by F. Charles Murdock
Nothing can change what the heart contains.
These words passed through Beard's troubled mind as he slumped forward on the edge of the rickety ironwood bunk in his quarters. The room had been home to countless men, many of them vicious it could be supposed, who had once played the temporary role of captain to Satrian Falx, the monstrous wyrmship of the Southern Isles. Now as Beard took up the role, he couldn't help but think of all those men who'd traded their lives for brief collaboration with the ship, but such thoughts were swiftly swept away by the words that’d been pressing upon his mind since he'd last heard them three nights prior.
Those words and the lips that'd whispered them had forbid the warrior sleep for those three nights, all the while Beard had sat as he did now, disheveled and trapped in silent contemplation.
His men had come for him on occasion, asking for directions or to update him on the state of their provisions, but Beard hadn't been interested in instruction or inventory, only in solving the riddles that fate kept throwing at him. Only to the maimed marauder named Crabs did Beard speak, telling him to report back if the men began talks of mutiny. As with many savage decisions, to shanghai a sailor – be he an abrasive captain or a cook of dishes most fowl – always came after a lengthy discussion. Men such as these needed persuading, to be brought over the wall to the world of savagery. Beard didn't think the marauders were stupid enough to turn on him, but these were dark times and dark times breed stupidity which, in turn, begets death. Crabs had given a hearty "aye-aye, captain" and then had left Beard to his troubled thoughts, probably having sensed the anger boiling just beneath the surface of the warrior's stoic gaze.
"Nothing can change what the heart contains," Beard said to himself, his eyes fixed on the dark sword, the Tattered Edge, which rested against the wall beside him. "My love, you spoke to me those words as you took the girls we'd saved. You whispered them so only I could hear, your voice like chimes in my head as they are still when I recall them. But don't you know that I've heard those words before? And from someone far less grand?"
"Nothing change what the heart contains," Beard's memories interrupted, this time spoken not in the high sing-song of Val'Naren's voice, but the gruff bark of the one known as the Dark One, he who had drawn the thoughts of the warrior from the Isle of the Isenshrike. Beard's memory was often the apotheosis of cruelty, denying him the pleasures he’d experienced in his already long life in lieu of the terrors he'd seen... and wrought with his own fell blade. Now it recalled the words, repeating them over and over again in tandem with his heartbeat, overlapping the voice of his beloved with the voice of doom. The result was a maddening cacophony that forced the warrior to his feet just as the door to his cabin crept open.
"So, you've come?" Beard said, his words sounding foreign to him as those damned voices of his memories swept his mind one last time.
"Aye, cap'n," Crabs said, his good hand holding a chunk of salted meat and a ragged lump of bread, the surface of which was marbled with gray mold.
"Then the men..." Beard began, his hand already reaching for the accursed blade resting before him.
"Nay," Crabs said through a smirk, "the men fear you far too much to stake their lives in a feeble uprising. They bitch, to be sure, cap'n, but won't be seeking your blood anytime soon."
"Yea," Crabs said, approaching his captain, "but some of their words do hold merit."
"Our spoils have... well... spoiled," the marauder said, his grin leaving him. "I hold the last in my hands, saved back from the greedy palms of some of our more... panicked crew. It be yours if you’ll have it."
Beard looked at the man before him, wondering if he would still be so courteous if he knew just what kind of hell Beard had brought to the lives of some on the main continent, Krytherion. The warrior pushed those thoughts away – especially those of the Krytherion, which the vast torrent of the Stormcoming denied him still – and took the meal from the marauder.
"I figured you would need your energy, cap'n," Crabs said, wiping away the grease and crumbs of his empty hand on a rag in his back pocket.
"For what?" Beard said, his mouth full of tough devilboar shank.
"We're approaching a small isle to the south," Crabs said, "one which none of the crew have seen before. We await your decision."
Beard tore a piece of moldy bread off with his teeth and narrowed his eyes in thought. "We disembark," he said at last, and shoved the rest of the meal down his gullet.
"Your meal is getting cold, Little One," the man at the head of the table said, sipping at a spoonful of the thin, brown stew that sat before him. The table was long and dressed to feed a dozen, though only the man and the boy were dining.
The wooden spoon clacked against the man's gray teeth as he folded his lips around its edge, drawing in the broth and chunks of spiced meat with a hearty hum of satisfaction, partly because of the rich taste and partly to get the boy to eat. The man rubbed the bulge of his belly and smacked his lips, all the while his narrow, jolly eyes watched to see if the boy would begin.
"It's good, Little One," the man said. "I don't count cooking among my proficiencies, but this just might be my most savory dish yet. Don't you want to try it?"
The man waited for an answer, but the boy said nothing, didn't even look at him. This would've surely angered the man had he been the man he was five or ten cycles ago. He’d learned a lot since then, however, about himself and about the world. Now he just wanted the boy to eat.
