by F. Charles Murdock & C.M. Galdre
“If the land is allowed to fall into ruin, the whole of the Inner World will fall as well,” a voice came to Beard within the darkness. The voice was familiar with its inherent authority and warm tone, almost like that of his late father, Bergrin. “All will perish and the Great Evil will rule these tainted lands.”
Where had Beard heard these grave words? They seemed to be reaching out to him from some memory lost to the long cycles. His thoughts scrambled to make sense of them as the darkness churned around his consciousness, though whether this blackness was real or simply occupying his troubled mind was not yet apparent because the warrior no longer felt inside his body. All was aimless and imperceptible.
“And what is the face of this Great Evil?”
This new voice was not only familiar to Beard, but was his own, though he hadn’t spoken those words. But then, where had they come from? The darkness held no answers, of course, and neither did those meddlesome thoughts. Again old memories tugged on the warrior’s curious mind, hinting at some greater truth far below the tides of conscious understanding. Then the black curtain around him opened suddenly, that greater truth revealing itself for what it really was.
The shamans of the many steppe tribes of the Northland would often tell tales of pockets between space and time and people who could traverse them. Some called these spots “Lessers” or “Thinnies” or “Betweens,” others referred to these ethereal plains as “the Strange,” but all the shamans of the land agreed that their ancestors would therein hold conference with the vast pantheon of gods even before the Age of Elders. So, as that immobilizing darkness began to fade from Beard’s eyes, wondrous thoughts of actually having visited a branch of this nonrealm filled his mind.
Then he discovered where it had brought him and those wondrous thoughts turned to rage and hatred.
“It calls itself the Dark One.”
As a flash of lightning envelops the land during a middle-night storm, Beard was placed in his body, his consciousness becoming aware of being deposited in its vessel like an eye gains sight when unclenched. In the span of a heartbeat, those memories that reached out for the warrior grabbed hold and Beard knew well where he was and what was happening... ...and what was about to take place.
With this foresight, Beard didn’t need to scan his surroundings to know that he was back in the Long Hall of Kgortel, the Balcho of the Mother Wolf behind him. A warm wind had halted the hell of the Great Winter and the sound of a distant crowd cheering had breathed life back into those old halls. Before Beard stood Bergrin, naked and swaying like a drunken mystic. Yes, Beard had known this once as a wicked false memory while he’d taken slumber in the tainted lands of the Eastwood.
But something was different this time.
With that, Beard heard the sound of his father being gored and cut in twain by his once-trusted advisor. Knowing that Brōg was the one cutting down Bergrin wasn’t enough to belay the shock that again filled Beard’s thoughts as he watched his father’s innards pour from his doom-stricken husk of a body. And, just as in that old dream, when Bergrin pleaded to be avenged, the rage that thickened Beard’s blood stoked the flames of hatred that had been burning since he’d watched the actual assassination happen at the hands of that wretched coward. Then the traitor spoke.
“One day... it will be... clear... to you.”
“You...!” Beard heard himself say.
“One day...” Brōg said and then cackled, though his lips were still. The smug expression on the fiend’s face enraged Beard more than anything in his life save the real assassination of his father. He looked down upon the bisected king, now just a tanglement of spoiling organs, rended flesh, and bloodied bones. Brōg buried the Unnamed blade-first into the ruined floor of the Long Hall of Kgortel and, with no weapon to protect himself, invited the warriorling to avenge his dead father. With gritted teeth, Beard accepted the challenge, overcoming the unseen shackles that bound him to lunge at Brōg, blade in hand, hatred pouring over him.
Beard’s blade split the air before Brōg’s waiting eyes. Something was different, something was wrong. This did not feel as the dream he had felt in the Eastwood: his blade was heavier, his strokes more solid. Beard pivoted his hips and swiftly switched from sword strike to a powerful side kick. The warrior’s foot connected and pushed Brōg skidding backwards where his hand came to rest on the hilt of the Unnamed. Brōg grinned as he withdrew the deadly blade from the floor, then began an onslaught of his own.
The enraged warrior’s sword edge clashed against Brōg’s, Beard felt the vibration, could taste the sweat in the air. What sorcery is this? Beard found himself thinking as he and his old mentor exchanged blows. The stone beneath Beard’s feet felt familiar and the air smelled of the North. Had he been granted some strange travel which allowed him to avenge his father’s death? Had he passed through the hidden veil that shields the ages from each other? Beard’s skill had grown since he had fought the traitor Brōg in the long hall of Kgortel, and bit by bit, the warrior felt himself gain mastery over his cursed foe.
Brōg switched his stance, now leading with his weaker leg, and Beard knew the trick he was to play: he would lure Beard in and present a clear shot to his vitals. Beard would have taken it in the past, only realizing as his instructor dodged to the side then lunged forward to rap Beard on the wrist the mistake he had made. Not this time, old man, Beard thought to himself. Beard allowed himself to be lured in, but when he struck at his old mentor’s gut, he did it with a loosened grip on his blade. Brōg dodged and lunged as he had so many times in the past, but this time found Beard’s blade sticking through his gut: his student had switched blade-hands faster than a viper’s strike.
Brōg dropped the Unnamed to the floor and grasped Beard in a crushing bear hug, driving Beard’s blade deeper into his own torso.
Brōg leaned in, his mouth just outside Beard’s ear as a child would tell an adult a secret. “All is as a dream,” the traitor whispered, “but this time, I think, you shall not wake.”
The vision all around Beard began to fade and warp. Brōg’s form melted into darkness and fell off the warrior’s blade. In the distance Beard could see the dream-daemon, Släfgeit, scrambling up twisting and fractal hills, its cackling voice reflecting throughout the weirding landscape. Beard remembered the battle in the Western Glade and how he had felt the pull as Släfgeit cackled whilst pulling him into the Dream Realm. How could he have forgotten, where were his memories between then and now? All was darkness and laughter in his mind.
The world began to darken and fade. Beard fought the feeling, but his arms felt heavy, his body dense. The warrior could fight the greatest of daemons but he could not fight off this accursed sleep, he laid down upon the flagstones amidst his father’s blood splattered upon the ever shifting floor. His eyes glowered with flame and rage as an enchanted sleep came upon him.
Släfgeit and Brōg, brothers in deception and mockery, had made a poor choice in making Beard their eternal enemy, for as long as Beard’s muscles moved his bones he would hunt them, ever-searching, ever-seeking to the ends of the world he would find them. His blood-lust would be quenched; his harvest of revenge would bear ample and bitter fruit.
He would have both their heads.