by F. Charles Murdock
In a shift of perspective long ago, Beard Weirheowdth had traversed a realm of gore, a grim unplace of snow-matted blood and bone chips. Even after such a long, arduous journey he could remember the crimson pools that had filled his boot prints there and the way the distant mountains had been daggers skewering a dying skyline. He’d lost himself in a mind-trap much different than the Black Door or the thoughts beneath thoughts. And it was this memory that pervaded Beard’s mind as he trudged along the ashen dunes of the strange, unnamed wastelands where Dalia of the Song had left him.
“How long have I stumbled on?” he heard himself ask. “How long have my thoughts been poisoned by fate or do I know of nothing else?”
He looked down on the fine sand beneath his boots, trying to ignore the sheen of blood his mind imprinted thereon. More questions came to him between memories from a time long passed. Prophecies, too, bore their strange heads between flashes of all who’d found death at his blood-scarred hands. So his thoughts turned back to an old dishonor, to an immortality thrust upon him, to death denied.
“Leave me,” he told these creeping thoughts through lips that cracked and bled beneath the violent rays of Sol.
Beard didn’t want to turn his attention back to the horizon before him because the monotony was maddening, but the torrent of thoughts and memories whirling within were too much to bear. He forced his eyes upward, pushing his sights past the ubiquitous glare of the wasteland. Even beyond the brilliance of the desert sky, his keen eyes could discern a hint of difference on the skyline before him.
So fate has made me a plaything?, Beard thought as Sol took its rest for the night, blanketing the desert in subtle blues and greys. He’d tracked that hint of difference on the horizon for the remainder of the day, only recognizing it as an abandoned campsite an hour before stepping foot within its sparse circle of black stones. By then night had fallen as if the warrior’s arrival to that dry oasis had been foreseen. So, as he took a seat on one of the chunks of tektite, he wondered if he’d stumbled upon a crude waystation or if the site had been prepared especially for him.
Beard turned his eyes back to his lonely path across the sand, the breeze of the dying day whispering secrets in his ear. A line of heavy boot prints trailed off from the campsite with a great gouge in the sand to the right of them where the warrior had dragged his new blade through the savage desert. He stabbed that very sword into the ashen sand between his feet and sighed.
“Even this land mocks me with death.”
In but a pause between his heartbeats Beard struck out with his hand (his only remaining after Satriax had tore the other away “to save them both” and birthed the blade Beard now bore), smashing a large black scarab that’d been crawling along his right leg. He looked at the dripping mess for a moment and then brought it to his mouth. The taste was like fresh sickle-nuts, a rare species used by Thorgithen chefs and bonecasters alike. The crunch of the creature’s carapace granted even more similarity.
But Beard cared little of taste or texture, only that his thirst was momentarily sated by the crude meal. How many such morsels had he consumed since leaving the songkeeper behind?
The warrior stood, though his body protested after so many days spent trudging through the hellscape toward the same blank horizon. His belly groaned, his legs ached, and most of his flesh had been sun-baked to leather. Even so, he set himself to duty, not being one to deny training or instincts.
Beard withdrew his blade from the earth and brought its edge to the center of the campsite. There a series of white stones encircle a loose pile of dead wood, giving credence to the warrior’s suspicions that someone had made preparations for his coming. Even so, he thrust his sword into the heart of the wood and knelt before the pit.
Calm yourself, child, and do it right. Even in such a forgotten wasteland, Beard could hear Wuthweirgen’s command from long ago. That time seemed to Beard to be an age long past.
“Of course,” Beard whispered as he had when he’d last held palaver with the Mother Wolf. He leaned the blade against the stump of his right shoulder in an awkward embrace and then began to chant. With his words he called upon the favor of Am’gog, the ancient patron of flame.
Pfyer! Beard screamed in his mind. Then he brought his fist down the front of the blade, the old ring he wore dragging sparks as it went. And isn’t that just what the gift from his beloved always had been, a means to bring light into the darkness? So with it a flame arose from the tinder, its burn slow, its yellow glow like a face of an old friend.
The warrior looked down at the ring for a moment, remembering vividly the slender fingers that’d slid it on his own. His heart called out to his love, his mind still searching for a reason as to why she’d fled him in the city of machines. She’d known something, he supposed. Though, gods, was he getting tired of all these games.