The wooden spoon came out of the man's hands and clacked on the wooden floor of the dining room, not a single mote of dust or dirt disturbed as it came to rest beside the man's chair. So the shakes were getting worse. No worries: the man had his family and a good life… all he'd ever wanted. Shaky hands wouldn't put a damper on any of that. Besides, he'd had enough food for the night.
"So we have to do this the hard way?" the man asked, getting up from his seat. He stooped to pick up the fallen utensil, gingerly wiping it on his shirt and placing it beside his emptied bowl of stew before making his way to where the boy sat in silence.
"Again, Little One?" the man asked. "I know things aren't exactly the same since we left Krytherion, but I'm trying my best here. You have a house over your head, don't you? And plenty of food... which I wish you would eat, by the way. Look, I made you all of this with my bare hands. I built this house. I harvested this food. All for you."
The boy said nothing.
"Eat," the man said indignantly. "Now."
Not a word.
"You dare disobey your father?!" the man yelled, kneeling to the eye-line of the child. Still the boy didn't turn to meet the eyes of the man and still the anger rose in that man's body, the whole of it shaking now as rage came over him.
"I said eat!" the man shrieked. "And when I say eat, you eat... because I said so!"
Without another word, the man struck the child, feeling the boy's jaw snap under the force of the blow. He watched in pity as it hung loose at the hinge on the left side. Normally this would've been enough to get the man's point across, but the child had not only defied him, but had ignored him the whole time. He hated this more than anything. So the man grabbed the boy by the back of his head and slammed his face into the bowl of cold stew before him. The sound of the impact was like a stone being tossed into a pit of mud.
"Eat! Eat! Eat!" the man screamed, pressing the child's face into the bowl with all his weight. The boy didn't struggle, which relieved the man because it meant that the boy was ready to listen.
After another moment, mercy came over the man and he lifted the boy's head from the bowl, throwing his tiny body back in the chair so that he was sitting up again. The man was breathing heavily now, a sheen of sweat covering his trembling hands. It was done, though. It hadn't been easy, but he'd punished the boy. The man hated to discipline the child, but he didn't want the boy to grow up mean or rude.
"All you had to do was eat, Little One," the man said, looking down at the slumping boy. "You know I have a temper. But you also know that I love you, right?"
The boy said nothing, his broken jaw giving him an ugly frown. The man bent to the boy once again, this time pulling him into a long hug. He kissed the boy's forehead, tasting the rich stew on the child's flesh, and then stood.
"Well, you clean up and maybe I'll tell one of my stories before you go to bed, hm? You always liked my stories, Little One."
The man stared at the boy longingly and then smiled as he made his way out of the silent kitchen.
By the time the call came from the bridge of the wyrmship, Beard had made preparations for landfall. His Thorgithen garb had long been cast aside in favor of the lighter seafaring clothes of the marauders. They offered little in the way of protection, but Beard felt far more dexterous in the woven softcrop vest and tanned bullhide trousers. Only his boots remained the same, those brought from the Northlands, those worn through many hells; they were ragged, to be sure, but being of fine Thorgithen make, they would be carrying the warrior for many more iles before being cast aside. Now he tied a leather belt around the girth of his waist and placed upon it a satchel of seasalt and a few waterskins filled with fresh water, urchin oil, and the fat of a direwolf. With such preparations made, Beard drew the Tattered Edge into his body, no longer wincing as the shadowy blade melted into him, and trudged to the deck of the ship after three long days of isolation.
"So ye be alive! Praise the gods and sip their wine!" came a call from within the group of marauders. Beard shot his men a hard look and then turned his violent eyes to the isle on the horizon.
"None of you know yonder isle?" Beard said gruffly, taking a long draught of the salty air into his lungs.
"Nay," Crabs said. "Though we've sailed these waters for countless moons, none of us can say we've seen this scrap of land before, cap'n. Truth be said, there's quite a few of 'em out there we've not yet seen."
"Then we land and with caution," Beard told his men before turning his words inward. "How about you, Satrian... know you that land?"
There was a short pause as Beard's thoughts pulled themselves apart to make way for the booming voice of the wyrmship. "Nay, warrior. As the marauder said, there are many places I’ve yet to tread for the sea is vast and guards its secrets jealously."
"Then perhaps it's time to dispel this one, yes?" Beard spoke through his mind.
"Do as you will, warrior," Satrian said. "But no more foolishness. I still haven't fully recovered from your grand idea to sail headlong into the Stormcoming."
"Do you require apology, wyrmship?" Beard thought, amused.
"Nay, just respect," the wyrm said and then was silent.
Beard pulled his thoughts back from the corners of his mind and turned to the marauders. The men watched him with narrow eyes, awaiting his instruction like so many ragged seadogs. We'll see how loyal ye are, Beard thought, a smile fading his tough frown.
