The Dark Wanderer

by F. Charles Murdock

Though Beard hadn’t wanted to raise the Tattered Edge to a child of Kōstof, he’d known it was a possibility ever since he’d heard a daemon had taken the children. Daemons were merciless and cowardly, after all, and saw nothing wrong with using an innocent child as a shield... or a weapon. The boy standing before the warrior now was perhaps both, his tiny eyes drained of all but blackness, the scowl on his face grotesque and cruel. The youth returned Beard’s hard glare, his head cocked to the side, the children behind him screaming to be released from darkness both external and within.

“Your cowardly magicks disappoint me, daemon,” Beard hollered, his eyes still locked on the skeletal eyes of the boy. “Obvious is the fact that I do not wish to harm this child, but if sacrificing his life is the price to take the likes of yours, so be it. My soul sits heavy enough already. I have no qualms.”

The boy opened his mouth as if to speak, but only a dry cackle rolled out like the creak of a popular gallows. Beard scoffed, the shroud of his blade thrown to the wayside as he prepared to make good on his words. The gleam of the moonlight on its edge made it appear otherworldly, as if the warrior was readying his own fell magick. This blade was his wand, however, and the only spells it knew were death and destruction.

“Very well, devil,” Beard said, his teeth set, the Tattered Edge held ready before him, “first the child’s head, then yours.”

Then the moonlight on the blade seemed to be obscured by some unseen shroud as if a sudden eclipse had masked the night sky. Beard saw this peripherally, his eyes set like daggers on those of the possessed boy’s. Still the warrior could see the bizarre migration of darkness throughout the surrounding glade. The shadows -- those of the trees, the landscape, and even Beard’s own -- were crawling to the child, his sinister laughter intensifying as they were drawn forth.

Then the shadows took form around two glowing crimson eyes.

“I knew you to be ruthless, Beard Weirheowdth,” a whisper came from the gathering darkness, “but to kill a child?”

“Hunerheim can have me,” Beard said, “but trust my words when I say I’m taking you with me, daemon.”

“Such informality for an old friend?” the Whisperer asked. “Come, son of Bergrin, speak my name, as I’m sure you know it.”

“I speak not devil-tongue,” Beard retorted, “and if I did, would not curse my mouth with its...”

Then Beard was struck dumb by the fully-formed creature before him, the one whom those of Kōstof had called “the Dark Wanderer.” The daemon stood behind the defiant boy, its claws on his shoulders, a sinister grin pulled taut around its jagged teeth. This dark puppet master was, of course, no friend of Beard’s, but its face was familiar among the hazy darkness that had thickened around the cavern.

“You...!” Beard roared, unable to hide the surprise in his voice. “Impossible. How are you here?”

The Dark Wanderer offered not a response to the warrior’s question, but a single claw pointed straight at him. The possessed boy rushed forward, willing to sacrifice himself for his cruel master. Behind him, Beard could see the thick shadows beyond the mouth of the cave scatter and saw well the empty eyes of the children therein, all of whom began charging in turn, their taker’s unseen puppet strings throwing them into the path of the Tattered Edge’s bloodlust.

“Jena, is that everyone?” Dolan asked his daughter as he surveyed his fellow townspeople in the packed plaza of Kōstof.

“It is, father,” Jena said. “Everyone has come to aid the Outlander in reclaiming the children.”

“Outlander...” Dolan mused, turning to Beard who stood stolid before him, arms crossed, the Tattered Edge leaning against his side. “This name is too impersonal for one who’s granted us reprieve in such dark times. Please, warrior, before we begin talks of slaying, might we know your true name?”

Beard surveyed the crowd as Dolan had just a moment before and then offered a gruff response. “Though it be a cursed name, I go by Beard.”

“A curious name,” Dolan said, “but a strong one, no doubt... and oddly familiar, to tell true.”

“Can we begin now?” Beard asked without reservation.

“Yes, surely, warrior,” Dolan said, “tell us your plan so we might aid you as you’ve aided us.”

“First tell me all you know of what transpired so I have a clear understanding of what awaits,” Beard said.

The townsfolk eyed each other nervously, wanting to forget the tragedies that had befallen them rather than discuss them. Tragedies are not meant to be forgotten or, further, forgiven -- the Northman live by such words, Beard thought. This axiom must become law to these croppers if their children are to be reclaimed. Though their scared expressions said otherwise, Beard could see well in each of their eyes that they were ready to accept this hard truth.

“The children left four nights ago,” Jena began, “some peaceably, others not.”

“Yes, just before the strange light in the sky,” Dolan said. “The children left as if possessed, though they appeared to be sleepwalking.”

“We tried to chase after them,” Alkom added, “but...”

“The binding magick at the gate?” Beard interjected.

There was no answer save the solemn nodding of the townspeople.

“That’s when our very shadows came to life and attacked us,” Jena said, her head hung in mourning for all who’d been forced along the Last Path... most of all for her mother, Marith.

“Yes,” Dolan said, “and after what felt like an age, we managed to fight them back into the silo.” The gaffer sighed. “Our losses were great.”

“Then we’re caught up?” Beard asked.

“Not quite...” Alkom said, shooting a nervous glance at Dolan. Beard followed the eyes of the townsfolk, the distant expression on the gaffer’s face igniting new curiosity within the warrior.

“Tell me,” Beard said, his patience wearing thin.

“Some time later... hours, perhaps,” Dolan said, “the Dark Wanderer came to us. It told us our children were as captive as we were, that the shadows had gathered upon the land and that... it kept muttering something about a deal.”

“Then it means to ransom the young?”

“No,” Dolan replied. “It spoke of an arrangement with the one who’d freed it.”

“Its master, perhaps...”

“I know not,” Dolan said. “The daemon spoke with a lunatic’s tongue -- mindless riddles and threats.”

“As all abominations are wont to do,” Beard said, his expression unchanging. “Then what happened?”

“It left,” Jena said. “We fled to our homes to take inventory of provisions and take up council. Our hopes were dashed, though, since the magick at the gate bound us.”