He glanced up at the coming night, the bone-moon but a sliver of silver beyond the glow of his little fire. Beard sensed no danger in this place (beyond the place itself), but such lack of suspicion always drew ire from his instincts. He had no map, no compass save for the sacrifice Dalia had made to get him here. And yet home still called out to him from countless iles and cycles away. To a Thorgithen, home was always “North”.
Beard awoke to another meal crawling across his chest. He grabbed the scarab -- this one green -- with his mighty hand, squeezed it like a ripe everberry, and gulped it down, tossing aside its spent casing when he’d finished. Though the meal was light, it sat heavy on his churning stomach. He paused to collect his thoughts before rising to meet a new day.
“More of the same,” he spat, though he knew on some level such a declaration wasn’t altogether true.
The warrior pulled free his blade from its resting place in the heart of the dead fire and shifted it to the fighting stance he’d learned on his trek to the desert. Beyond the chatter of shifting sand came a buzzing Beard hadn’t heard since he’d left the many uncharted isles of the Southern Seas. It was the sound of an angry swarm, though the warrior couldn’t locate its source.
Beard scanned the horizon with eye and ear before crouching among the slabs of tektite. He brought his ear to the ground and listened, his concentration filtering out both the wind and the beat of his own stubborn heart. Satisfied, the warrior rose again, his battle instincts preparing his body for the moment of attack.
Could be a graboid, he thought as he peered out into the dunes, or a gods-damned sand-devil.
He shot a look over his shoulder, not the least surprised that his boot prints from the previous day had been wiped clean by the jealous wind. All of his progress had been erased in a similar manner while he’d slept night after night at the tops of sand dunes (never at their bases for legend had it giant antlions dwelled below those vast valleys). He saw sudden movement just then and pivoted his body, his arm poised to slash. Before Beard could execute an attack, however, he was arrested by what he saw near the spent fire pit.
In the spot adjacent to where sleep had found Beard was a group of scarabs arranged in five concentric circles. The smallest circle marched cyclonically while the next size did so in the opposite direction and so on in an alternating fashion. The insects moved seamlessly and in silence, their march mesmeric against the shifting ash of the desert. Before the warrior could process his confusion, the swarm scattered, the scarabs scuttling from the campsite in a mutual direction.
Beard followed the retreating scarabs with his eyes, his weapon still poised, his muscles pulled taut at the ready. He narrowed his eyes on the section of horizon beyond the swarm where a new hint of difference became prevalent -- a shifting shadow was moving along the distant dunes, its advance slow but steady. So there walked the source of the buzzing
“I share your thirst for battle,” the warrior told his blade. “Shall we toast to new destruction?”
After all his travels, Beard had little patience for mystery. He sprinted through the marching scarabs, crushing half a dozen beneath his boots. His eyes narrowed on the shadow writhing along a distant dune, his focus a pinpoint as he closed in. Even then, he could hear Brog chastising him from beyond recollection for expending energy in such a needless manner, but he no longer cared for his former tutor’s voice or lessons. The traitor had earned such scorn with cowardice.
The warrior could feel a roar growing in his gullet, his body and his blade ready to cleave despite the tranquility the songkeeper had tried to instill in his heart. His old ways were at odds with his new, all his training a maelstrom raging in the back of his mind. But cutting through the fog of such strife was an old instinct, one that had shadowed Beard’s every step throughout his terrible journey: survival. Thus he slowed his stride to take stock of present circumstance.
Aye, bastard, I see you, Beard thought. Now tell me what you want.
With that, the figure on the distant dune turned to him, a warm gust of smoldering desert wind preceding its advance. Beard was walking now, his gait wide to maintain balance lest an ambush await. He stilled his blade and licked his cracked lips, the taste of his own blood punctuating the bloodlust swarming his thoughts.
Then, as if by some strange magicks, the figure lost its form, becoming naught but a crumpled mass of shadows being carried by the desert’s breath. It rolled toward the warrior before being dragged skyward to the height of a Southron fortress. Then it pitched back down to the sand, all the while gaining speed as the warrior waited with his own breath growing hot in his throat.