"Sail on to yonder isle and prepare yeselves to disembark," Beard announced.
"We're ready, cap'n," Crabs said with a nod.
"And your swords? Are they?"
"Aye," the maimed marauder said, "as always."
"I'm ready to tell the story, Little One," the man called, now sitting on a big chair stuffed with cucco feathers, "but you won't be able to hear it if you stay in the dining room."
"Fine," the man said, "but you're going to miss all the good parts."
The man waited a moment and then cleared his throat.
"As you know, I was among those who first cleared the wood to make room for the Great Wall," the man began, his eyes locked on the back of the boy's ironwood chair at the table. "That makes me a few too many cycles to be building houses and making stews for disobedient little boys…"
"Anyway, I spent day in and day out in those woods, hacking away the living forest for the better part of my youth. It was a hard life, but I liked the adventure of it. I went through thirteen axe heads out there and more bandages and flasks of iodine than I'd like to remember, but when those walls went up on the land I'd blazed, I knew I'd done a good job."
The man laughed.
"I heard Turin himself complimented us men who cleared a path for the wall. He was too busy with his campaigns to come see it himself, of course, but every little bit counts, yeah?"
A lonely cricket answered him.
"I miss that wall, Little One, and especially that forest, to tell true. It felt like home out there in the wilderness... hells, maybe that's why we came here after things got strange. There's a lot of nature here, after all. But, boy, it's nothing like it was there. All that energy and the feeling of oneness. Mighty fine.
“It calls me sometimes, you know? Turin too. I hear him every now and then. I’m sure I've told you about the voices a million times by now. No need to go over that stuff again.
“Listen, I'm going to go sharpen my axes, make sure they're fine enough to scalp a crowned elk. You stay here where it's nice and safe, okay?"
The man didn't wait for an answer this time, but got to his feet, walked to the heavy wooden door at the front of the house, and left.
The boy at the table slumped forward and then a moment later toppled to the ground. The man wouldn't be too happy to see such a mess when he returned, but there was little the child could do about it. There wasn't much he could do at all.
Finding a place to dock on the small island had proved rather difficult because the land was overrun with trees. Beard had led his band into the thick forest, making note of the position of Sol to establish a direction back to Satrian Falx. Solset would be coming in an hour or so and Beard wanted to ensure the possibility of a hasty retreat, this bred of pure instinct, a calculation from his deeper mind.
Crabs and a quiet marauder known only as 19 walked beside their captain, cutting down branches and vines as they went. The going was slow, to be sure, but the isle was small and the chances of getting lost, even in the thick forestry, was slim (especially with Beard's impressive skillset). Still, the men were growing hungry and some began to murmur of turning back and fishing on the shore for their dinner. None left their captain, however, mostly for fear of what he’d do to one who’d abandon his crew.
Truth be told, Beard didn't impart much attention to his men as they went. His mind was still being plagued by the shared words of his beloved and his foe. His mind was pointed toward the riddle of its own making, drawn to some impossible answer he couldn't decipher. Aye, and truth be told yet more, Beard was getting a wee bit tired of having his thoughts drawn elsewhere under the volition of others.
"Cap'n," Crabs said suddenly, "we're not alone."
"Aye," 19 said, pointing a slender finger toward the trees before them.
"Then you've seen the stumps as well?" Beard asked. He'd wondered how long it would take his men to spot where someone had harvested lumber from the forest. Beard had known since landfall, having spied the first few bare tree trunks as the wyrmship had made shore (if the craggy strip of rock where they'd landed could be called such). Good, then perhaps the marauders would be ready for the coming battle that Beard could sense in his bones.
The Tattered Edge trembled beneath the flesh in Beard's right arm.
"Aye," Crabs and 19 said in unison.
"Then we proceed with caution," Beard said, shooting a glance over his shoulder. "Those who follow should keep alert to what happens behind them. We'll watch the front and sides up here. There's no use stretching our attention too thin. Stay together, men, for I won't stop for stragglers or those who become lost."
"When do we eat?" a marauder named Waverly grumbled.
"When you've earned it," Beard said and then led them on into the clearing of freshly cut trees.
"I'm running out of food, lord," the man said, his voice a harsh whisper. "I've lasted far longer than I'd ever have imagined thanks to you, but I'm going to need more to harvest."
There was silence as the man waited.
"Lord, I don't mean to be so..."
"ASK AND YOU WILL RECEIVE."
The man withdrew his head from the undulating hole as he always did when the voice finally hit him. He looked around his room, the sight of his bed and wardrobe warped by the supreme darkness of the hole, where his eyes had been for the last hour. The man didn't seek attrition from his lord every day because, quite simply, it would kill him, but a few times per moon, he would peer into the dark void where his lord dwelled and he would make an offering and get something in return. A token for a token.
