Time is a funny thing in the world of Beard the Immortal, cyclical, endless, and frought with branches twisted and tainted by the magics of the world. There are many universes in which a hero rose from the northern tribes of Thorgithe, many paths that were walked as only they could walk them. This is one such universe, the universe of Braid the Immortal.
In the far north, beyond the grand cities of Torin and Pela, beyond the lands of the Guahadine steppe tribes, beyond the slick black stones of Turin’s wall, in the coldest regions of the wild northland, lies the ancient barbarian land of Thorgithe. Before the Book of Names held even a single page the people of Thorgithe had their rituals: rituals of life, death, birth, and of long forbidden blood magick. The oldest ritual passed down from time immemorial is the rite of Malthorith. When a son or daughter of Thorgithe is born, they are swaddled in the white fur of the dire wolf, bound with catgut and sinew, their faces smeared with lard. They are then placed upon a stone bier at the farthest reaches of their village. There, exposed to the elements, they stay one night unobserved, to be retrieved in the morning - living or otherwise. When the sun rises, if the child still lives the seers of the village read its signs to see what destiny holds for the child. A soiled child farms, a wet child fishes, a tearful child sings, a giggling child hunts, a sleeping child casts bones, and a sick child slaves. All those who live in Thorgithe are warriors, but this is not the tale of any child of Thorgithe... this is the tale of the warrior of Thorgithe, Braid the Immortal.
There came a time in the great cold north when the barbarian tribes of Thorgithe were growing weak. Frequent raids instigated by spies from the civilized Southron nations were taking their toll on the hardy Thorgithens and it had been an early frost and the winter had claimed both spring and summer months that cycle as its own. So it was, that in the thirteenth moon of the Great Winter, a child was born to Bergrin son of Borgin son of Bervild son of Kgortel - King before the Rising of the Wall. As was tradition, the child had no name; she was just daughter of Bergrin as she was placed upon the frozen bier to endure the rite of Malthorith. Her mother wept and her father resigned his daughter to death, for no child since the beginning of the Great Winter had survived the ordeal.
That night the wind howled through the eaves of the Long Hall of Kgortel which had long fallen into disrepair. Forgotten were the ways to set log in log without nail or pitch to form a sturdy hall that could hold out the vicious wind. The moon dare not show its face that night, for it was in the newness of its cycle -- a dark night, a fel night, a night when the spirits of the dead crawl out from the frozen hell of Hunerhime to lull those who lie too far from the fire into the deepest sleep of all. A great snow fell upon those huddled in their blankets, their fires flickering madly in the tempestuous winds like rabid dogs leaping to bite their sleeping masters. The hall was filled with the sound of the raging wind and the fires dancing to its call. Ice formed on the sleeper’s beards and brows, and some had the breath stolen from their lungs, swept up in the cold fury of the wind that night, their dyings gasps torn from their throats by the tempest.
By morning a third of the shrinking tribe was dead. The survivors chipped the dead bodies from the floor and warmed the corpses’ hands with boiled water to loosen their frozen fingers. They hoped to free the dead’s death penance, the coins used to pay the way before the bone gate, and take it for themselves. It was hard times indeed when a man would stoop to stealing the gate fee from his kin, but so it was that the grimmest of times were upon them. When the bodies were done being robbed and stacked, they were covered in pitch and set aflame. Lumber was scarce and precious, no proper funeral pyre could be built for the robbed dead, so they were burned in great black piles at the edge of the villages to scare away the ravening wolves.
As the pitch pyre burned that fateful dawn, Bergrin looked to the stone byre, remembering his daughter that he’d given up for dead, and saw a strange sight indeed. Upon the byre was a great white wolf, and while wolves were normally seen around the byre after they’d feasted on a child, this wolf lay sleeping. There was no blood on the wolf’s muzzle or upon the stone. Bergrin approached the byre like a shamble corpse, dragging his feet heavily through the snow. Begrin reached out to what must have been his stone-frozen daughter. He hoped to lift the girl free of the byre to be cast into the corpse-fires. His daughter would reach the gates of Hunnerheim unmarred by beast or craig crow.
The wolf slept without fear. As Bergrin grew close, he saw it was a great she-wolf and in her haunches nestled two pups, both female, one pure white and the other pure black. And lo, between the two lay an unlikely third pup for there lay Bergin’s daughter who suckled from the she-wolfs tit with her wolf sisters.