“Come at me, then,” Beard said.
The formless figure came to rest fifty or so paces from Beard, though the wind still stirred up tall columns of whirling sand between them. The buzzing built into a sharp whirring that made Beard’s eardrums throb and ache. Still the warrior approached without apprehension, his jaw set, his thoughts filled with the old pledges of the Thorgithen warrior as they enter a strange battlefield.
May I die well, Beard recited, chasing you to death's gate before me.
The voice cut through the buzzing, seemed in fact to be formed from it. The warrior grinned, amused that his reputation preceded him even into the dead heart of this wasteland. He didn’t answer, only remained faithful in his slow stalk toward the heap of shadows before him, what he now recognized as a tattered, vacant cloak a shade grayer than the sand beneath it.
“So you’ve come,” the hoarse voice continued, “to fulfill prophecy… or, perhaps, to be fulfilled by prophecy.”
“Or, mayhap, to add another head to my collection,” Beard quipped.
“Spare me your barbs, child.”
The sand between them began to ripple like wayward ocean waters, its surface suddenly pockmarked with the heads of a hundred writhing scarabs. They tunneled to the surface in droves, each of them clicking in the same tone as the crumpled cloak before Beard. A thin dark cloud came to shroud the sky, more scarabs from distant dunes. In a matter of moments the swarm converged on the gray cloak, bloating it into the vague shape of a man, giving it life.
The figure turned to the warrior, the space beneath its hood a churning mask of beetles.
Beard grimaced. “You are one ugly mother-“
“We are Archn’memnon,” the cloaked figure hissed. “Called the Swarmplague by some, the Scarab King by others. We are one of the four last living gods of this pitiful world.”
As they spoke, the tattered cloak spilled scarabs from its hood. Upon landing, the expelled beetles would scuttle back to the worn hem of the robe to rejoin their wretched colony. Archn’memnon advanced toward Beard not by footfalls, but by gliding along on thousands of insectile legs working in tandem, their mutual will propelling them along as smoothly as if on wheels.
“Do you think yourself worthy of my council, child?” they said.
“I care not,” Beard said, his blade raised and glinting with solight.
The swarm cackled.
“Ah, but you should, son of dirt,” the Scarab King said, “for it was us who sustained you as you trekked the ashen desert. Or do you not remember feasting upon us as you stalked the dunes?”
“Aye and the taste left much to be desired.”
“We led you here through sacrifice, a trail of breadcrumbs for the lost child.”
Archn’memnon stopped before the warrior, their hood rippling against another blast of desert wind. Beard remained silent as the pungent scent of sickle-nuts and dung filled his nostrils. There was a moment of silence as cyclones of grit passed around them and then the god spoke again in a drawling hiss.
“Prove yourself to us and we shall aid you,” they said.
“I need naught from you, vermin,” Beard replied.
“Oh?” Archn’memnon parried, a wad of beetles slipping free from their writhing face. “And how do you expect to escape these deadlands?”
“Thorgithe will be forever out of your reach without our help.”
“Hunerheim have you,” Beard spat, brushing past the old god.
“The wolf said you’d be stubborn,” they replied. “She dwelled a long while on your hardened heart.”
Beard stopped. “She was here?”
“Nay, child,” the scarabs said. “She’s not the only one who can speak with the winds.”
Beard closed his eyes, forcing both head and heart toward home. Like a bolt of lightning, memories of the Northlands blossomed in his mind’s eye. He could feel the snow -- this time without the taint of gore flowing beneath it -- and hear the bustle of Thorgithe as it had been in the days before the Dark One usurped the land. His heart ached for the past, that ache made ever so much more prevalent when his memories shifted back to Val’Naren, his beloved.
“Will you seek our council?” Archn’memnon interjected. “Will you prove yourself to an old god?”
“Wuthweirgen’s word is not enough for you?” Beard replied.
“Though she be born of Yol and a mutual womb, she lost our favor for meddling in the affairs of man. Her desperation cannot change fate, something she refuses to accept. Love will be her ruin.”
“And what is it you’d have me do?” Beard inquired.
“A simple retrieval,” the scarabs hissed. “A talisman has fallen on an ancient battlefield and we require its possession.”