“Four days have passed since then,” Alkom said. “Four days of hopelessness and helplessness.”

“This day will be different,” Beard said, his cold gaze still locked on Dolan. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“No,” Dolan said after a moment, “just that we want more than anything to have the children back.”

“Then listen well, people of Kōstof,” Beard continued, “for we set out immediately, I for the daemon’s head and you for your lost children.”

The people of Kōstof nodded, though the defeated looks scrawled across their faces remained.

“My conditions still stand,” the warrior said. “I will take three with me who are able. The strongest of you will stay to guard the town and the others will begin the cropping. Who among you will follow me into battle?”

“I shall,” Alkom said immediately.

“Very well,” Beard said after sizing up the young man. “And the two others?”

“I would accompany you,” Jena said above the murmurs around her. “I’m capable with a sling and nimble. I shall not let you down.”

“Jena, no!” Dolan objected. “I’ve lost too many already. I could not bear to lose you as well.”

“Father,” Jena said, “when this warrior comes upon the children, I want to be there. I want Dyrven to know that his mother sought with all she had to save him.”

“I do not like this, Jena,” Dolan said, his heart as heavy as his tone, “but I’ll not stop you.”

Jena smiled then, the first since the many tragedies had befallen her hometown. To Beard, she appeared much younger in that moment, her tender beauty causing him pause before another volunteer broke the silence.

“I’ll go!” a young man in queer garb said behind the crowd.

“Who speaks?” Beard asked as his eyes scanned for the speaker.

“It is I, Elrik the Teller!” the young man announced, approaching the warrior and bowing deeply, a flatpine lute held gracefully at his side.

“Who’s this guy?” someone whispered.

“He traveled into town during the burials,” another explained. “He offered to pen a Sending Song for some of us... for a nominal fee.”

“How vile!” an elderly woman scorned. “Making profit from the dead...”

“All apologies, madam,” Elrik said, “but even bards and minstrels need to make a living.”

“A living off the dead, eh?” Alkom asked indignantly.

The crowd turned to the bard, each eye a dagger, each hand a fist except for those of Beard who understood that money and morality were oft exclusive of one another. The warrior approached the smartly-dressed minstrel, measuring him with a single stern look. Elrik, a frail, billycoon of a boy, shot nervous glances around him until his eyes returned Beard’s gaze.

“What skills could you offer our party, songbird?” Beard asked, the pejorative pricking the ears of the bard.

“Songbird? Ha!” Elrik spat. “The likes of you should be praising the gods that I’m in your presence. After all, it’s not every day one is graced with a bard of my caliber. I’ve performed in the courts of royalty both near and far, have penned poetry that even now is studied by scholars who wish to decipher its depth and elegant form. Standing before you, ladies and gentlemen of the backcountry, is the most prolific and celebrated artist of the common era. You should all be so...”

“Can you fight or not?” Beard asked, his patience waning.

“Well, not with the brutality I’m sure you celebrate, warrior,” Elrik the Teller said, “but I’ve been in a few scraps in my time. I can handle myself.”

“Show me.”

The bard looked at the waiting eyes around him and licked his lips. “Very well... but you must understand that this little preview would normally cost more than the worth of this entire town.”

The minstrel prepared his lute, holding it against the thin red sash that crossed his sternum.

“Also keep in your tiny minds that my form of combat is far more subtle than that of a warrior for my blows effect the mind... the constitution... the confidence.”

The bard began to pluck the strings of the instrument before pausing again.

“Also, after I’ve impressed and all of you have begged me to join this gaggle of simpletons, we shall discuss my fee for putting my precious life on the line for the likes of this two-bit sector of mudhuts.”

With that, Elrik began his song, pointing the instrument straight as the warrior. The bard’s melody had a somber tone, undulating between A# and F#, but one wouldn’t have been able to guess the sad nature of the song by the wide smirk etched on the bard’s face.

“Behold the Song of Sleep!” Elrik said. “Feeling drowsy, barbarian?”


“Kneel before me, peasants,” the bard continued. “Hear my song and despair.”

“Stop that racket, you spoony bastard!” Alkom yelled above the music.

“Halt your idiot’s tongue lest I decide to sing my dreaded Aria of Doom,” Elrik screeched as his song intensified. Then the bard cackled maniacally. Beard had heard enough.

The warrior strode to the minstrel and placed a hand on the strings of the lute, deadening its notes.

“Had enough, have you, warrior?” Elrik said with a haughty laugh.

“We all have,” Beard said, “as I’m sure is the case with everyone you meet, so I take it upon myself to rid the Inner World of your dealings.

“What do you...?” Elrik asked before the warrior pilfered his lute and threw it to the ground. With eyes wide with terror, the bard watched helplessly as his instrument was reduced to splinters under the heavy boot of the Northman. If asked, be assured that the townsfolk would’ve fast said that the sound of the lute being crushed was the most satisfying noise it had made in their fair town.

“You... overgrown... blithering... blockheaded...” The bard’s face was crimson with anger, a double-stream of tears rolling from his puffy eyes. “You will pay for this injustice, warrior, and dearly! Mark my words! What was it... Beard? Yes! Beard... I will have my revenge!”

Elrik the Teller fled the crowd just then, his cries like that of an injured bloodhawk. The townsfolk watched as he disappeared beyond the hills past the southern gate of the town, all of them silent with disbelief. Then Alkom spoke up once more.

“That’s right, bard, run and hide! That’s what your kind is wont to do when times become dire!”

“But I will not!” a voice rang out. All eyes turned to Dolan as the old man stepped before the crowd.

“Enough of this foolishness on my part,” the gaffer said. “If there is any other who should fight for Kōstof, it should be me. My ilk founded this town in the times of Turin, fostered its growth and the growth of its crops. Now I shall defend it with all I have, with blood and honor.”

“Father, your injuries are too grave,” Jena objected in turn.

“Nonsense,” he replied.

“Your daughter’s words are sound, gaffer,” Beard said.