Bergrin called to his wife, and his wife called her sisters, and her sisters got the elders who called for the caster of bones. The village gathered round the girl with hushed tones and whispers. Some gnashed their teeth, calling it abomination, an omen of dark times in a dark age. Some said the child must be a daemon. One man raised his bladed spade to dash the child’s brains across the frozen snow, but before he could even ready his strike, his arms were torn from his shoulders. None saw what had caused the grievous injury, the huddled masses only noted that the she-wolf’s eyes were now open and keenly set upon the bleeding man.
The caster of bones raised his rattling staff of skulls and spoke in the deep voice that is forgotten by all but the casters and the wild gods of old. The she-wolf nodded and it was known to the caster that she was no ordinary wolf but the great wolf-mother Wuthweirgen, Mother of the Wind, and her pups were Ceolas the Cold and Ierremod the Wild, and the people were much afraid.
Wuthweirgen spoke to the Caster, her voice deep with the sound of the wind that carves mountains and all that heard her fell to their knees and thrust fingers into their ears and pulled down their hats so as not to go mad by the sound. The wolf-mothers speech was long and in the old tongue, deep with meaning. The caster of bones nodded, his eyes narrowing in pain, for though the casters are trained to speak in the old voice the art of listening is nearly impossible to master. The wolf’s words spoken, she left with her pups in a howling gale, and the villagers trembled as the castor relayed her words to them.
“There was a time when I was hungry and Kgortel fed me, there was a time when my pups were mangy and Bervil groomed them, there was a time where I was thirsty and Borgin shared with me the wine from his skin, there was a time when my husband died and Bergrin buried him. I have paid back a single debt this day, three more remain for the daughter of Bergrin to inherit from her forefathers. A time will come when she is diseased and I will comfort her. A time will come when she is thirsty and I will bring her to water, and a time will come when she will die and I shall bury her. I, Wuthweirgen, have spoken these words and hold them to be true.”
At this, the huddled villagers looked to Bergrin and he was much surprised for he had gone hunting not two springs ago when he came upon a great black wolf whose heart was pierced with cruel iron and pinned to a wheel of wood. He knew this to be the calling card of Isenshrike, killer of gods, and so removed the cold rod and built a mound over the fallen beast, for none that remember the old ways love the god-slayer and each of the villagers spat at the mentioning of its name.
So it was that the caster drew up the child into his arms and named her Braid Weirheowdth or “Braid the Wolf-Warmed” and set runes upon her chest for a long life and good health. And so she was the first Thorgithen born to be but a warrior pure, for one who has suckled at the tit of a god should not be set to menial tasks, but only be placed to the highest of callings: the call of thunder, the call of the wind, the call of battle. Such was the birth of the Braidling.
Long before the day death shunned her, Braid was a modest child like any other, save that her station afforded her the crest of Thorgithe knowledge. From her father, King Bergrin the Knowing, and her father’s advisor, Brōg the Unknown, Braid learned the ways of the sword. To be Queen one day meant carrying a heavy blade and Bergrin was quick to teach his young daughter this lesson.
Training was difficult under the King, but far more so under Brōg who, over time, was elected by the king to be the girl’s mentor. Bergrin’s inner-circle consisted of warriors whom he trusted with his life, but above all was Brōg who’d saved the king’s life not once but thrice on the battlefields of Dethalān to the east during the Low Wars. Not much was known about the man, but taking three dozen bolts from a concentrated attack on Thorgithe’s King had earned the warrior Bergrin’s respect. For two days Brōg endured the removal of the bolts by the bloodsayers, on the third day he slept, and on the fourth Bergrin made him advisor in all things war. But the wars of old were over, and now Braid was where Brōg’s attention was focused.
For a Thorgithe child of four cycles, life was pleasant enough before she took to the course determined by the Seers after Malthorith. There were few lessons to be learned before the fifth cycle beyond mastering the common tongue and what was to be expected of a person once she was properly initiated into the tribe. This was not true for Braid, who was awoken every morning by a blow to her naked chest by Brōg with a length of dried hardroot. How quickly she gained her composure determined the course of her day -- that and how much she’d bled the night before.