This time would be no different.
The man returned his head to the hole, its jagged edges folding around his jaw and skull. Instantly the darkness returned to his eyes and he felt himself swooning.
"Yes, lord, of course," the man said. "Lord, in all of your power and mercy, please grant me reprieve from hunger and thirst. Lengthen my life, lord. Please, I..."
"I... I beg of you, lord," the man said, his voice a warble as tears flowed down his face and dropped into the depths of the void.
"IT WILL BE SO."
"You are kind, lord. Thank you so very..."
"THE OFFERING. NOW."
"Yes, yes, of course."
The man withdrew his head from the hole once more, the jagged edges of which tore into his scalp and jaw like teeth. The void was reluctant to let the man go, its hunger insatiable. Only the promise of the offering was enough incentive to relinquish the man's head... and even then it was a tough decision for the hole lived only to feed, to grow stronger through the sacrifice of others.
The man had learned this lesson quickly and had just as quickly come to reap the benefits given by his terrible master. How many cycles had he heard its calling before coming to this place? How long had the voice haunted him, eventually drowning out all the other voices that once twisted the man's thoughts? The answer was some measurement of time, of course, and thus no longer held meaning to the man after he'd received the gift of perpetuity from the one he called the Merciful One. The voice of the hole, the same that’d drawn him away from his calling at the heart of Krytherion all those cycles ago, had long ago squelched such questions. Now only the hunger remained – the man's and his lord's.
Like always, the lord would feast first.
The man turned away from the hole and reached for one of the many axe-heads that lined the wall next to his bed. He picked up the heavy stone blade without a thought, its edge so fine that his eyes were unable to decipher it, and brought it to his side. The hole was devoid of eyes, but the man always felt he was being watched as he prepared his offering. The prick of fear within him was as sharp as the blade in his hand, but in an instant it was over. In a heartbeat, the man dragged the axe-blade along his left forearm, its ultrafine blade slitting a straight line from wrist to elbow. The bright blood was quick to come, flowing onto the hardwood floor before the hole as it had since this cruel ritual had first begun. See well how much blood has stained the ground there, like so much clotted black chowder.
The man placed his bleeding arm into the hole where his head had been a moment before and then waited in silence for his grim lord to accept the offering. The acceptance came as quickly as the blood from the laceration, the hole folding shut over the arm. The man looked away from the horror he'd endured since coming to this isle, the home of the Merciful One. Then the hole suckled, gently at first, but then in long draughts, a sickening smacking noise accompanying each deep swallow. The man struggled to stay on his feet, his breathing labored, his eyes glassy above a horrified frown.
A moment later, the man was allowed his arm back. The hole relinquished but slowly, its greed trumped momentarily by the taste of blood that filled the void of its belly. Sweet hot nectar. The taste of life, of sacrifice and stupidity. A glorious meal for a glorious master.
"YOU WILL RECEIVE THAT WHICH YOU WANT, BUT ONLY AFTER YOU ACCEPT THE SEEDS."
The man tried not to look at the pale, sickly appendage as he withdrew it from the hole, but always his eyes were drawn to it, such is the folly of man's curious nature. The limb was drained white, the slit now just a wilted, pink scar that climbed his arm to a healthy bicep hewn through cycles of swinging an axe. He waited a moment for feeling to return to the arm before opening the tight fist at its end, knowing well what he would find there as it was the same token of appreciation he found every time an offering was given.
"EAT," the voice from the hole commanded, its edges undulating as the fresh blood poured into the void.
Three dark green seed pods were pressed into his trembling palm, a silver sliver of an embryo growing from each. The man stared down at his prizes, preparing himself for what had always followed the offering. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and shoved the seedlings into his mouth, swallowing them before they could even touch his tongue.
"HOLD THE CHILDREN WITHIN UNTIL THE TIME OF HARVEST HAS COME."
"Yes... yes, lord," the man struggled to say. "As always."
The hole puckered itself shut and was silent, leaving the man to contemplate the terrible thoughts his mind conjured as the seeds settled into his body.
"Crabs," Beard said as he led his band farther into the wild forest that crowded the island.
"Cap'n?" the maimed marauder asked as he sidestepped another stump in their path.
"How big would you say this island appeared as we approached it from the sea?" the warrior asked without pause.
"From the sea... I'd give 'er three to four iles at most," Crabs replied, a pensive look overtaking his usually jovial expression.
"As I thought," Beard said. "Yet we've been walking for more than a quarter-day by my estimate." The warrior turned his attention to the patches of sky visible through the high canopy of treetops and narrowed his eyes, using his keen senses to calculate the position of Sol. As he'd feared, the star would be setting soon, leaving him and his crew to wander the strange terrain in the darkness of nightfall.
