by C.M. Galdre
“OOOF!” said a small nasally voice.
“What the heck is that doing here?” asked another.
“Ewww gross! Don’t touch it! It’s, like, totally corporeal, man!” said the first.
“I am just going to set it right, don’t worry. We can’t have this thing lumbering around with all that solid flesh can we?” said the second.
“I suppose you’re right.”
“I suppose I am.”
Beard felt a painful jabbing at the back of his skull, as if a blind man was using his cane to search the warriors hair for lost keys.
“Ah! Found it.”
Beard felt the cane pass through the back of his neck and out the front of his head. Pain was abscent, rather it felt like a cool stream of ice melt running through his brain, and all at once he felt as if he was falling and staying still at the same time. The warrior’s mind was still shrouded in darkness and his senses were still dull, but he felt as if a great weight had passed from him.
Beard’s fingers were numb and cold, each digit felt as if a thousand needles were embedded beneath the skin -- a good and familiar feeling from his youth. No, this cannot be, I am deceived again, the warrior thought as his fingers stretched out and felt the newly fallen snow that lay heavily around him. His mind rushed and filled with swirling memory. His battle in the dark forest glade where he defeated Släfgeit the daemon of dreams? No... that was not right for Släfgeit had pulled him into the Dream Realm. Yes. And he had fought a phantom of his memory, the traitor Brög, for perhaps the hundredth time, but it had been the most real it had ever been before the vision faded. Yes. Släfgeit had escaped and abandoned Beard to death and madness in the ever-shifting lands of dream.
What was that strange feeling earlier? the warrior pondered. Perhaps I have been sent back. He sincerely hoped that this was so.
Beard gripped cold snow in his hands and dared to open his eyes. Most of his body was covered by snow with only a faint glow of light filtering down through the white mantle that had swirled round his freezing fingers. The Thorgithen, a true man of the North, was used to such snows and reveled in its clean, crisp smell. Beard pulled his knees under him and pushed up from the ground, the heavy snow falling from his body in clumps.
Do not hope, fool... do not even dream that you are home, he told himself as he knelt in the freshly fallen snow. The warrior could feel the frayed fibers of his mind grasping out to be whole again. Since his exile from his homeland, he had never felt quite right in his mind, as if some sundering had occurred as he had crossed the Black Gate. But merchants cross through Buildar’s Gate all the time, Beard rationalized. Ah, but they had PERMISSION, whispered another voice from the dark recesses of his failing mind.
The warrior looked at his battle-worn hands pressed in the snow. Dark liquid began to pour out from beneath them, surrounding them, filling the gaps that his hands had made in the clean white powder. Swiftly, Beard pulled his hands back and saw that the strange liquid was blood pouring out from the very ground. No, it was not wholesome ground as you and I know it... the ground there beneath the snow seemed to be made of gore. Beard stood and stepped away from the gruesome sight to survey the landscape before him.
All was covered in a thick blanket of snow, but disturbing shapes occasionally broke through the icy pristine surface. The warrior knew a ribcage splayed before the heavens when he saw one, and here dotting the ground like shrubs they burst through the alabaster flakes, a desert of ice and bone. Be this dream or reality I have no choice but to move, Beard thought and struck out into the strange landscape.
With each step blood followed, filling the warriors boot print, spreading out from his trail like a crimson lighting bolt across a midwinter sky. Beard looked for Sol to tell the time of day, but the light was even and came from no single source. The normally sure-footed warrior tripped as he walked, never looking to see that which tripped him. He felt driven to wherever forward lead, and he left a dark red trail behind him.
In the distance, a great hill arose from the ground and behind it the sky was filled with a bright vermillion light. The warrior’s instincts flared, his inner survivalist roared calling Beard to the ridge top. Perhaps then he could see a way out from this cursed land. Beard doubled his pace -- grappled, crawled, and climbed -- until he found himself upon the hill’s summit, arms red with blood.
Before him, stretching out into the horizon, a world of gore, a crimson corpsescape as far as his eye could see. The snow melted beneath the rays of a blood-red star and rivulets of sanguine water poured down to a foamy river that carved a wide valley into the offal hills. At the far edge of the river, at the center of this living nightmare, was a massive willow tree swaying in the wind and beneath it a woman clad in white starlight, unsoiled by the blood slick land upon which she lay.
Beard rushed down the hill, his feet slipping and rending the flesh beneath him. Eyeless skulls and skull-less eyes peered at him from the churning meat beneath his feet as he ran. The warrior hit the river like a stampeding stallion, his body red and stained, the sanguine water painting his body as he sloshed through its depths towards the woman beneath the tree. As he drew close, he saw that what he had mistaken for a tree at a distance was in fact a grim forgery, for this was a tree of bone with jointed limbs and spinal branches, its long leaves formed by the wind pipes of every creature imaginable and some unimaginable. He could hear its strange song upon the wind. As air was passed unceremoniously though a thousand tracheas, the landscape was filled with an unholy wail. The sound ripped at the warrior’s heart and he plugged his ears as he staggered onward until the droning wail took up a mighty chorus and Beard’s mind was untuned.
The smell of fire and corpses filled the air.
“Is that the last one?” a familiar voice asked.