A normal day for the Braidling consisted of honing skills -- swimming, animal trapping, tracking, and survival among others -- while intermittently filling her mind with the great truths of life. Between these, Brōg would surprise her with the ways of the warrior, which above all was how she earned her numerous injuries. No two days were ever the same and at the end of each, the young Braid had to will her exhausted body to sleep, to ignore the pain and give herself to the Dream Realm.
On those bad days, though (and there were countless many), Brōg wouldn’t hold back in the slightest. He would beat the girl mercilessly, his cold expression unchanged as Braid lay bloody and disheveled. How many times had the Braidling been dragged screaming to the edge of the Last Path? How many times had the Great Beyond beckoned her during those first grueling cycles? None could know.
So the Braidling trained, becoming proficient in all manner of weaponry, not only of Thorgithe origin, but much of the Southland’s as well. She excelled at a variety of survival skills and, thanks to Bergrin’s diligence, diplomacy among the Thorgithens. For their enemies -- as numerous as they were -- there would be no such tidings.
And thus Braid mastered the Learning Blade, a sword passed down through the generations to teach the most prodigious of Thorgithe warriors. Surely she would need it for what lie ahead because her thirteenth cycle was fast approaching and, with it, the Rite of Daemon Slaughter.
Twenty or so iles from the northern boundary shore of Thorgithe, on the far end of its fishing grounds, was a great cavern called Blēstdemnare in the old tongue, “the Blessed Damned” in the common. Within the thick quartz of its main shaft lived a colony of daemons that multiplied every dozen moons. Normally, a party of veteran warriors from the tribe would squelch the surge of daemons, but when it came time for a young Thorgithen’s Rite of Daemon Slaughter, the chore was given to them and them alone.
If they succeeded in crushing the flow of new daemons, they were made full warrior by Bergrin and given a seat at his Ovate Table in the Long Hall of Kgortel. If the tested perished or fled, they were tossed into the chasm at the heart of the great caldera Cōm-Labi and their name became pejorative among the Thorgithen, such as:
“Stop being such a sniveling Dreg and fetch me a draught of Ironbrew!”
This day marked the thirteenth anniversary of Wuthweirgen the Old Mother choosing Braid as her mankin in the most spectacular Malthorith since the days of Kgortel. She’d awoken early, already dressed in battle gear, that ancient Learning Blade in her steady, young hands. Now she stood at the lip of Blēstdemnare, her father and Brōg behind her, waiting to accept her into warriorhood... or to drag her mangled, disgraced body to the jaws of Cōm-Labi.
I sing a song of blood and bone, of ages long gone by When hunters hunted daemon things, and devils ruled the sky When men did carry three things needed, each a precious tool Silvered water, holly switch, and iron cold and cruel -Eowthen the Skald
At the mouth of Blēstdemnare, Braid’s long, cold blade gleamed in the frost winds of the northland morn. She closed her ice-rimmed eyes and listened over the wind. She could hear her sister by nurse-mother, Ierremod the Wild, wolf-god of the wind, howling through the sky. Braid steadied her breath, the Learning Blade held lightly in her sword arm: she could hear them beneath the din of her sister, the daemons crawling in the deep of the ancient cave. The sound of their hides both scaled and furred writhing in the powdered snow, their slavering mouths, their dripping talons, the dull growl of their bellies, and the sound of gristle chewed and snapping bone.
How many of her kinsmen had stood at this spot on the day of their thirteenth cycle, given a blade and told to go forth and slay to prove they were warriors of worth? How many had been dragged from the pit maimed and half-eaten, their entrails dragging behind them, staining the pure snow red? How many more had been found among the corpses of the daemons, alive but mad, chewing at their hands and feet, pulling at their hair, only to be cut down by their fathers’ blade and given a burial of half-honor? The people of the North were strong and it was by this rite that they weeded out those who would shame them, those who would become a burden in the hard winters, those who would quell at the sound of sword against sword and run from the field of battle that was the way of life beyond Turin’s Great Wall.
Braid grinned as she lifted the heavy Learning Blade, a sword older than the oldest kings, chipped where it had struck some daemon’s horn or tooth but had never broken. She turned it over in her hand, considering its balance, its length, and its thirst. This was not a subtle blade for stabbing between armored plates or gentle parries or piercing thrusts: more than anything the deeply grooved blood-channel that ran down the center of the blade spoke to that. This was a sword of slaughter.
