspected battle, though Beard was quick to note the absence of blood. Then again, the reach of the clicktorch was but a few paces.
The warrior spied movement before him, though his other primary senses seemed unfazed. He stepped over the broken bottles, his heavy boots shattering any shards beneath them. The electric prick on his skin surged to his bones as something darted past him from behind. At once, the Tattered Edge was brought into being, occupying the Beard's free hand as he trailed the suspicious movement.
He raised the blade in anticipation for a quick blow, his heart quickened by his innate warrior senses. Another step. Another. And then Beard knew he wasn't alone.
A pair of slender tan boots glimmered in the light cast by the handfire, their sewed jute twine tops leading to the hem of a white formal dress, its make as Thorgithen as the boots. Beard followed the dress with his eyes, noting the long tie of black hair hanging about the waist of she who stood before him. Next came a glimmering breastplate inscribed with the symbol of the Motherwolf, patron goddess of the North. This was a royal ensemble, that which is worn only on a day of sacred rites. Then that could only mean...
Beard had spent so long lamenting the untimely death of his father that the face of his mother had seemingly escaped him. She who had bathed him when he was a babe, she who had doctored and loved, she who had also lost King Bergrin. Here she stood before her son, her ebony hair tied back into a tight braid that ran the length of her spine, her eyes a vibrant indigo, her face as proud and stern as that of Beard. Where had she been on that day when her husband had been slain and her son accused of the crime and then banished?
And why was she in the captain's quarters of the infamous Gunguniro?
"Lady sai?" Beard asked in astonishment.
The Thorgithen queen said nothing, only smiled down upon her only son in the radiance of the light he held within his mighty hand. Beard lowered the Tattered Edge away from the body of his mother, his senses too jarred to allow him to draw the weapon into his body.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Hush, child," his mother said, raising a slender finger to his lips as she used to do when Beard was being obstinate as a child during those precious few cycles before Brōg's training hardened him to the ways of the world. The warrior fell silent as his eyes searched the face before him, knowing well her beauty and grace.
The lady kissed him on the forehead and put her hands on his shoulders, her fingers cold and bony. Beard hardly noticed the darkness fading away as a pair of lanterns hanging in the far corners of the room flicked to life, quickly obscuring the modest light he held in his palm. She looked him in the eyes, her smile welcoming.
"I wear the vestments of ritual, Beard," she whispered, "for you."
"Yes," she said with a nod, her hair bobbing in tandem with the dancing flames around her. "Do you know why?"
"I don't," he said, his eyes drawn to the speckled indigo rings around her dense pupils.
"Because I'm here to do what the others couldn't," she replied. She giggled, her cheeks flaring with natural rouge. "I'm here for your Sending, child, to commit the Dethorith those robed jackals were too cowardly to sentence you to for killing my husband, your father."
The glint of a blade flashed before Beard's face as his warrior's instincts forced him to jolt away from it. The fine edge of a dirk tore away at his left cheek, a splatter of blood soiling the immaculate white dress of his mother. The last thing he saw before all hell broke loose before him were those roiling indigo eyes and his own blood gleaming upon the emblem of the Motherwolf. After that, the Tattered Edge took over.
The bloodlust surging through Beard's veins was an ancient one, the same that had heated the blood of man since he first learned of vengeance and the wicked gratification of pursuing it. Just as hungry for vindication was the cursed blade, the Tattered Edge, and so both body and blade worked in chorus to sate this lust, this terrible hunger from deep within. Such a union wasn't perfect, but it felt good and sometimes that's all that matters.
Except when your foe is your own mother, ken?
"But you're not my mother," Beard said through set teeth, dropping the clicktorch and pulling his dark blade before him with both hands to deflect another strike from the quick dirk. Black sparks showered the floor as the blades met in sudden combat, the scent in the air no longer that of spilt rum, but the hot stench of battle.