"We trek two more hours then make camp for the night," Beard said, bringing his attention back to the trees ahead. "It would be foolish to try to turn back at this point or to go any farther than that in the dark."
"Aye, Cap'n," 19 said.
And it was so.
"Little One, are you ready for the Dream Realm?" the man asked the boy after the ritual had been completed. He'd cleaned himself up, bandaging his arm with a concoction of herbs and softcrop wraps he'd brought from the mainland after the calling had begun. The boy, too, had been cleaned and put in light clothes for slumber, his jaw reset and bandaged.
"I'm sorry you are going to bed with an empty stomach, but you refused to eat and such will be your punishment," the man said. "Perhaps tomorrow you will obey me and eat the meal put before you, yes?"
The boy was silent, perhaps asleep, perhaps unable to form words through his broken jaw. Either way, the man showed the child mercy and carried him to bed.
"Good night, Little One," the man whispered. "May Släfgeit send you peaceful dreams."
The man closed the child's eyes and pulled the covers up to the boy's chin, patting him on the head when he’d finished.
"Tomorrow will be better, I promise," the man said before leaving. "I have asked for harvest and it has been granted by the Merciful One. So tomorrow we will eat and be merry, Little One. But now I leave you to a good night's sleep."
Then man turned and left.
The boy's room was silent for a long while – hours perhaps – before the boy was able to make a sound. The tears had been quick to come, of course, but the word he spoke was muted and strained. The child had staved off sleep, not wanting to see what nightmares awaited him in the Dream Realm. At last, though, he succumbed to his exhaustion, but not before releasing his silent scream, a single word that meant nothing to him, but came from him nonetheless.
"Beard…" the boy tried to scream and then was silent once more.
Night had come quickly to the isle, the treetops above splashed with the light of the setting Sol for what seemed just a moment before twilight peeked through the clear, violet sky. The patch of sky above Beard and his crew was occupied by a multitude of stars, but only one recognizable constellation, that of Valspa the Flayed, said to have been set in the sky by her anguished lover after the devils of their land had stripped her flesh, trying to gain access to her heart which now shined as one of the great old stars, Iaueon. The moon was elsewhere, its light obscured by the thick canopy of gnarled branches above. In the dark, they looked like so many skeletal arms reaching into the cosmos.
"Cap'n..." a voice came from behind the warrior. He turned to face Crabs, narrowing his eyes to take in the scant details of the marauder's face.
"You should be asleep," was all Beard said.
"As should you, cap'n," Crabs said with a chuckle. "But perhaps you're too excited to sleep, eh?"
"Excited isn't the word I would use," the warrior said.
"Aye," the marauder said. "I'm none too excited meself, cap'n."
There was a silence between them, both their ears filled with the chorus of snoring around them.
"We should've crossed this isle back and again three times by now, cap'n," Crabs finally said. "What shrouds our eyes? Magicks?"
"I know not," Beard said, "but expect we'll find our answer soon."
"Aye, it's as things are wont to be," the maimed marauder said. "Then I'll keep post yonder, to our backs."
Beard nodded and watched Crabs weave his way through the sleeping marauders to play sentry on the other side. Did you sense fell powers too, Crabs?, Beard asked himself. Is that why vigilance has overtaken you?
Beard turned his attention back to the night sky, not really looking, but rather positioning his head so his ears were at the perfect angle to hear if anything approached. The snoring of his crew was rather difficult to penetrate, but Beard's senses were keen and his hearing perfect. He held his breath for a moment, trying to detect the sound he'd heard an hour or so after they’d made camp. He strained to hear, to absorb enough aural information to form a trail and a course of action, but there was only silence beyond the sleep noises of his crew. He would not relent, however, because he understood that the isle was bewitched somehow, made strange by strangers and, therefore, dangerous. He would keep watch, floating in and out of a shallow sleep to ensure his senses would be ready for anything that might come barreling out of the trees.
"Say it again," Beard whispered, closing his eyes to concentrate further. "Call my name and I'll come for you, be you friend or foe."
But the night did not call him a second time.
The marauders awoke to grumbling the next day, from both their empty bellies and their salivating mouths. Whereas Beard was rationing what little food he’d brought from the hull of the ship, his crew had taken their last meal greedily before setting foot (and peg leg) upon the cursed isle. They were a seafaring bunch, to be sure, a great crew to have on the water, but they’d proven their inexperience during the previous day's trek, starting with the greedy consumption of what might turn out to be their last meal... but somewhere along the line, fate had decided to send them Beard.
"Eat," was all Beard said when his men had turned in desperation to the warrior for guidance. On the ground before him was a pile of large green berries. The marauders approached the food slowly, each of their breaths quickened by the chance relief from the hunger boring through them. Just as the front few men reached for the berries, however, Beard spoke again.