“I haven’t time for such jawshit games,” the warrior replied.
Archn’memnon cackled again, the laughter devolving into a cacophony of buzzing.
“Make your choice, child, and begone.”
Beard narrowed his eyes on the distant horizon, the very same he’d followed for untold days. What choice do I have? he asked himself. Perhaps I am but a plaything.
“So be it,” Beard said. “Where is said battlefield?”
Archn’memnon crept to Beard’s right side and lifted an arm to the horizon that’d called the warrior’s attention. A fat, crimson scarab crawled out of the cloak where a hand should’ve been and took flight. Beard watched its slow advance into the heart of the desert, his blade all the more eager to drink of destruction.
“Follow,” the god said.
Beard growled, not caring much for the commands of any who weren’t his father-king.
“The talisman you seek bears a familiar emblem,” they continued. “Surely you know by now the Unblinking Eye.”
“Aye,” Beard replied, starting off on the trail of the crimson scarab. A break in the wind offered naught but the screech of the swarm.
“And, Beard…” the god hissed a moment later.
“What did I tell you of jawshit?” Beard retorted.
“It would be wise to leave your weapon here, buried in the ashes of the fire as it was while you slept. It will do you no justice on yonder battlefield.”
“Where I go so, too, my blade,” Beard replied.
“Then you go to ruin,” Archn’memnon said.
“Aye, vermin, but never my own.”
The Scarab King watched as the warrior headed farther into the ancient wastelands, their mutual heart indifferent to his plight. They knew a great many things from countless ages, even those from before the time of the Forgotten Elders. So, had they not seen others like Beard? Had they not once made Wuthweirgen’s mistake to meddle in the affairs of mortals?
They would wait, then, to see if Beard was worthy of guidance. They would bide their time, offer themselves for his nourishment and nothing else. They were eager, you see, to discover just how pliable destiny could be.
“So, Wuthweirgen,” they whispered just before the warrior disappeared into the solight on that unchanging horizon. “Your words were true: your son is a stubborn bastard. But may you never let such consume him.
Aye, may his hardened heart never become gallows that hangs its master.”
Beard had caught sight of the ruins of a small town only ten iles or so from the spot where Archn’memnon had revealed themselves. He had kept his distance from the crimson scarab that was leading him, his eyes constantly scanning the surrounding dunes while his thoughts parted for any commands of instinct that would be necessary in sudden battle. For some reason, the Scarab King’s advice to the warrior to leave his blade behind was tugging on the few conscious thoughts that remained.
An hour later as the heart times it, Beard passed into what had once been a quaint little town consisting of but a single main road with a line of buildings on either side of it. The architecture was conservative and boring, each of the buildings made of the same petrified wood. Most of the two dozen were clearly houses, although one in the center had the appearance of a storefront and another across the street was clearly a tavern (although the sign above its door read SALOON, which to Beard’s recollection was slang for an inexperienced prostitute elsewhere in Krytherion).
The crimson scarab landed near the center of the town and waited as if to let Beard catch up. Not one to revel in vainglory, the warrior unceremoniously crushed the beetle beneath his boot without so much as breaking his stride. He could feel a strange presence about the town, as if it had played witnessed to some great tragedy, a feeling that lingers upon all such fields of battle. Aye, how he relished the old energy of such haunts.
His eyes searched for what called out to him from times long past, finally seeing the first skull half-buried near the porch of the saloon. Its empty sockets seemed to follow the warrior as he slowly crept along. Upon noticing that first relic of death, Beard’s eyes were opened to them as countless more scattered bones seemed to jump out at him from the ashen sand.
I’m standing on a boneyard in the guise of a town, he thought to himself as the desert wind soughed through the many attics lining the road. Being so close to the saloon, he decided to peek through its broken door. The darkness therein was menacing, but the refuge it offered from the desert heat was enough to lure the warrior inside.
The saloon was similar to a Thorgithen tavern, though for obvious reasons it lacked the all-important hearth that all buildings in the Northlands were built around to stave off the constant bite of winter. Only two of the dozen tables of the place stood unbroken, the floor littered with so much splintered wood. Beard understood at once that Archn’memnon had brought tinder for the warrior’s eventual campsite with spent wood from the guts of this town.