“That may be so, but injuries or not, I will accompany you, Beard,” Dolan said.

“But father...”

“His mind is made,” Beard said, turning from the plaza, “we set out immediately.”

“Kill them, Beard,” the Dark Wanderer hissed. “Stay true to your word and slay the children. Then there will be none but me to be rid of.”

“I’m not one of your minions, daemon,” Beard said through gritted teeth. “Your forked tongue holds no power over me.”

“Is that right, boy?” it whispered. “Then perhaps I should do what you cannot, yes?”

“You’re welcome to try,” Beard said, readying the Tattered Edge for a new phase of battle.

“You stand alone, Beard,” the Whisperer said in the same gruff hiss. “This battle is winless in your favor, do you not see that? There is no hope.”

“Who needs hope when one holds such an instrument of ruin in his hands?”

The Dark Wanderer cackled. “Very good, manling... very good.”

“Then come, daemon.”

“As you wish,” the Dark Wanderer whispered, its claws already conjuring the shadows it would use to meet the warrior in battle.

“Have you each made adequate preparations?” Beard asked Alkom, Jena, and Dolan at the northern gate of Kōstof.

“We have,” Alkom said, attaching to his waist a leather belt holding an assortment of dirks, daggers, knives, and picks. Beard nodded at the young man and then turned his eyes to Jena, who was winding her golden hair into a tight bun at the back of her skull.

“And you?” the warrior asked her.

“Ready,” she replied. “As I said before, I’m a quick shot with my sling.”

“And what of ammunition?” Beard asked.

Jena swiveled her hips, letting the leather knapsack she was wearing like a strung purse swing around to her thigh. She opened its wide flap and produced a few knuckle-sized spheres of hollowed iron. The warrior looked at them curiously for a moment before Jena giggled at his odd expression.

“They’re used for grinding drycrop into meal for bread and the like,” she explained, “but it turns out that they’re rather deadly when flung at the head.”

“Interesting,” Beard said with a nod. “And you, gaffer?”

“I’m rather handy with a spear,” Dolan said, raising his wooden pole arm for the warrior to see, “a proficiency I’ve had since hunting with my uncle as a child.”

“Then we are well-armed and ready,” Beard said. “Have you people tending the fields and others to guard them lest there be danger about?”

“All are doing as they should,” Dolan replied.

“Very well,” the warrior said. “I carry a day’s provisions for each of us, though if all goes well, we shall have returned before we have need of them.”

“I’ve brought supplies of my own,” Jena said, “though I hope we won’t need them.”

“Then we take our leave,” Beard said. “Stay behind me but close at all times, understood?”

“Yes,” the three of Kōstof answered in unison.

“Good,” Beard said. “Let’s on and quietly.”

“But to where, Outlander?” Alkom asked abruptly. “We haven’t a clue where the children were taken.”

Beard turned from his party and the rest of Kōstof, his eyes scanning the ground beyond the front gate. For a moment, he stood in silence, letting his mind decipher the riddle before him. At last, he turned back, the Tattered Edge resting valiantly on his right shoulder.

“When I first came upon your town -- even before I felled the magick at this gate -- I scanned the ground at the entrance to gather an understanding of who comes and goes,” Beard said. “Even then I noticed something peculiar among the worn boot prints set in the path, namely two dozen sets of prints belonging to children... most barefoot.”

“So you know their number and size?” Alkom asked. “How is that to tell us where to go?”

“We head west,” Beard continued. “The tracks leave the path almost immediately, cutting through the fields west of your town and into the wild plains beyond.”

“Yes,” Dolan said, “now that you mention it, I can see them. My tracking skills are nowhere as keen as yours, I concede, but by the gods, my old eyes can see the prints.”

“Are you satisfied?” Beard asked Alkom, “or would you doubt me further?”

“I trust your word,” the man said.

“Then west we go.”

“Would you like to see your father, Beard?” the Dark Wanderer asked the warrior as he tended to his wounds. “I know that’s what you want... what you dream about every time you slumber. To be true, manling, I know quite a bit about you... your dreams, yes, but your hopes and fears as well. So, let me ask you one last time before I destroy you -- would you like to see your father? Because I would very much like to escort you along the Last Path to him personally... limb by limb, bone by bone.”

“You sure talk a lot for something that’s about to eat four feet of ancient blade,” Beard said, readying himself once more.

The daemon cackled and the warrior lunged.

The trek west was a short one for Beard as he’d grown accustomed to journeys lasting weeks on end. The croppers, though, were feeling every ile. They’d only taken pause once, however, Dolan asking for a moment to tend to the lesions given to him by the once-possessed shadow that now followed him. Jena had begged him to return to Kōstof, but the gaffer had managed to silence her by relaying a promise he’d made to Marith, her mother, long ago.

“On the day you were born, Jena, I promised her I would keep you safe for as long as I should live,” Dolan had told his daughter. “You, the town, and the children are the most important things in my life. It’s my duty to ensure the safety of each and all no matter what the cost to myself.”

That was two hours ago and not a word had since passed between the members of the party. Beard’s mind, on the other hand, was overrun with thoughts of the Isenshrike, that terrible creature who had stalked him since before the warrior had come into Southron. He could feel its presence still, though it had grown faint these last few days. He found himself wondering if the fell thing had lost his trail however unlikely that seemed.

When Beard cleared his mind, the open plains west of Kōstof were growing murky, the ground slowly softening as the party traveled farther into the swampland surrounding the Western Glade. Even in such beguiling terrain, Beard’s keen eyes were still able to follow the prints the children had left during their own trek four days prior.

Soon, a copse of gnarled trees was coming into view on the horizon and Beard saw fit to inquire about it, letting both his eyes and the input of his travel companions fill him with knowledge of the unfamiliar region.

“We come upon a marshland forest,” Beard said over his shoulder. “What knowledge do you have of it?”

“The Western Glade,” Alkom said.

“Yes,” Jena said, “we tell our children never to set foot there, but it appears the daemon saw fit to set its lair therein.”