The woman began to cackle as she struck out with her blade three more times, unable to find purchase save for the splayed edge of the fabled blade before her. More clanging of blades, more grating cackle, both sounding the same to Beard's ears. Then the warrior whirled around, pulling the Tattered Edge behind him to deliver a death blow to the imposter, but when blade deflected blade this time, the beguiling woman was gone and a new figure stood before Beard, one just as familiar and perplexing.
The heavy battle ax of Bledbuan deflected the deadly bite of the Tattered Edge, sending even more black sparks through the air overhead. Beard fell back for a moment, his mind trying to comprehend what had happened.
"Ah, yes, Beard, the Dethorith," the smithe said. "Just like the one you witnessed when you were just a lad, the one for the cannibal. I believe it's your turn, king-slayer!"
The battle ax split the air before Beard with a sound like a sudden fire being ignited. The warrior rolled left to evade this attack and when he raised the Tattered Edge to deflect another mighty blow, a thin cutlass whirred above his head.
"Braxia?" Beard asked the woman now standing over him, she who had aided him in destroying the Order of the Red Hand in the mountains of Himgal so many moons ago. She was in the red robe he'd placed upon her after freeing her from those savage cultists, her ankle still shackled, its chain in a heap between her dainty feet.
"But who will save you, Beard?" she asked with a smirk before leaping into the air with her blade. The chain leapt up behind her like an iron tail and when she delivered her blow, it was the clank of this chain that bombarded Beard's ears in the close confines of the room. The sword was deftly knocked away by Beard's own, but such didn't seem to matter for another ax was seeking his skull before the warrior was able to reach a defensive stance.
The throwing hatchet caught Beard on the shoulder, chipping bone and flaying flesh. Nothing mortal, but it hurt like hell. The warrior's eyes locked onto the face of Beg, the man who'd made food of other men at the behest of a colossal worm that thought itself a god of the living trees.
Then in a blink, Cruce fon Brambell stood before him, the Death-Dealer from the plains north of the Turin's Black Wall. The Necromancer's face was set in a grim smile and when he winked, Beard felt his stomach lurch.
"Aye, you should be killed," Cruce said. "A lumbering ass like you should be slain and dragged and without honor. Nay, not for a bilge rat like you."
The Death-Dealer became Dashir, the previous captain of Satrian Falx, who became Dolan, the late figurehead of Kōstof. Then came the grasping claws of the Slaverer from beneath Buildar's Gate, then the shadows of Släfgeit, disposed Overlord of Slumber. Then came Bisbane the Unstable. Then Kgoreth, the phantom king of the TottenMarsh. Then Wuthweirgen the Mother Wolf. Then the traitorous Brōg, he who slayed his king. Now he was King Bergrin. Then he changed, but so quickly that a multitude of people familiar to Beard flashed before his eyes -- each assaulting him with their respective weapons -- with only a hint at who they were before one figure stood before him, her form hurting his heart above all others.
"Nothing can change what the heart contains," Vel'Naren said, her voice as twinkling as her eyes. Beard felt a longing in his heart, but the pain there was far too potent to mask with reverie. His beloved stood inches from him, she on tippy-toe, her slender hands caressing the warrior's face. The Tattered Edge felt hot in his hand, but he paid it no mind for his whole being was drawn to the form of that demoness of the twilight realm, she who had made him a man in a ritual of love and a melding of hearts so long ago.
"We can be one, Beard," she said, her hair a skein of constellations in the light of the lanterns behind her. Her eyes pulled him in. He had no feeling, no knowledge of whereabouts or tug of intuition. She pulled him into a passionate kiss.
Only blackness followed those thin, soft lips.
Beard regained awareness a moment later, though his thoughts were scattered and his instincts blunted by the black void in which he now found himself. Then he felt his boots touch something solid and, looking down, found himself on a great mirror that seemed to span infinity. All else was darkness, though a strange, soft glow seemed to hang over him so that he could see his reflection below. Then he saw the other.
"Vel'Naren?" Beard asked. "No, impossible."
The demoness took a few steps toward him, leaving only a dozen paces between her and the warrior.