Braid listened calmly as the daemons began to catch her scent upon the wind. They howled and growled within the deep, their horrid harmonic vocals rising to the the surface a fell mix of avian and reptilian with the slavering growl of a lean wolf mingling with all. The young warrior did not tremble as she pulled an oil cloth from her fat pouch and began to clean and grease the blade with rendered wolf fat. She dabbed lightly, using only as much as was needed to clean and oil the blade -- she knew more than most that this was sacred fat, smoked from a single dire wolf each cycle on holly boughs and divided amongst the greatest of warriors in the village. The daemons caught this scent as well and were driven by hunger into a fevered rage: this was no fatted child upon whom to dine, this was warriorling come to rip and rend.
Her sword freshly oiled, Braid held the blade before her by the blunted edge that provides a second grip before the guard, blade down, hilt toward the sky. “I am a daughter of Thorgithe, I am a war-bringer, I am a bloodletter, and today I shall become a daemon-slayer and a woman” the girl bellowed into the cave. She drew her waterskin to her lips, taking a deep swig of the burning liquid within.
Firebrand is the strongest of the Northfolk’s liquors. Poisonous in large amounts, it can bring a warrior back from the brink of death or fuel a berserker’s rage. Prized above all, however, is that the burning drink never freezes. As Braid felt its false warmth burn through her body, she brought the hilt of the ancient blade close to her lips and spit the sacred liquid in a mighty spray across the hilt, wetting the leather and the wood of the grip. The burning sensation filled herveins as she held the great sword by the grip once more, cutting deadly circles in the air. It whistled in the wind almost jovially as he headed into the darkness before her.
The air was thick in Blēstdemnare. Daemoniac miasma filled the entrance with the cloying smell of decay. Down into the darkness Braud traveled, the still-lit mouth of the cave at her back slowly growing darker, seeming to close with each step like a heavy-lidded eye slipping into sleep. The sounds that Braid had once strained to hear over the wind grew louder -- the scraping of scales, the pop and snap of unnatural sinews, the sound of talons sharpening against stone. She was so deep now that she could feel the heat of the daemons’ bodies. The light from the cave-mouth dwindled to a single pinpoint, and then darkness, heavy and malicious, surrounded her. Braid pulled a single evertorch from the bundle upon her back and struck the head of it against her blade. As the heavy iron crossed the flint-tip, the torch erupted into brilliant, amber light.
The evertorches of Thorgithe were legendary, sought out by the bravest of adventurers. They were made by the bone casters and soothsayers of the North, their oily heads infused with strange herbs and even stranger incantations so that they always lit on first strike, whether against metal or stone, and burned for hours in water, wind, and in places where no mortal fire could be lit. They seemed to flicker and burn to their own wind even in the stillest of air, and deadest of tombs, and so it was rumored that the fire lived on a different plane and only shared its light with the mortal realm.
Two more torches struck and Braid finished his triangle of protective light, while around her the darkness licked at its edges hungrily. Braid closed her eyes and controlled her breathing as she had been taught, how it had been struck into her. She was no ingot of iron full of potential, Braid was iron -- shaped, formed and tempered. She was a keen edge waiting for its first true cut.
She did not have to wait long.
The devil beasts threw themselves upon her all at once, all teeth and talons and hate. Their dark claws ripped at her, their scaled tails swung at her and their long horns tried to gore her, but each time Braid danced gracefully out of the way. No movement wasted, her balance never lost, she swung the Learning Blade in circles, daring the creatures to make a bolder move. The young warrior soon found her stride and decided to whet her blade on daemon flesh.
Her body wound like the taut cord of a bow, she unleashed her blade in a swinging upward arc. It found home in the jaw of a daemon with the face of some forgotten lizard and did not stop till it had cleaved the thing’s head in two. It was a move both terrible and graceful and, from it, she swung the blade in a downward arc behind her, catching a boar-looking thing in its midrif, severing it at the spine. Each swing was graceful and controlled, each leading into the next strike, releasing the force behind it and winding Braid’s body back into the state of a southern viper poised to strike. For hours the Braidling danced her dance of death, the blade humming through the air, wet with the blood of daemons, finding home again and again, cutting through bone, horn, and scale. The floor of the great cavern grew thick with coagulating blood and demoniac offal, some still twitching long after their ghosts had left them.