“A glade makes sense from the daemon’s perspective,” Beard said, “much more than trying to fortify an open plain, anyway.”

“Agreed,” Dolan said. “In the days of Turin, the Western Glade was a vast lake said to house a network of underwater caverns. None know why Turin would make use of such a dangerous place, but many believe his vast treasures were stored somewhere therein -- or, perhaps, a cache of foul weaponry or... perhaps... the bodies of thousands of prisoners taken during his terrible campaigns.”

“Do you know where the mouth of the cavern lies?” Beard asked the gaffer.

“One of the Western Glade’s many names is the Unseen Door,” Dolan said, “but, despite this discouraging name, I think I might remember its location. I haven’t journeyed into the glades in many cycles, mind you, not since I was a boy myself.”

“Father!” Jena scolded. “How can you warn the children to stay away from this dreaded place when you broke that very rule as a boy?”

Dolan chuckled, though a mite uncomfortably. “I was wrong in doing so, I admit. But then again, daemons were as much legends back then as sky people. The world has truly changed, wouldn’t you say, Beard?”

“It’s gotten darker,” Beard said.

“Yes,” Dolan agreed, “times have gotten dark indeed.”

“No, Dolan,” Alkom said, “the daylight... it’s slipping away from us.”

“What?” the gaffer asked.

“Hush, father,” Jena said, pointing to the sky overhead. “Look.”

Though Sol was set halfway between middle-day and night, its light had dimmed considerably. A thin, black haze had settled between the sky and the Western Glade like a quick storm brewing before the eyes of Beard and his party. This was no storm, though, but something far more sinister.

“We mustn’t dawdle,” the warrior said, quickening his pace as the woods grew before him. There was no response from his party, just the shifting of feet as they struggled to keep up with Beard.

Perhaps we won’t even have need of the gaffer’s memories, Beard thought just then. These prints should take us straight to the cavern. After all, daemon’s so love their darkness.

The robed man had been the first to truly visit the Dark Wanderer in its own realm. He had come unannounced and in secret. Very persuasive was this man and generous, a quality usually seen as unforgivable weakness in the crimson eyes of the Dark Wanderer, but the robed man possessed something the daemon so desperately wanted.

“I can be rid of this place?” the Whisperer had asked in wonder. “Forever?”

“Yes, for all eternity,” the robed man had said, “but only if you kill the one called Beard Weirheowdth.”

“What reason do you have for wanting him dead?” the daemon had asked.

“I think you already know the answer to that question.”

“Yes, I see,” the Dark Wanderer had said, baring its fangs in a cruel smile.

“So we have a deal?”

“I believe we do,” the Whisperer had said.

“Beard is trekking south from the TottenMarsh in the Southron Wilds,” the robed man had said. “He will be upon a town called Kōstof in a half-week’s time at his current pace. I’m giving you double that to roam free on the physical plain. If you want more time, you will kill the warrior. I care not how.”

“It will be done,” the Dark Wanderer had said.

“Your word is bond, demigod,” the robed man had said as he’d turned to walk away. “Don’t disappoint me.”

“I’ll deliver his head in a week’s time,” the daemon had said. “You can be sure.”

“Good,” the robed man had said. He’d waved a hand in the air as he’d walked away, speaking some ancient incantation before addressing the daemon again in the common tongue. “You are free now, daemon. Remember -- you have one week.”

“Yes,” the Dark Wanderer had said, “but can I have the name of the one with whom I’ve just made a deal?”

As the daemon’s realm had melted away and the physical plain had solidified in its wake, the daemon had watched the robed man as he’d strode away. How cunning the man had been, how well he’d understood the mind of a daemon. Then he was gone, but not before he’d offered a few last words.

“The Dark One will do,” the robed man had said before he’d blinked out. And so plans had been set into motion.


At the edge of the forest, Beard had halted his party. He’d sniffed the air and tasted its moisture: both were fowl, though subtly. The sight of the tall, bare trees of the glade recalled those of the Eastwood that even now were raging their cruel war on the Northlands. Those were disheartening thoughts (even as much as those concerning the Isenshrike), but the warrior knew well the rage they conjured would aid him in the inevitable battle ahead.

“Ready your weapons,” Beard told the others as he tore the shroud from the face of the Tattered Edge. Dolan, Jena, and Alkom did as told, their respective weapons filling hands that had before that day known little else besides the handles of tools. They held them confidently, however, their minds having accepted the possibility of death at the hands (or claws) of whatever had taken up in the Western Glade.

“Stay close and keep moving, both your feet and your eyes,” the warrior said. “Understood?”

“Yes,” Dolan said as the others nodded. “For Kōstof!”

“Hail!” Jena and Alkom said in chorus and then followed the warrior and the gaffer into the darkening forest.

By the time the party came to the clearing of the glade proper, the dark haze above was so thick it blotted out Sol completely. Nightfall had come to them at a sickening pace, but the warrior and his companions stood resolute as the vast Western Glade opened before them. All was silent, even those insects that usually kept such silence at bay with their incessant chirping.

Beard continued tracking through the marshy terrain, shifting his eyes between the ground before him and the surrounding plain. Nothing was stirring, however, near or far, which was far more unsettling. Still, the travelers kept pace, their thoughts on the children and the creature that had taken them.

“We’re close, warrior,” Dolan whispered after nearly an hour of trekking across the open marsh of the glade. The warrior nodded, his eyes scanning the horizon for the elusive Unseen Door.

The ground was lumpy with mounds of overgrowth, some as tall as hills. The terrain was like an optical illusion or some living impressionist painting: everything appeared warped and fowl. At every footfall, the soft ground threatened to give way completely, perhaps into some unseen trench of swampland, one that cakes the body, making escape impossible.

Then something stirred beneath them.

“What was that?” Alkom asked, sudden terror thinning his voice.

“I know not,” Beard replied softly, “but prepare yourselves and keep an even pace with me.”