"Would you have me in this form, Beard?" she asked, her smile quaint, but crooked. "Would you enjoy me?"
"You're not her," Beard said, a rage slowly building within him.
"No, not at all," the demoness said. "But her form allowed me into you, son of prophecy."
"You're a flesh-swap, a creature who can take the form of beings within one's memories." Beard said, his hands without weapons save the fists they now coiled themselves into.
"Such an indecent name for such a wondrous creature as I," the thing in the form of Vel'Naren said. "But I can't be too upset with you, Beard, for you've played savior to me and my kin."
"I'm not fond of riddles, flesh-swap."
"Then a little history lesson is in order," the demoness said. "My kind was to rule your gods-forsaken world for we were more powerful, more deserving, better, even than those who you call the Forgotten Elders, as advanced as they were.
"But then the war came and so, too, came Kgortel, who fought back against the ever-advancing sword of the great Turin. He who captured us, he who banished us to the Nothingrealm, he who sealed us so deeply that even the Pipers couldn't reach us."
"Are you done yet?" Beard asked indignantly.
Vel'Naren laughed. "We bided our time, son of prophecy. We awaited your birth. We awaited your meeting with the demoness and the slaying of Bergrin. We awaited your harrowing of the TottenMarsh and the receipt of the cursed blade. And then we waited for you to come to the Southern Seas and slay the Lidless Eye, to complete a prophecy -- one of many -- made by the Master so long ago."
"What the hell are you talking about, shifter?"
"Don't you see?" the demoness asked. "The Lidless Eye was a keyhole and his ritual of blood sacrifice, however crude you may have found it, was what continually sealed off the Nothingrealm. We beings of the Naughtrealm simply waited for you to bring the key to unravel the darkness that bound us to that void. And you did precisely that when you felled the Lidless Eye, the voidling gatekeeper to Naught, he who has marked you with his emblem upon his death.
“So thank you for our freedom, Beard. You're due a great favor."
The warrior's bloodlust was surging once more.
"Then this be the void? The Naught-and-Nothingrealm?" he asked.
The thing that was in Vel'Naren's form cackled madly at this. "Not at such, son of prophecy."
"Stop calling me that," Beard said with a growl.
"We now stand on the precipice of your soul, Beard," she said. "For thousands of cycles your kind has mused on the workings of the soul, but still know so very little. Your philosophers and shamans see it as a spirit or light or some other such nonsense, but in reality, the soul is what you see beneath you, an endless mirror, one of immaculate design that reflects all deeds done in one's life."
"We're standing on my soul?" Beard asked.
"It's a metaphor, son of prophecy," the demoness said. "Try expanding that tiny mind of yours."
Beard roared, his muscles taut and ready for action.
"Calm yourself, warrior," a new voice said. The thing from the Naughtrealm was no longer Vel'Naren, but had taken the form of Beard himself. The real Beard tried to manifest the Tattered Edge, but it wouldn't come to his calling.
"I could take everything from you, Beard," the false Beard said. "I could take your mind, your body, even this tainted, twisted thing you call a soul. I could leave you wondering and wandering among the pipes for all eternity with nothing. Yes, perhaps that too. Perhaps I could seal you in nothingness like your ancestors did to me."
Beard charged the imposter, swinging a heavy fist at his face. The false Beard dodged the blow and delivered a kick to the warrior's back, sending him crashing to the floor. He rolled to the side, but a heavy boot found his throat, pinning him to the great mirror below.
"I could destroy you and much more efficiently than the form of the Isenshrike I took to kill the men of the ship," the false Beard said, looking down upon the real one with a sinister smirk etched on his stolen face. "But I won't. I'll only take one thing from you, son of prophecy."
Beard tried to say something, but the weight of his adversary on his throat wouldn't allow words to pass.
"Do you see all that blackness overhead?" the false Beard asked. The warrior saw it well. "The souls of normal men are vibrant with light that is only dimmed by faint shadows of cruelty and malice... but yours?"
Beard saw the thick shadows churning above. Impenetrable nothingness, a void in its own right.