Braid stood alone in a circle of piled corpses, her body glistening with sweat beneath her furs, her breath spilling from her lungs in clouds of crystal. She could feel the blood on her hands freezing and slowing their movement. The young warrior took out her waterskin and poured the remaining Firebrand over her hands and blade, saving just a gulp to stave off the creeping cold in her veins. Her grim work done, she turned from the darkness and began to head back to the cave mouth. She had not gone but two steps when, behind her, she heard the sound of stone scraping against stone, the cave filling with warm, orange light.
Braid turned slowly to see that the cave wall was gone from behind her. In its stead was a great stone door disguised as a natural rock wall lying open and behind it stood a long, paved road lit with strange purple torches that lead into a great city of strange scale and symmetry. Before the entrance of the grand and bizarre city, stood the thing that had opened the secret door. It was a giant, grotesque creature, a mockery of man and beast. Its lower body looked to be the hind quarters of an ox, bent oddly so that it stood on two feet. It had a tail too, long and scaled as the alligators of the southern lands beyond the black wall of Turin. Its torso was that of a well-muscled man but pockmarked and much scarred. Its arms were like a blacksmith’s, heavy and rippling but each turned from skin to scale and ending in a taloned, reptilian hand. The creature’s head was most disconcerting with great antlers like a stag, its face owl-like with great round eyes, its mouth that of some primeval bird of prey.
The beast had an aura of intelligence and in its left hand bore a great club that looked to once have been a tree, its roots worn smooth in a knot at the end, bloodstained and splintered from use. In its right hand, the great daemon swung an enormous brazier full of hot coals. Held like a flail at the end of a long bronze chain, it filled the cave with its hideous flickering orange light. “I am Bafal, son of Bahafut, King beneath the cave!” it boomed. “Long have your people slain my dark kin. Cower and piss yourself, puny mortal! Today you face a daemon full-grown and not some stunted monstrosity left in the dark!”
With that, the daemon charged, smashing its mighty brazier into the ground where Braid had stood not moments before. The warrior had dodged, but by just enough to outpace the screaming hot cinders that burst forth from the mighty strike. The daemon reared and made a sweeping strike with his mighty tree club and would have killed Braid where she stood had she not swiftly dodged between the thing’s legs.
Braid did not hesitate and, with all her force, struck up with her bright blade at the vitals between the giant daemon’s legs. Bafal turned and Braid’s sword found home only in the inner thigh of the creature, but still the keen blade managed to strike a major vein.
The daemon screamed as pitch-black blood ran from the wound into the deep blood channel of the blade. Braid dodged as the daemon stomped lamely at the ground, trying to flush the Braidling out from under him, but Braid would not be so easily moved. The young warrior swiftly stepped aside from a crashing hoof and judged where the hamstring of such a creature would be. She made quick work with her blade and was rewarded as the creature’s calf rolled up beneath its skin, cut loose from the tether that had held it to the bone. The hobbled beast, wounded gravely in each leg, fell to the ground, its burning brazier beneath it. Soon the daemon was in flames, writhing in the agony of burning alive. Braid remembered the lesson beaten into her by his swordmaster, Brōg: an injured hart should not be left to suffer. And so Braid raised her heavy blade and brought it down on the daemon’s neck, severing it clean from its perch.
Cold and battle-weary, Braid turned to leave the cave, but the strange city beckoned her, its soft purple lights seeming to warm her and she suddenly wished more than anything to see what sights laid within.
She entered the vast city, her hands still covered in the black blood of her foe. As she walked, windows shuttered shut and music that she seemed to be getting near faded away. The buildings were all of irregular shape and size, some with wide, low doors and others that towered above the buildings around them. All of the structures were made of some strange ivory-white material, hard and cool, but warm as well. It appeared to be workable into any shape one desired; even the streets were paved with it.
The road Braid walked was straight and level; it did not appear to be stained with use and did not have the ruts and the curves that he had seen in the ancient paved roads that stretch out from Turin’s Wall. After a time, she reached the heart of the city and a great citadel stood before her with great indigo-stained doors, bright against the white of the walls. Upon the doors were two bronze rings with great white ropes dangling down from them to the ground where they each ended with a decorative knot and golden tassel. Braid grabbed both ropes and wound them round her sturdy frame.