There was no response, but the croppers heeded well Beard’s warning. Each brandished their respective weapons, each poised to unleash an assault the moment an enemy showed face. Again, they felt movement beneath their quick steps and, again, Alkom displayed his sudden fear in a question.

“What is it, warrior? Please tell me...”

“Silence!” Beard hissed, narrowing his eyes to peer through the darkness. Dolan, Jena, and Alkom scanned the ground around them, each stricken with sudden dread. The quickened pace of their breaths made hearing any other noises nigh on impossible, but the warrior was no longer interested in what he could or couldn’t hear: something else had caught his attention.

“Beard!” Dolan yelled, “I think you need to see this!”

“My eyes are drawn elsewhere, gaffer,” Beard yelled back.

“Our shadows! They turn traitorous once again!” Alkom screamed. This was followed by the sound of rustling and sudden combat. Beard shot a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure his companions were still on their feet.

“Stand your ground!” Beard yelled above the commotion. “Fight them off and keep your pace -- these aren’t the only shades we’ll be engaging here!”

“What do you mean, Beard?” Jena asked above the sound of her leather sling letting fly.

“Steal a glance ahead of you if you want your answer,” Beard said, the hilt of the Tattered Edge growing hot in his hand.

Jena looked past Beard as she dug into her knapsack for another iron ball to load into her sling. On the jagged, dark horizon, she spied a thick cloud blacker than anything she’d ever seen outside of a nightmare. She hadn’t been afforded more than this peek before her shadow lunged at her, knocking her into Alkom, who was stabbing at his shade with a pair of skinning knives. Both managed to stay on their feet, but only because Dolan had staved off his shadow long enough to keep them afoot.

Beard saw this well out of the corner of his eye before turning his attention back to the fast approaching blackness. He would have to keep faith in the abilities of the croppers no matter how modest they were. So he readied himself, his muscles taut, his mind clear. Then Beard howled a warsong as an alpha-wolf will do when his pack is driven to combat by ambush.

He lifted his baneful blade, inviting the coming darkness to meet ruin on its jagged edge.

“It’s as a swarm of insects that comes during planting season, the crop-eaters we so fear in Kōstof,” Jena said.

“The situation is far more dire, I should say,” Beard said.

Then the coming darkness enveloped the warrior’s party, having been propelled to impossible speeds by some evil magicks. At once, the travelers were overrun by shadows that delivered blows as they zipped past. Evading these attacks was difficult, but Beard and the others were having far less luck delivering their own.

“These shades,” Dolan yelled, “they belong to the lost children!”

“Ugh!” Alkom yelled back, “I cannot do this!”

“Fight or perish!” Jena screamed.

And then they were gone.

Beard didn’t know when the shadows had separated his party from him, but after a moment, he was alone -- both human and shadow absent. He’d heard Jena’s warcry above the chirping of their attackers, but then all had become silence. There he stood, the Tattered Edge at his side, the wide glade surrounding him, his internal compass striving to calibrate itself after such a sudden change.

Then the warrior was being thrust forward as if his torso were on a tether being reeled in. Beard shot a look downward in time to see another betrayal unfolding before his eyes: his own shadow had come alive to pull him on, his internal compass and acute tracking skills no longer necessary for his darker half was escorting him to its new master.

With every few hurried steps, the warrior would stab at the ground with the tip of his blade, but his shadow was always one step ahead. After several moments of this cat-and-mouse game, the shadow deflated at the warrior’s feet where a new landscape awaited him.

“You would again adhere yourself to me after such treachery?” Beard asked his now-faithful shadow before spitting on the ground where it rested. “Watch well as I seek and destroy your new master.”

Beard set his sights on the new landscape before him, the hazy darkness around him making it difficult to discern features of what lie ahead. The warrior squinted, his eyes being drawn to a strange light in the distance, though how far was difficult to surmise. Yes, there it was: a red light like a lantern’s flame -- or were there two? Beard walked toward the eerie gleam, his demeanor calm, his blade ready.

As Beard approached, he noticed an outgrowth of rock rising around him, as though he were suddenly walking a mountain path. The ground was still soft, though, giving no indication of which terrain would win out.

Then he saw the cavern and the crimson gleam that blinked out as he approached. A moment later he saw the boy standing before its mouth and the other children within. Then he sensed an evil presence and poised his blade to strike.

“Your cowardly magicks disappoint me, daemon,” Beard yelled, his eyes on those of the boy. “Obvious is the fact that I do not wish to harm this child, but if sacrificing his life is the price to take the likes of yours, so be it. My soul sits heavy enough already. I have no qualms.”

The boy laughed in a demonic tone, his expression unchanging, his eyes as dead as ever. The rage burning within the warrior’s heart overtook him. Beard tore the shroud covering the Tattered Edge from a clasp at his waist and pitched it aside, vowing silently to never again hide the face of the ancient blade: there was just too much evil in the world. The warrior pointed the sword straight as the boy and addressed the daemon once more.

“Very well, devil. First the child’s head, then yours.”

The dark of a cursed night seemed to roil just then, the shadows of the Western Glade pouring to the feet of the defiant boy. The shades gathered form around two crimson orbs which fast become eyes most terrible. Beard saw this well as the darkness settled around him like a murder of crows.

“I knew you to be ruthless, Beard Weirheowdth,” a whisper came from the gathering darkness, “but to kill a child?”

“Hunerheim can have me,” Beard said, “but trust my words when I say I’m taking you with me, daemon.”

“Such informality for an old friend?” the Whisperer asked. “Come, son of Bergrin, speak my name, as I’m sure you know it.”

“I speak not devil-tongue and, if I did, would not curse my mouth with its...”

Then Beard saw the creature’s form and knew.

“You...!” the warrior said, unable to hide his shock. “Impossible. How are you here?”

There was no response from the daemon, just a single claw pointed straight at Beard’s heart. That’s all the possessed boy needed to charge at the warrior -- him and the several others within the cave. They all rushed to Beard, their fists leading them, a strange buzzing rising from each of their gullets. All the while their dark master watched on with sadistic glee.