“Yes, lady,” a small voice replied before it wavered and turned to weeping.
“We will get to the bottom of this, Samantha. I don’t know who has been killing the dogs, but I am sure it is just a cruel prank,” the familiar voice continued.
A little girl, clad in blue leather armor, stared up into the Braxia’s smiling face. It showed a few lines but was not unkind and there was a streak of grey in her deep brown hair. A shimmering silver prosthetic hand glinted in the firelight.
There was movement in the fire. Something was crawling... no... jumping, out of the flames. The girl screamed. Braxia pulled the child behind her, her silver hand shifting into a blade as she moved.
“So, you’re the one they call ‘the Silvered Cat,’” a deep melodious voice called from the flame. The vision burned away in smoke, fire, and screams.
Beard awoke with a start, his mad eyes darting around the landscape. Above him, the bone tree swayed, but made no sound. He lay upon his back, having been lifted from the stream by the beautiful woman who now stared down at him as she caressed the blood-matted hair away from the warrior’s face. Sanity began to return to Beard’s tortured visage as he stared into the starlit eyes the demoness Vel’Naren. Her raven hair swirled down around his face, blocking out the vision of the grim landscape. Her knowing smile calmed his ragged heart and her gentle laughter, filled with the sound of silver bells, brought Beard back from madness.
“You can’t seem to keep out of trouble, can you, my manling?” the demoness giggled, but her sweet voice changed to concern as she stared deep within Beard’s eyes.
“You are changed, and I fear not for the better,” she said, but the words floated through Beard as a pleasant melody.
The demoness gazed into the distance briefly, her eyes seeing something perhaps further than the landscape itself.
“I cannot stay long. I came for you, my little manling, consider yourself privileged. The dream creches of Ku’Linac are not used lightly. Come, stand warrior, and follow me,” the demoness commanded, her words brought Beard to his feet.
Vel’Naren’s delicate form seemed to glide over the vile terrain as she led Beard to the base of the cruel tree. She ducked beneath a jointed bow and led the warrior down an esophageal hole formed in the tree’s bony roots.
Down, down into the darkness they went, Vel’naren leading the way with her bright eyes fearing no darnkess and Beard following the starlight that followed in her wake. The tunnel opened up to a great underground cavern which was filled by a giant lake.
“Come,” Vel’Naren motioned to Beard as her supple form slipped into the water, the slightest of ripples emanating from where she broke the surface.
Beard followed his once-betrothed into the dark waves.
“You must journey from this dream into another if you are to escape the Dream Realm and take your revenge,” the demoness breathed, her voice barely above a whisper. “I know not where I send you, but I shall be with you till you pass through one gate unto the next.”
“I would not leave you again.” Beard pleaded. “Leaving you once in a lifetime is far too many. Do not ask me this. We leave together.” His voice was tender but firm.
Vel’Naren shook her head. “No, my love. I am not the one who is trapped and my time is short. Come. Follow.”
The demoness dove beneath the waves with supernatural grace and Beard followed after. Though they swam deep beneath the water, Beard never felt the need to take a breath. Down they swam, deeper and deeper, the only light coming from Vel’Naren’s star-woven form. Beard felt the presence of things in the deep -- great, slumbering things -- and more than once he felt a current that could be mistaken for a giant’s breath. Soon they came upon a circle of stones chained to the lakebed, bobbing like fishermen’s floats in the deep water currents. Vel’Naren pulled Beard to the center of the circle and touched each stone in turn, each filling with a strange green light. Something in the darkness stirred.
The demoness furtively glanced into the gloom before turning back and kissing Beard suddenly and fully upon his lips. Beard felt an energy welling within him that he had not felt since his grim fate bore him from the north. The demoness broke from their embrace, she mouthed words Beard could not catch and gently kicked off from the warrior’s sturdy form, disappearing into the gloom before the water filled with electrostatic light. The water around Beard boiled without heat and churned in a tempest rage, the shadows of great forms growing closer to the ancient ring.
A flash burst out from the circle of stones, a nova of magik ancient and without allegiance, Beard was gone.
Chop! Chop! The heavy sound of a blade cleaving a corpse. Beard could see his body, but was not within it. His eyes seemed to glow a deep indigo and all around were strewn the bloody bodies of men in waylayers garb. A stout women, dressed for travel, approached the standing body of Beard cautiously.
“Excuse me, warrior,” she ventured.
Beard’s body turned, acknowledged the woman, and ceased hacking at the shapeless form on the ground.
“It’s not that we are ungrateful to you for destroying Black Bart and his band of robbers. But we did ask you just to protect us from them in the event they should attack” she continued, “not to hunt them down to the last man.”
Beard’s body did not move, but stared at the woman vacantly as a chunk of Bart slid off his sword.
“Right,” The woman continued. “So, the group took a vote and we are just going to pay you now and be on our way. So long as you don’t come with. OK?”
The body turned away and began to walk south.
“You are forgetting your... oh, forget it.” The woman called out before running wholeheartedly southward, and well west of the thing within the body of Beard.
Beard watched his body walk off into the sunset, the Tattered Edge unfurled and in hand. The vision shifted and began to melt, fading away into darkness and maddening laughter.