Though a girl of a mere thirteen cycles, Braid’s hard days of constant training had turned her body into an iron engine of strength. Her sinews strained and rippled beneath her skin as he planted her feet and pulled with all her strength. The cords grew taut and the massive rings rose away from the doors as Braid swore and gritted her teeth under the strain, her legs shaking with the effort of opening the mighty doors. A lesser being may have tried to open a single door, concentrating their effort on a single rope and hinge, but the Braidling was no lesser thing: she had suckled at the teat of a god. If these doors were to open, they were meant to be opened both at once. And thus the doors creaked and slowly gave way to the stubbornness of the young Thorgithen.
The young warrior sighed and released her grip on the ropes, her hands now rough and bleeding, her wet red blood mingling with the dried black blood of Bafal. A sudden warm breeze billowed from between the opened doors. It told tales that tugged at the girl’s heart, smelling of lavender and honey, scents from foreign lands and warmer climates that Braid only knew from the strongwood boxes the women of Thorgithe keep locked away, hidden in cupboards and beneath bed furs.
Braid entered the citadel like a woman possessed. Perhaps she was, enchanted by the beguiling breeze. The building was vast and empty, a spiral stair circled to the highest tower and all around where lanterns of blown glass containing alluring oils and strange purple flame. Up and up Braid climbed until she heard a voice like the twinkling of starlight and the roar of thunder all in one. It was musical and dangerous, it drew her to a room high above all the rest, one filled with pillows and cushions and furs, all as white as the purest driven snow. Here, too, the strange purple lanterns shed their exotic light, but in this room they were not chained and hanging, instead they floated of their own volition, lazily as if they danced in a breeze unfelt and unseen.
There was but one thing that caught the Braidling’s eye: stretched out upon the whitest fur, hidden only partially by gossamer curtains, lay the most stunning creature Braid had ever seen. His gaze was first drawn to his dazzling eyes, almond-shaped with long black lashes, each thick and wet with unearthly dew. Such eyes Braid had never seen before in her life, each of the deepest blue and speckled with starlight. No white pupils or irises had they, but formed of solid color, but one could tell where he looked by which way the dazzling lights within moved. He wore an amused grin like he was born making it, his thin and angled brows cocked and curious. His hair was black as a night without stars or moon... no, it was deeper than any black fathomed by mere mortals. It seemed that light itself could not escape its unnatural hue.
It was then Braid saw the telltale signs: two horns growing from his perfect skull, each shaped as those of the Greymount Rams, curling back over his head and around till point was facing front once more, just beneath his slightly pointed ears. Hisskin was of a dusky hue, neither purple nor gray but a bit of both and it contrasted perfectly with the white vest clasped in silver he wore with breezy white pants clasped with silver upon his calves. His limbs were strong but slender, his fingers nimble like those of a seamstress but soft and without blemish. Braid was surprised and much relieved to see that he had feet to match, not hooves, but slender with dainty toes. So the Braidling stood agog before the perfect creature, her senses dulled by the heavy perfumes that filled her lungs and the vision that filled his sight.
“A Manling? How is it that a Manling who smells of sweat and blood has stumbled her way into my chambers?” the demon breathed, hisvoice twinkling and dangerous. Braid could not seem to form words, her violent acts seeming far behind. Now infinite possibilities seemed before her. She could only manage to lift her blood-stained hands.
“Ah,” the creature giggled, “so you have slain my captor-husband?” His words seemed to leave an unpleasant flavor within his mouth for he spat the last word full of venom.
“If the thing known as Bafal was your husband then, yes, I have slain him. His head lies at the hidden door waiting for me to carry it home to my father’s. It shall anoint his hall,” Braid replied and her chest swelled with pride, though she knew better than to brag about killing this man’s man. But something stirred inside her and compelled her more than her mind.
“You are injured?” the demon inquired, his voice seeming full of honest concern. Braid stepped forward and, in the light, saw that her bleeding hands were now swelling and cracked with black infection from the unholy blood that tainted them. “I can heal them, if you would come forward.” The man writhed within the cushions, not an unpleasant vision, but Braid took a step back just the same.
“Afraid I might bite?” the demon grinned. His teeth were white as snow, some looking to be as sharp as daggers. Despite her better judgment, Braid walked closer to the man and stood at his feet, her hands stretched out before her. The demon smiled and said “you will have to come closer than that. I am not entirely at my own liberty.”