Beard leapt backwards, planting the blade of the Tattered Edge into the marshy ground as he landed. Still the possessed children stalked him, even as the warrior’s hand tightened around the hilt of his sword. Just as the children were closing in, Beard leapt back again, this time dragging the blade with him. A great scar in the earth trailed him as he went, ethereal sparks skittering off its edge. The children were too blinded by their master’s hatred to see the ground giving way so that, when the warrior withdrew the sword, the marsh fell away. The pack of children succumbed to the resulting sinkhole with a depth three times their height.

The Tattered Edge was raised to the daemon once again.

“Answer me, Släfgeit!” Beard yelled.

Beard crouched before the gaping pit that held the children, their many vacant eyes on his, but his on the daemon’s. The warrior leapt across the chasm, landing just beyond its edge, the ground there soft, but solid. There he stood his ground between the children and their wicked master, the Overlord of Slumber silent before him, unimpressed by the warrior’s acrobatics.

“Kill them, Beard,” Släfgeit hissed. “Stay true to your word and slay the children. Then there will be none but me to be rid of.”

“I’m not one of your minions, daemon,” Beard said through gritted teeth. “Your forked tongue holds no power over me.”

“Is that right, boy?” it whispered. “Then perhaps I should do what you cannot, yes?”

“You’re welcome to try,” Beard said, readying the Tattered Edge for a new phase of battle.

“You stand alone, Beard,” the daemon said in the same gruff hiss. “This battle is winless in your favor, do you not see that? There is no hope.”

“Who needs hope when one holds such an instrument of ruin in his hands?” Beard asked coyly.

The Dark Wanderer cackled. “Very good, manling... very good.”

“Then come, daemon.”

“As you wish,” Släfgeit whispered, its claws already conjuring the shadows it would use to meet the warrior in battle.

Beard lunged at the daemon with the Tattered Edge held high in the air, the sword hungering for the skull of its adversary. Before the blade could split flesh, however, Släfgeit evaded, its corporeal form melting to naught but shadows. Beard channeled his rage into a series of strikes, each flowing through the daemon’s ethereal body, but causing no injury. To this Släfgeit cackled, the shadows around it thickening with each of the warrior’s wasted efforts.

“My, my, manling,” Släfgeit whispered, “All that strength, but little to do with it. How pathetic...”

As Beard raised his blade to silence the Overlord of Slumber, a mighty blow stopped him: the daemon’s shadows had become powerful weapons created of nothing. The blackness spiraled above Släfgeit’s many-horned head, the daemon casting the shades at Beard, cackling as the commanded darkness raced to crush the stunned warrior.

Beard managed to duck before the barrage slammed into him, the face of the Tattered Edge deflecting the gale-force of the dark weaponry. Beard was pushed backward, his boots teetering on the edge of the great hole behind him wherein the possessed children were waiting with hungry eyes to tear the warrior apart like a pack of savage and starving wolves. But the tenacious warrior planted his blade in the earth before the edge of the marsh gave way beneath his feet, leaving him dangling on the lip of the chasm.

Släfgeit cackled and the children laughed madly.

With gritted teeth, Beard kicked off the side of the sinkhole, hoisting his body up as he did. A moment later, he was on his feet, battle-ready, rage burning through blood and bone alike. Again the warrior charged and again his attacks were evaded by the Dream God.

Beard had little time to scold himself for being too frivolous with his energy before Släfgeit took the offensive once again, conjuring dark bludgeons out of the amorphous black haze swirling about its insubstantial form. The warrior managed to dodge most of the onslaught, but the daemon was ruthless in its attack, sending wave after wave of shadows to crush the struggling Northman. Soon, a layer of gashes and bruising covered most of the warrior’s exposed flesh, his travel gear offering little protection against the persistence of the dark demigod.

“No wonder you never desired the throne of Thorgithe,” Släfgeit said, withdrawing his shadows from the wounded warrior. “You would have long since disgraced the crown and your lineage with such a weak heart.”

“Choose your next words with caution, daemon,” Beard hissed, “for they will be your last. I’ll die a thousand crude deaths before I let the likes of you disgrace Thorgithe with your forked tongue.”

“So says the King-Slayer...”

“My father perished on the blade of a traitor!” Beard yelled, his body trembling with anger.

“The blade was yours,” Släfgeit said.

“But the murderous hand was not,” Beard retorted.

“Oh, but it was, dear manling,” Släfgeit whispered. “You killed your father and one day will realize it... that is, if you live long enough to see that revelation.”

“Those who are about to meet death would do well to not speak of its coming,” Beard said, straightening his posture, trying to ignore the pain that bolted through him as he tried to move.

Släfgeit chuckled its dry death-rattle.

“Would you like to see your father, Beard?” the one called Dark Wanderer asked the warrior as he tended to his wounds. “I know that’s what you want... what you dream about every time you slumber. To be true, manling, I know quite a bit about you... your dreams, yes, but your hopes and fears as well. So, let me ask you one last time before I destroy you -- would you like to see your father? Because I would very much like to escort you along the Last Path to him personally... limb by limb, bone by bone.”

“You sure talk a lot for something that’s about to eat four feet of ancient blade,” Beard said, readying himself once more.

Släfgeit cackled as the warrior lunged, the Tattered Edge hungering to cleave bone and vitals alike. But the daemon forewent dissipating to evade the attack, choosing instead to sidestep the blade as it whizzed past. Clear was the fact that the battle was taking its toll on Beard. This, of course, delighted the daemon to no end.

“Yes, manling, keep going,” Släfgeit said, the children below laughing monotonously. “Just keep expending yourself. Then, when you’re ready, I’ll show you mercy, I swear it. I’ll let you drift away... for I am a generous god.”

As the lightning strikes the plains in a sudden heat storm, Beard pivoted his body and delivered with his elbow a powerful blow to the daemon’s jaw. This rattled Släfgeit, throwing the daemon off balance so that it, too, almost slid into the sinkhole with the children. Just as quickly, however, Släfgeit was looming over the warrior, the smug tone in its voice giving way to the anger now churning within.