"But beware," he said. "These are everberries. Delicious, sweet, full of energy, able to cure certain afflictions if administered in the right portions with the right herbs... but deadly toxic if consumed in too great a number. Remember: their effect is cumulative. They've earned the named 'cursefruit' from various shamans of Krytherion for that very reason."
"How much is too much?" 19 asked, palming one of the plump berries.
"Listen to your body and you'll know," Beard said with a grin.
Each marauder took a portion of the berries, some greedily despite their captain's warning, some cautiously as though the toxins of the berries would forego consumption and simply kill by absorption through the skin. Everyone ate, their hunger more potent than their sense of danger.
"What is the death like?" Crabs asked as he bit an everberry in twain. For a moment, Beard was confused by the question, even angered, for death's reprieve had been denied to him for so long. So that old wound was unmasked. Death and honor, Beard said in his frenzied mind, honorable death, a life worth having lived. The warrior shook off these sudden thoughts, finally realizing to what death the marauder was referring.
"The toxins will begin in your stomach, unleashing a fire that will course through your body along your heated blood. When it gets to your brain, you'll be stricken mad and blind, left to wander and wonder as the world is ripped away from you. Then paralysis..."
"...then death?" someone asked.
"Everberries are not known for their mercy. To speak true, they've about earned their names in terms of torture," Beard said, trying to track Sol's position through the treetops in the early morning sky.
"And the runs, cap'n?" a marauder named Barnacle Billiam asked nervously.
"That won't matter, you ass. You already have scurvy," another answered before a chorus of laughter.
"Shut up and eat," Beard said.
They did as he bayed them, though cautiously and with little zeal.
The man was awakened in the morning by a shriek from beside him. He shot up in bed, a cold sweat matting his shaggy hair against his brow. He shot a bewildered look to his left, already knowing on some level that the shriek had come from the living hole, the gateway to his cruel god. Only once before had the man been awoken in such a manner, many moons ago when food was still plentiful, before the time of harvest.
"APPROACH YOUR GOD," the voice from void called.
The man did so, though with reluctance. He leaned over the undulating mouth of the hole, trying to muster the courage to deny his lord, but such was impossible now. After all, the man and the void had become one. He had been called by his lord over the vast sea, had been nourished by this living hole, their lives intertwined in the ritual of offering. There would be no denying, never again, not after last time when the Merciless One had taken the man's hand and forced him to...
"COME TO ME, BEG!"
"Yes, lord... yes," the man whispered in a voice that trembled as much as his hands. "But, lord, if you want another offering, I should tell you I've not yet healed from last night."
The hole was silent and, thus, most likely angered by the man's lack of punctuality. At this, the man jammed his head into the gaping maw of the living hole, his eyes blinded by the void therein. He felt the rim close around his neck, fighting off sudden claustrophobia. Even after coming to his lord so many times, that sense of fright had never abated.
"THERE WILL BE NO OFFERING THIS DAY," the Merciful One roared. "THE HUNGER IS YET SATED BY MY LAST MEAL."
"Good, good, lord," the man said with but a shred of relief. "Then what is it you..."
"WHAT DID YOUR GOD DELIVER UNTO YOU THE LAST TIME YOU WERE AWOKEN BY THIS VOICE?" the void asked.
"I was given... yes, three moons ago... I was challenged," the man said.
"DID YOU SUCCEED?"
"No, my meal got away," the man said, his words quickened by memories of his failure those three moons ago.
"YOU FAILED IN A MOST DISGUSTING MANNER," the void said. "BUT AS I AM MERCIFUL AND THOUGH YOU DO NOT DESERVE IT, I HAVE SEEN FIT TO GRANT YOU A SECOND CHANCE."
"You would challenge me again?" the man asked, unease overtaking the pit of his stomach. He welcomed the challenge of the hunt, but those memories of his failure taunted him from the dark corners of his mind. But isn't that exactly where the last chance of his meal had been born... that strange darkness beyond comprehension? Surely the meal that’d beaten him hadn't been of the Physical Plain. The terrible black magicks had proven that to the man as he lay dying in the trees. The Merciful One had given him the energy, had accepted an offering to give the man life anew. The hatred, though – the disappointment of his fell god – had been maddening.
No matter... such was the past. This time, the man would be ready to trap his meal, to kill it, and harvest. To eat, devour, consume. To thank his lord for being so merciful, for giving him yet another chance at everlasting life.
The man would not fail this time.
"This makes no sense, cap'n," Waverly said, the hours of silence among Beard and his crew finally broken. "We've walked half the day and seen nothing more than trees."
"Yeah, there ain't even no animals here," Barnacle Billiam said.
"These things didn't make sense last night either," 19 retorted. "Did your brains just catch up to you?"
"Silence!" Beard barked, craning his neck to the treetops.