It was then that Braid saw the translucent chains wrapped round his slender ankles and wrists, some bind of sorcery, invisible at a distance, but now, closer, she could see the pearlescent shackles in the soft purple light. Braid knelt beside the bound demon. The demon raised his shackled hands to hers and cupped her dying hands gently. He closed his eyes and breathed a single word upon her hands and the sweet scent of his breath sent Braid into the dreamlands.
Before Braid’s eyes, a vision unfolded, the type that makes one move to the wilds and become an ascetic, drinking draughts of poisoned tea, and flagellating oneself into a painful stupor. Braid saw the birth of the world and the dawning of its creatures and its peoples. She saw then the old races of which the demon was a remnant. She saw those who were fair-faced and strong-limbed, beautiful and haughty, he saw how they scorned the old gods and how the gods struck them down and cursed them through the male line. Children born of a demon-sire would be twisted, hateful things, all limbs and talons, fangs and scales, born in wretched litters like hellish pups that turned upon their mothers after being born.
The proud race faded with only the wickedest willing to sacrifice others to continue their horrid line, and ever more the demonesses running to human arms, the youthful men of the younger race bearing no curse and giving birth to children of unearthly beauty. Many of the old heroes of men were secret sons and daughters of the union of demoness and mortal men. The last pure demon-lords became wizards and warlocks and the occasional adventurer, but all lived reclusive, celibate lives and those demonesses that did not escape to human arms were used to make daemon armies and subjected to twisted experiments to make half daemon-demon hybrids to be lords of the underrealms.
She saw the birth of wicked Bafal, a son of such a hybrid beast. Braid saw how each cycle Bafal went on a great hunt to find a new bride or husband to spawn or sire his daemon horde, how each cycle his slave would bear a wicked litter to fill the cave in the hopes of raising an army to expand his sphere of influence, and how each cycle he needed a new to replace the one that’d died in beast-breeding. She saw the face of the demon before her as he was captured and dragged into the high, pillowed room and forced to watch as they removed his predecessor’s remains not days before.
The northwoman woke, her eyes full of tears, and her heart cried out at the injustice that had befallen all the fair demons that had come before (and would have befallen the man that now cradled her head to his scented chest). Braid looked down to her hands and saw they were healed anew and that all the fatigue and weariness from the slaughter before was gone. She stood and drew the Learning Blade from its sheath and the demon cowered as she drew it high above her head. With all the fury within her veins and all the control Brōg had instilled in her, she struck at the phantom chains that bound her healer to the wretched room. The old blade shook violently with each strike like a massive tuning fork used to detect imperfections in iron shipments... even the sound was similar. The breaking of enchantment was like the resounding of the massive bells kept in the warning-towers along the Black Wall. The very air shook with the resonance of the unmaking of the spell.
When the deed was done, Braid glistened with sweat anew for breaking enchantment with iron and will alone is a feat not easily done. She staggered as all her strength left her and, in an instant, she fell forward into the demons open arms. He held her within his arms and whispered in her ear: “My name is Vel’Naren, I give it to you freely as I do my very soul.”
What transpired then between those two within that forgotten tower? What little is known is this; That when Braid left the demon, he and she spoke few words and, as she left the shining citadel, she saw that the glamorous city had, in fact, been a vision fueled by Vel’Naren’s glamour, drawn forcibly from him through the wicked pearlescent chains. With those chains long broken, she saw that only the citadel was real or, perhaps, Vel’Naren kept it up of his own accord for a while before he planned to leave that place.
All the same, Braid walked back to the hidden door through the rubble of a normal cave and came out to see her father and Brōg stunned at her appearance. She was no girl of thirteen cycles that stood before them, but a woman now fit and in her prime, well muscled and with a full and luxurious braid.
When Braid recounted her tale to her father and mentor, the two concluded that she had spent at least five cycles in demon-time, and were very interested in the histories and origins of the creatures known as daemons and the noble demons from which they were spawned. The two men noted too that Braid now wore a silver ring of curious work upon her right hand, and all that knew her tale were curious about it, but she would say nothing on the matter. As time went on, the ring seemed to fade in substance or, rather, it became difficult for all but Braid to see. But all still knew of Braid’s famous demon ring, and on evenings when the sun shone through the storming sky and turned the horizon all shades of purple and grey, they saw Braid, fidgeting with her ring, smiling, the scent of lavender and honey all around her.