Beard strode to the long bar where an equally long shelf behind it displayed naught but smashed bottles and old stains. After a moment of thorough inspection, however, the warrior spied an intact bottle buried amidst the shards of glass. He laid his blade on the bar and pulled the bottle from the wall.
The bottle was emblazoned with a green emblem with LÖBRAU printed at its center. Beard brought it to his teeth, bit the hunk of cork at its mouth, and opened it with a sudden jerk. The acrid stench of old liquor filled the saloon as the warrior turned back to the splintered door and raised the bottle as if to toast the dead beyond. He forewent testing the contents for toxins, reckoning it was poison on some level anyway. So the mighty Beard tipped his head back and emptied it in a series of gulps and belches. Once finished, he chucked the bottle across the saloon, watching it explode against the overturned tables with crude satisfaction.
“I’m stuck in a land of death while the very same comes to my homeland,” he said, a streak of woe flattening his tone.
Before he could dwell on his words, an explosion rocked the saloon. Beard grabbed his blade and sprinted to the door, rolling to its frame so as not to be seen. He let a few breaths pass through him to gain his bearings and then brought the flat side of his blade before him. The warrior used the weapon’s immaculate finish as a mirror, scanning the reflection of the town beyond the wall at his back for any who would seek to ambush him.
There came a scream from the far distance and Beard spied hurried movement from beyond the buildings opposite the saloon. Suddenly the stench of death wafted into the town, but what piqued the warrior’s interest was just how fresh that death smelled. And with it, too, came that old bloodlust surging through both muscle and marrow.
Beard roared in the manner of all great Thorgithen warriors as they enter a field of battle, his body a decanter for the flame of war. He rushed from the darkness, his blade poised to bring ruin to the heads of all who rose against it. He knew not where he was going, having lost himself to the course of battle.
Another explosion drew the warrior’s attention, this time from the beginning of the town’s single lane. A wisp of smoke roiled along the desert there, but what surprised Beard was how ethereal it seemed. The warrior pitched to his right, rolling to a spot by the abandoned store as the smoke rolled deeper into the town. The stench of battle was growing fierce now, heightening Beard’s sense of urgency. He crouched and listened, his ears pricking at the sound of swung metal.
“Death to ya, cully!”
The strange bellow was followed by the sound of unseen projectiles whipping past Beard, some of them clanging off of the petrified wood of the surrounding buildings. The warrior scanned the vicinity, but couldn’t see the battle he heard and felt. He narrowed his eyes on the approaching whirl of grit and smoke and stilled himself, the flesh of his arms pricking with alarm. Only then, as the roiling smoke passed by, did he begin to see the commotion.
Out of the churning plume came two figures locked in battle. They seemed to materialize before Beard, both of their crude blades casting ethereal sparks to the ashen desert below. The warrior marveled at their mutual translucence, as though the fighters were merely shades. Before he could train his focus on them, however, he heard another skirmish erupt near the dilapidated saloon across the road.
“This is what you get when you mess with us.”
A blast rang out then and, just as with the skeletal remains he’d found upon entering the town, his eyes were opened to the strange mayhem unfolding around him. Men, women, and beasts appeared as if from the netherealms, all of them engaged in a great battle along the entire expanse of the town’s main road. The entire contingent seemed too embroiled in battle to notice the crouching warrior, granting him stealth in the very midst of them.
“Leave us be!” one of the women screamed at a rather large man bearing down on her in a strange suit of armor. The man pulled something from a short sheath at his hip -- a strange make of metal or iron -- and pointed it at the screaming woman. She snarled, her hands raised as if to ward off a blow. Then a stiff blast filled the town as the man’s hand jerked and the lady fell lifeless to the sand.
Beard leapt from his crouch, charging the man with the odd contraption, but by the time he reached the spot where they lady had fallen, the man had disappeared, leaving naught but the bones of the present. The warrior turned back to see a hulking creature bearing down on a group of townsfolk. The thing had the body of a bear but the head of a bull, a network of metal plating and thick cables meeting its flesh in various places.