"But, cap'n, we ain't gettin' anywheres and we be..."
The warrior raised his arm to the marauder who had dared to disobey his order. At once, the Tattered Edge was in his hand, the point of which hovered an inch from the marauder's throat. The shock of the crew afforded the silence Beard had demanded seconds before. Though all eyes were on him, the warrior's were drawn elsewhere, to the sound of movement in the trees before them.
Only Beard could hear the sound of the air being split by a fast approaching blade, though he only had an instant to deflect it with his own. The deflected weapon fell to the ground at Beard's feet, but still the warrior's eyes were set on the trees as they scanned for he who'd thrown it.
“Is that... a hatchet?" Crabs asked, his scimitar at the ready as the others around him prepared themselves for battle.
"It looks light on the hand, well-balanced," 19 said.
"Aye, a good throwing weapon," Crabs agreed. "A good hunting weapon, to tell true."
Beard said nothing, his eyes narrowing while they continued to search for the threat.
"Is that why there be no animals on this pisspot island?" a marauder named Fend said before being thrown to the ground by the force of an unseen blow. A collection of wide eyes peered at the downed marauder, all searching for the offending weapon. Only Beard understood, but his mouth was screwed shut in concentration. Then the warrior was gone, his powerful legs carrying him swiftly through the trees to the sliver of movement he'd seen out of his periphery.
In his headlong sprint, Beard no longer searched for movement with his eyes, but rather used his instincts to sense any clues of intrusion in the trees around him. Patches of changing pressure brought inaudible information to his waiting ears – a far-off twig being snapped under heavy boots, bark broken by a hasty retreat, a sharp blade being twirled in anticipation of attack. Beard sensed all of these in his ears, on his skin, and in his bones. So when an attack finally came from the trees to his left, he was ready, a mad grin etched on his face.
Another hatchet soared past a few low branches, twirling in a quick arc, its wide blade looking to split the warrior's head like ripe fruit. Instead, the hatchet found Beard's waiting hand. With all the agility of a natural survivalist, the warrior plucked the weapon from the air and hoisted it over his head, the Tattered Edge pulled into his body as he did so. Beard stared at the figure of a man perhaps a quarter-ile away, he who held two more hatchets in his still hands. Though the figure was partially obscured by brush and timber, Beard could see the man's eyes and just how focused they were on his kill.
"I need not my own blade to end you, stranger," Beard shouted, "for I can do so just as well with your own. Hear this, then: I come not to trespass or raid, but in search of provisions. If you would still meet me in combat, I can assure you would only be meeting death. Grant me peace and I will do the same to you. What say you?"
"You sound like the other," a gruff voice said in the distance.
"I have others with me," Beard replied. "They mean no harm and do not seek confrontation, only food and drink."
"Not the ones you brought," the figure said. "I speak of the visitor from three moons ago. The one I couldn't kill."
"I know not of the one you speak," Beard said, "but I can assure you the result will be no different this time... except you alone will be guided to the Last Path by my hand."
"I do not wish to fight you, Thorgithen," the man said, lowering his weapons.
"You know me as a Northman?" the warrior asked.
"Yes," the man said. "I haven't seen one in a very long time, mind you, not since I was last at the Black Wall, but I would know the stature of your kind from anywhere."
"Then you know of our prowess."
"Yes, that too," the man said. "As I said, I do not wish to challenge you."
"Wise words," Beard said with a grin and wedged the hatchet into a nearby tree trunk.
"He doesn't look too good."
The marauders were gathered in a tight circle around Fend, who was writhing on the ground after being thrown there by some unseen blow. The men had passed hurried words between them, but none could think of what to do for the downed marauder. Their captain had taken off into the woods like a keyes out of Hunerheim, too fast to follow even for those who hadn't been gimped during their days on the mean sea. So they decided to wait for Beard to return. Until then, the men were content with describing Fend's newest symptoms as colorfully as possible.
"Aye, ol' Fend's head's wetter than a squid's ass," one would say.
"Do squids have asses?" would come the reply.
"Nah, but your sister... aye, she's ample in the area," another would intervene.
It was a wonder that punches hadn't been thrown, to tell true. It was the fear, you see. Fear makes things weird, aye, but it also brings men together. They needed to laugh, to joke among themselves (sometimes at Fend's expense) because it detached them from their mate's torture. But, as ye might know, if things can get bad, they can certainly get worse, so that...
"You're content to watch him die?" a voice boomed from the trees. The men shot wild glances around them, trying to locate the speaker, all of them rattled by the sudden intrusion into their silence and unease. Beard spared them their idiocy and appeared immediately, his face reddened with anger.
"Cap'n... we... we didn't know what to..." 19 started to explain before Beard passed him, his stern look letting the marauder know just how much he cared.