"You've let the Tattered Edge take you over and now it sits heavy on your miserable soul," the false Beard said. "And so I will exorcise you. I will take your accursed blade in the name of the Master, Amar the Obsidian, he in all his glory who commanded us to seal the Black Wall of Turin will runic magicks of his arcane design. He will be pleased, I assure you, son of prophecy."
Then the thick shadows began to drift downward like a heavy fog. The darkness began to churn faster and faster, the tip of a broad cyclone peeking out from the shelf of moving darkness. The whirling blackness descended upon the false Beard, encapsulating him in shadow until both were gone, leaving Beard defeated on the wide mirror, both now without the weight of the darkness that had for so long hung above his tormented soul.
"Continue east if you want it back, son of prophecy," he heard his own disembodied voice say. Then he was afforded an image of his stolen blade buried to its hilt at the peak of what appeared to be a dormant volcano on some faraway island. Then Beard, too, slipped away.
Beard heard the scream before he'd sensed anything else. Then he saw something fall away from him. Then the many hands restraining him.
The warrior looked around him, the faces of his crew of marauders twisted in rage. Beyond those faces were the walls of Deft Finnigan's quarters, which brought Beard back to a sound mind. He tried to stand, but his men held him to the ground.
"How could you, captain?" 19 asked. "He did naught to you!"
"What... what happened?" Beard asked, his thoughts and bearings still scrambled from his encounter with the flesh-swap from the Nothingrealm.
"You killed him, captain!" Barnacle Billiam screamed. "You carved him in twain with your demon sword!"
"Who?" Beard said, struggling against the collective might of his crew. "Who was slain?"
Then he saw and understood.
Crabs was now in two halves on the floor before him, his mortal wounds frothing with darkness. The eye he could see was wide with horror as though the maimed marauder knew well that doom was falling upon his head.
"You'd holed yourself up in this room," 13 said, "but ol' Crabs managed to pry the door open to come to your aid when we heard the sounds of battle. The moment he threw the door open, though, 'twas only you there -- you and that fell blade -- and then... you.... you cut him down."
Beard was silent.
"We'll brig you 'til we reach land and release you there, as per marauder code," 13 said. "And, according to the code, you are marked. If we see you again, we kill you."
Then Beard was being dragged through the bowels of the Gunguniro, past dismembered corpses and slicks of congealed blood. He turned away from the carnage and pulled himself inward, parting his thoughts to talk to his ship.
"Satrian, Beard thought, "I've slain Crabs in a trance and now the men are to exile me. I need your help, both to escape and to keep from treating them to such cruel deaths."
For a moment there was no response. And then...
"I can do nothing against the crew," Satrian said through Beard's mind.
Beard felt his heart sink, his body thrumming with emptiness now that the Tattered Edge had been lost.
"There is a way," the wyrmship said suddenly, "but it would mean a sacrifice on both our parts."
"What is it?"
"We must fuse, you and I," Satrian said. "Though I fear both of us may be too weak for such a melding to work."
"We must try," Beard said in desperation. "For I need my blade and the crew needs their lives... at least long enough to give Crabs a fitting burial."
"Then come to me," the wyrmship said.
In an instant, Beard kicked himself free of the many hands of the marauders and flew up the stairs to the bridge of the Gunguniro. Just as quickly, he vaulted himself over its high wall and landed atop the bridge of Satrian Falx. He looked back for a moment, waiting for the faces of his men to show. Once they did, Beard nodded to them, hoping they would understand such a decision as this.
"I did not mean to slay Crabs," he told them, "but I know I deserve your hatred. Now I must go with Satrian to recover something lost to me. In return, I give you the Gunguniro so that you may sail the seas as you will.
"Just do me one favor, though I deserve not that much from you: make sure Crabs is buried somewhere tranquil for he deserves such a final resting place."
Then Beard dashed below deck, into the heart of the waiting wyrmship, to partake in a sacrifice to return the cursed blade to his equally cursed hands.