“So be it... your death will be one beyond all nightmares,” Släfgeit hissed. “But not at my hands, no... your death will be of your own accord.”

“Your riddles bore me, satyr,” Beard mumbled, his swollen face depreciating his voice. “But, please, tell me... did you not used to be a manling yourself?”

Släfgeit paused, its crimson eyes narrowing.

“Yes, I’ve heard legend upon legend of a little boy from long ago who dared to challenge the gods for he so coveted their powers,” Beard said, wiping blood from his lip. “It seems the gods pitied that little boy and made him something between man and god, but the boy’s black heart twisted him into a fell creature of the night.”

Släfgeit was growling, the children silent now, their chorus of laughter severed by their master’s rage.

“Yes and I hear the thing the boy became was so ashamed at what it’d become that it begged to be made ethereal, to wander the Dream Realm, to rule it,” Beard continued, a thin smile growing among the purple bruises. “And now it seems the little boy wants out again.”

“You know nothing of what you speak, manling,” Släfgeit whispered. “Your words have sealed your fate. That is no threat, but a vow.”

“My head for your freedom, right, devil?” Beard asked. “That’s the deal you made to get back to the physical plain?”

“I no longer care about escaping the Dream Realm, manling... not now,” Släfgeit hissed. “I will be content in devouring your soul!”

“I thought as much,” Beard said, pulling himself together as he pulled the Tattered Edge to his side. “One last question then... who’s the bastard who swindled you?”

“I’ve not been swindled!” Släfgeit barked. “I’ll get my freedom as he agreed!”


“Oh, you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting him?” the daemon asked through set fangs. “A pity... for the Dark One seems quite fond of you. It’s a shame only your head will be introduced. Prepare to die, Beard Weirhowdth... by your own hand.”

“The Dark One?” Beard asked.

“Good night, manling.”

Släfgeit raised a claw to its mouth and hissed some dark formula of guttural noises, seeming to hush the warrior. At once, Beard felt a terrible pressure on his sword arm and then he was being hurtled through the air, the Tattered Edge coming to rest near the mouth of the cave before the warrior even hit the ground. Beard landed hard on his side, the air in his lungs rushing out, the sound of it mimicking the daemon’s incantation.

Beard could hear Släfgeit cackling in the distance as he turned to look up at the premature night sky, his back tender and swollen. Then his attacker was above him, an impossibly black shade against the dark backdrop of twilight overhead. The warrior knew at once his shadow had again been raised against him and that, this time, it wouldn’t stop until its original had met a painful end.

The shadow pounced, its elbow clipping Beard’s already bruised face. The warrior growled and returned an elbow of his own, the sensation of connecting a blow to an ethereal body still making his flesh crawl. Then Beard pitched himself upward, turning the tables on his traitorous shadow, landing atop it to deliver a barrage of jabs to what he supposed was its upper body. Somewhere within the pummeling, the shade managed to get its hands around the warrior’s throat, aiming to throttle the life out of its original to the delight of its new master.

Meanwhile, Släfgeit had plans of its own.

“Hold up the King-Killer so I may behead him with his own blade,” Släfgeit whispered, the Tattered Edge held high by dark claws.

At once, the shade was behind Beard, its powerful arms arresting those of the warrior. The shadow pushed its knee into the lower back of the warrior, bringing Beard to his knees before its master. Then both cackled madly, the distant children humming a nonsong in jubilation.

“How appropriate you die kneeling before me, Beard,” the daemon said, its crimson eyes wide with delight. “Take my hand now and I shall show you the face of your father. Perhaps he’s ready to forgive you for taking his life.”

Släfgeit smiled like a cruel child.

Beard exhaled, his narrowed eyes piercing the fire within his adversary’s. He wanted the daemon to see well the hatred brewing deep within him. He could have his head, after all, and even his shadow, but his soul would live on in greatness as would all warriors who died in the throes of battle. He welcomed it.

But then those glowing crimson eyes were falling away, Beard’s body suddenly weightless as his back collided suddenly with the sloppy ground. Peripherally, he could see a pair of figures standing over his shadow as it writhed on the ground.

“What is this?” Släfgeit screeched. Then it, too, was knocked aside.

Beard leapt to his feet, not wanting to lose the sudden momentum given to him by those who’d come to his aid. The warrior split his attention between his shade and the daemon, the scene quickly becoming apparent to him: his companions from Kōstof had returned to him.

Jena had gotten an arm around what passed as the shadow’s neck, the headlock subduing the shade enough for Alkom to stab it repeatedly with his many short blades. The shadow howled, but the duo would not relent. Satisfied, Beard turned to Släfgeit, his bloodlust driving him to seek revenge for all the daemon had tainted.

Beard’s eyes grew wide as they caught sight of Dolan standing over Släfgeit, his ironwood spear pinning the daemon to the ground. The Overlord of Slumber screamed in agony, its body coming to know pain. How long had it been since this sensation had last pervaded the daemon?

Beard rushed to where the Tattered Edge had come to rest, the daemon’s stench still on its hilt.

“Release the bastard, gaffer,” Beard said as he approached. “My blade will send it back from whence it came.”

“Of course,” Dolan said.

The old man pressed a boot into the daemon’s writhing chest and pulled the spear from its torso, the resulting screech long and satisfying. Then Beard was standing in Dolan’s stead, the Tattered Edge mere inches from the daemon’s throat.

“Curse you, manling!” Släfgeit spat. “You and your ilk! You and your species! You can cut me down, but the Dark One is coming! Mark my words, usurper! You will die by his hand!”

“Good night.”

Beard cut an arc before him with the Tattered Edge, the blade cutting through the daemon’s body from shoulder to waist. From the wound rolled a pungent black haze, the daemon screeching as ancient blood was spilled upon the physical plain. Then the hissing died away and the body was still.

Still looking down upon the destruction he’d wrought, Beard noticed something slither to his feet and knew at once his shade had been reclaimed. Despite the rage still burning within him, he didn’t blame the shadow for being corrupted by the daemon for its forked tongue was charming in its own fell way.