What is this? Beard asked himself, his blade thrumming with the want of battle. He trained his eyes on the otherworldly creature, searching for a place of weakness. Meanwhile the monster closed in on the few brave men that had stayed to meet it in battle. Without a moment’s hesitation, Beard launched himself at the bear-thing.
The warrior wrapped his mighty arms around the muscular girth of the beast and then pulled it from its powerful legs, slamming it to the ground between two buildings with a mighty suplex. The thing roared beneath Beard, its rage shining bright like fire in its eyes. It gnashed its jagged teeth, its snout folded back in a snarl beneath a metal plate parting it broken horns.
The bear-thing bucked Beard against the wall to his right, but the warrior was ready, pivoting just in time to evade a crushing blow. He delivered a heavy boot to the creature’s chest, sending it reeling into the opposite wall. It roared again, scrambling back to its feet as the warrior brought his blade to its skull. There was a buzzing clang as the blade cleaved the metal plate atop the bear-thing’s head, revealing its pink brain and a network of diodes that reminded the warrior of the strange island he’d visited before boarding the Aquario.
The bear-thing screamed, falling to its side as thick blood poured out of its face. Beard watched with grim satisfaction as the creature writhed in the throes of death. He looked down upon the beast and placed a heavy boot upon its chest in a pose of total victory. How long had it been since he’d tasted the sweet nectar of a battle well fought? Too long, he reckoned.
The victory was cut short by the sound of approaching boots and the various voices of excited soldiers. Without a further thought, Beard threw himself to the ground and rolled the dying creature over him, stilling both breath and heartbeat to gain advantage. Just as planned, the ambush passed over him and his deathly camouflage, a group of seven men dressed in the same strange armor as the other, all of them holding the iron that kills with a bang.
“This way!” their leader screamed, all of them fading into nothingness before they passed beyond the buildings.
Beard let a minute pass before rolling the dead creature off of him and standing to meet anyone else who might come at him. He shot looks down both sides of the alleyway, but saw nothing else. He tipped the cup of his ear skyward, listening for the battle that had been raging not but two minutes beforehand. Now only the hot breeze stirred around him, the sound of empty attics like the whispering of ghosts.
I’ve entered a realm of ghosts he thought, or stepped outside of time.
He turned back to the dead bear-thing, but found a mound of ashen sand instead of a carcass. Beard inspected his blade, expecting the flowing crimson of fresh blood, but found only the reflection of his battle-worn face. He grimaced as the voice of the Archn’memnon coalesced through his bewilderment.
It will do you no justice on yonder battlefield, they had said.
As if by crude magicks, the sounds of battle rose around him again. Just beyond the blade, Beard could see a militia of townsfolk materialize from nothingness, all of them swinging weapons of their own making at another bear-thing as it stalked them down the street. The warrior felt his heart leap in his chest, but another notion was tugging at his thoughts.
And then Beard understood.
I was ignored until I entered the battle, he thought. So my presence becomes known only if I engage.
“So be it,” he told the dead.
Beard walked back to the main thoroughfare, passing the beast he’d slain before the realization that the battle had been unnecessary. And, gods, how that idea irked him.
The warrior buried his blade in the heart of the town between the store and the saloon and closed his eyes, trying to find serenity amidst the sounds of an ancient battle. He opened his eyes to shoot wild glances around the town, trying his damnedest to ignore the bloodlust boiling beneath his flesh.
The warrior looked past battle after grueling battle, the armored men and their half-animal/half-machine abominations slaughtering the townsfolk by the multitudes. The raid brought to mind stories past down to him from the many warriors who'd joined his father at the Ovate table in the Long Hall of Kgortel, stories about the Low Wars and how the rising opposition to King Bergrin's claim to the throne of the Northlands brought death and destruction to countless colonies and tribes of innocent people. He closed his heart to the plight before him, although reminding himself that this slaughter was a tragic relic of the past was still difficult. Even more difficult was denying his instincts in the face of such an encompassing show of battle.
Beard concentrated on his surroundings, trying to see the truth of the present through the guise of the past. For a moment, his sight was split between this disparity, the bodies of then and the bones of now becoming one in the same. But he stood his ground through the unraveling of cycles, his eyes darting past carnage and mayhem in search of the vermin-god's desire.