But now that tongue was silent.

“We did it!” Jena said joyously as she and Alkom approached her father and the warrior.

“You have all done well this day,” Beard said, wanting to offer a smile, but hurting too much to do so. “You should be proud.”

“We’re just glad to be rid of that creature,” Alkom said, narrowing his eyes on the corpse of the daemon.

“Yes and now we to the children,” Dolan said, walking to the edge of the sinkhole to reclaim the many youths of his town.

“How did you escape the army of shades?” Beard inquired as he followed the gaffer. “They were many and you were few.”

“You speak true, warrior,” Dolan said with a chuckle,” but those evil things knew little about the workings of our realm...”

“... and the power of Sol,” Alkom concluded.

“We led them back to the entrance of the forest around the glade,” Jena said. “They were so eager to bring about our destruction that they ran headfirst into their own.”

“Yes, Sol seems to be a weakness,” Beard said.

“It was Jena’s idea,” Alkom said with pride. “She had remembered well how her father’s shade had writhed on the end of your blade when you raised it into the day back in Kōstof.”

“It was nothing,” Jena said. Even in the darkness, the men could see her blush.

“It meant the future of Kōstof, Jena,” Dolan said, putting an arm around his daughter. “You’ve brought great honor to our blood.”

“Your father speaks true,” Beard said. “Savor this victory... remember it and teach it to your ilk so that they may be prepared should they be pressed into combat again.”

Before Jena could offer thanks for the warrior’s kind words, a piercing cry interrupted her. All eyes of the party were drawn to the children below who were now screaming for help, their minds once again their own. A bittersweet sentiment churned within the three from Kōstof as they looked upon the children of their town, having reclaimed them from their taker.

“We’re coming, children,” Jena yelled, stepping away from her father to look down upon the many boys and girls she’d helped raise during her cycles. Her eyes scanned the tiny faces for her son, Dyrven, and at last she found him in the back, his face stained with tears and mud, his arms stretched out to his mother. “Hold tight.”

Jena turned to her father, her lips ready to ask how they would extract the children, but the words were arrested by a terrible sight unfolding suddenly before her. Dolan’s face was pulled gaunt with surprise, his body hoisted high into the air by Släfgeit’s bloodied claws. Beard and Alkom were already attempting to rescue the gaffer, but the daemon managed to hurl him across the clearing before the warrior was able to deliver a blow to its wounded hide.

“You cannot kill me, manling,” Släfgeit said. “Not on this plane.”

“Halt your devil tongue!” Alkom barked as he withdrew a pair of jagged daggers from his leather belt, wanting to bury them into the fiend’s skull.

“Tend to Jena and her father!” Beard yelled, pushing Alkom away. “Go!”

Alkom began to protest, but another stiff shove from the warrior sent the man to the gaffer’s side where Jena was already kneeling, her hands busy with a small satchel that hung from her knapsack. She withdrew a small canister of ointment, which she dabbed on the many wounds covering her father’s broken body. Alkom watched helplessly as she worked, his twin blades held with tight fists.

“You will pay dearly for that, satyr,” Beard said.

“I think not, manling, for I still have three days with which to destroy you,” Släfgeit said with a cackle. “I shall besiege that body of yours. You are cornered, Beard, and will surrender your head.”

“Jena was correct in saying evil things know little about the workings of our realm,” Beard said. “Such as time flowing differently here than in your netherealm.”

“Your words will not beguile me, boy,” Släfgeit said.

“Heed the truth, daemon,” Beard said.

“Oh, see how the manling flails at the end of his life!” Släfgeit said with a cackle. “Just as all your ilk is wont to do. How utterly pathetic...”

But then body of the daemon began to distort, the black blood issuing from its wounds evaporating into a dark haze. Släfgeit hissed as reality began to collapse around it, its own realm drawing it back. The warrior’s words had been true. How the daemon hated him so.

“DEATH TO YOU, BOY!” Släfgeit screeched, lunging at the warrior. “I WILL BRING RUIN UPON YOUR HEAD!”

The daemon grabbed Beard around his torso with all the strength it could muster. The warrior struggled to break free, to deliver unto the daemon another powerful blow from his blade, but Släfgeit was relentless.

“Come, child,” Släfgeit whispered, not calmly but with subdued rage, “I have something to show you.”

Then, in the flash of dark light, both were gone, leaving behind those of Kōstof to tend to the newest of their tragedies.

“I’m tired, Mama,” the boy said to his mother as they walked through the plaza. Four days ago, the place had been bustling with life as the planting season began. Then the Dark Wanderer had come and so many lives had been taken.

“I’m sorry, Dyrven,” the mother told her son. “I know you’ve only been home a few hours, but we have to go say good-bye to grandpa, okay? Then we can sleep.”

“Grandpa saved us all, huh?” the boy, Dyrven, asked.

“Yes, he did,” his mother replied. “You should be very proud of him.”

“I am,” the boy said with a little smile. “But before I go to sleep, can you tell me about the warrior again?”

“Jena,” a young man called, “the Sending Ritual is about to begin.”

“Thanks, Alkom,” the woman, Jena, replied.

“I had a dream about the warrior, Mama,” the boy said. “That he would come to save us.”

“Your dreams came true,” Jena said, offering a frail smile. “You are quite lucky, indeed.”

“Yeah,” Dyrven whispered.

Jena and her son walked to Alkom, who met both with good tidings. There they turned to watch the many people of their town of Kōstof -- both adults and children -- head to the boneyard to wish their patriarch a fond farewell as he made his way to the Great Beyond. In each of their hearts they were grateful for his sacrifice and knew that his spirit was together again with his beloved Marith’s just as their bodies were to be buried beside one another.

So Jena walked the long, winding path to the cemetery, one hand holding Dyrven’s and the other in Alkom’s, her thoughts drawn back to the warrior who’d saved them and where he might’ve ended up.

This article is my 17th oldest. It is 9470 words long