A clicking hum drew the warrior’s eyes back to his blade where a scarab with an iridescent sheen was perched atop its handle. Beard grimaced at the beetle, wanting nothing more than to crush it with his mighty fist. The scarab clicked again as if to cackle at the warrior’s disgust and then took flight past Beard and down the center of the town.
Beard forewent following the beetle with his eyes to gaze at his blade. How he wanted to wield such power again, especially being in the midst of such unfettered violence. But when he reached out to the sword, he did so not with his hand, but with his thoughts, yearning for the connection he’d so intensely shared with the Tattered Edge.
“Leave them be!”
The scream forced Beard’s attention to the end of the road where a cloaked man stood defiant against a group of approaching men. Behind him cowered two little girls, both of them bawling as fellow townspeople met death at the cruel blades and blasts of the armored raiders. The cloaked man held a hand out to ward off the men, but still they advanced on him, their hands heavy with an array of strange weaponry. The insignia of the Eye of Ralmos he wore around his neck was undeniable.
“Then death be on your heads,” the man hollared, maneuvering his hands in a series of strange contortions. He began to chant then in throaty barks as his assailants rushed to attack. Before they could reach him, though, the man shot his hands forward, expelling from his fingertips flames of deep black. Half the men became engulfed in the odd flames, their flesh immediately falling from their bones.
Three of the men fell dead before the cloaked man and the little girls, but in their wake came a half-dozen other raiders, their eyes filled with fury. The man pivoted away from his attackers, shrouding the children in his cloak. Again he chanted some primal language and then pulled back his robe to reveal naught but stirring sand.
“You might take me, but you’ll never get my girls. Come, you bastards! Meet me!”
Beard withdrew his blade without a thought and charged down the street, his sense of justice overriding all precaution. As he approached, he saw a few more raiders fall dead at the hands of the cloaked man. He was smiling, even as the raiders were bearing down on him and a hidden dirk he’d pulled from his belt proved useless. Then the town filled with countless blasts and the man fell to his knees. The warrior buried his blade in the sand once more and pitched himself forward to catch the man as he fell, but caught naught but the man’s bones as the present reasserted itself around him.
So the warrior held the unknown man’s bones in the crook of his arm, his face set in grim determination. The skull that gazed back at him still held that mad smile he’d worn all those cycles ago when a platoon of cruel raiders overtook his town. Beard knew he should beware this man and the events he’d seen for he felt it was an omen to behold, but all he could think about was his mission. So, as unceremoniously as he’d entered the town, the warrior grabbed the chain still hanging around the neck of the boneman and yanked, tearing the skull from the rest of its body.
“So bones return to dust, as to ashes, as to rust,” Beard whispered, not knowing why a children’s rhyme had come to him at such an ominous moment. He looked down on the talisman the cloaked man had worn, hating the Unblinking Eye staring back at him on such a frightening, unfathomable level. He wanted to be rid of it immediately.
The warrior dropped the remains of the cloaked man at the threshold of the town and withdrew his blade from its heart one last time. He could feel the weight of the talisman running along the hilt of his sword, threatening to unbalance him.
I bear a curse, he thought. One among many, it seems.
As he trudged out of the dead town, the iridescent scarab poked its head out of an eye socket once belonging to an ancient mage who’d wanted nothing more than to save the ones he’d loved from those who thirsted for their destruction.
At the circle of black tektite slabs, Beard threw the talisman into the spent fire pit and spit on the ground before it.
“Here’s your damnable eye,” the warrior said.
For a few moments there came nothing but hot wind stirring among the countless dunes around him. Then Archn’memnon was behind Beard, their clicking undeniable. Beard felt his cracked flesh crawl, his remaining hand aching to bring an end to the mad god.
“Aye,” the Scarab King said. “So it is.”
Beard felt his face flush with anger, a heat that far outweighed even that of Sol overhead.
“Put it on and come, then, child of dirt,” Archn’memnon said. “We have many iles to trek.”
The warrior licked his lips, his knuckles whitening around the hilt of his thirsty blade. Even so, he stooped to pick up the talisman and pulled its heavy chain over his head. Once it settled on his broad chest, Beard turned and followed the old god deeper into a wasteland that seemed to have no end.