"What's happening to him?" Crabs dared to ask as Beard passed him as well.
"He's paying for his greed," Beard replied gruffly.
"What do you...?"
"You were all forewarned, were you not?" Beard yelled. "This is what happens when you do not obey me. This is the hell you find when you refuse to learn your lesson."
"Everberries," a new voice said from behind the crew. The marauders turned, seeing first the man and then the many hatchets he wore in a fitted leather belt around his waist. Some of the crew drew their swords, others looked around nervously. Regardless of their actions, their captain chastised them all the same.
"So now you decide to act?" Beard barked. "After I chased him down and he agreed to help us? Now you think yourselves courageous?"
None of the marauders said a word, only stared at the man with the hatchets as if frozen in time. Silence pervaded the clearing for but a moment before the sound of Beard spitting scattered it. The gesture only served to punctuate the warrior's disappointment with his crew.
"Exhibit your sharp tongue later, Thorgithen," the man with the hatches said, approaching the writhing marauder. He stooped and placed a hand on Fend's neck, waited, and then nodded at Beard. "If he's to live, we must hurry to my house. I have herbs there that should squelch the toxins."
"Hmph, perhaps I should let him rot here, so that the rest of you might listen to me when I tell you something," Beard said, scanning his crew with a hard glare.
"Do what you will, but I'm going back nonetheless," the man said, already beginning his trek back through the trees. Beard watched the man for a moment before sighing and nodding to the surrounding marauders.
"Grab the bastard and follow along," the warrior said. "We'll see what fate has in store for him."
When the house came into view, the marauders had to pause for a moment to take it all in. It was unlike anything they'd ever seen, much more sophisticated than the mudhuts and rickety shacks most of the crew had known before the sea had drawn them. The house was a pleasant tan color, its shape nearly a cube with a thatched roof so intricate that not even Solight could pervade it. It was quite large, about two stories high with great shuttered windows like hollow eyes. The forest had been beaten back to make room for both the house and the accompanying system of pipes that caught rain water, directing it into a spacious storage tank in the lowest level of the house.
"In all my cycles, I never thought such a grand place here," Crabs said, a stymied breath growing hot in his chest. The other marauders grunted in agreement and approval of the architecture. Beard paid no attention to what was mesmerizing his crew, instead concentrating on those damn thoughts that’d burrowed back into his mind: the words of his beloved, the words of his enemy, and where he was to go next if he was to ever see Krytherion again.
"How long did the construction take?" 19 asked the man with the hatchets, who was waiting at the large doorway before them.
"Not as long as you'd think," the man said with a grin. "Then again, my hands were made to bear an axe, so I was greatly aided by instinct."
"A job well done, I'd say," said one of the marauders holding Fend, a sheen of sweat matting whatever hair his ragged bandana could no longer maintain.
"I appreciate the sentiment," the man said, stepping into the house. "Come, enjoy my house, my food, and my drink. It's been so very long since I've had a guest." The man turned back to the marauders with a chuckle. "As you can imagine."
"Aren't you worried we'll kill you and ransack this place?" Beard asked suddenly at the threshold of the door. The marauders stopped and turned to their captain, a look of suspicion on their faces, but for whom most of them couldn't even tell.
"I trust you and your men, Thorgithen," the man said, his grin still prevalent even as he locked eyes with the warrior. He turned away once again, motioning for them to enter as he went. "Besides, you'd have killed me already if that was your intent, no?"
Beard watched his crew as they entered the house, thinking how strange it was for being at the heart of an isle rife with unruly trees. Strange, indeed, the warrior said, feeling the Tattered Edge trembling in his blood and bones, poised and ready if the warrior should happen to call upon it.
"So, you said you'd be willing to share food and drink…" Barnacle Billiam said as the crew followed the man into his dining room. The room was geometrically sound, not an angle askew, not a line out of place. The aroma of freshly cut wood permeated the place, enhancing the appearance of the walls and large table of the same make. The table could easily seat a dozen (was, in fact, already set to feed as many) and as the crew filed into the room, the owner of the house bayed them to sit.
"Your bellies will be filled, I assure you, but I think I should tend to your friend first. The toxins are quick to ravage a body, you see."
"Aye, it appears as so," 19 said, taking a seat at the far end of the ironwood table. The rest of the men followed 19's example, all but the two marauders who had lugged Fend through the forest and into the house. The need to sit, though, was prevalent in their sunken eyes.
"This way, please," the man said, directing them through a hallway and into another room. Beard followed them, watching with narrowed eyes as his men dumped Fend's shivering body on the hardwood floor. The owner of the house nodded and sent them away, but Beard stayed, interested in how the man was to rid Fend's body of the vicious toxins surging to his brain.
The man began to work with a few flasks and leafy plants, but then paused when he noticed Beard hadn't followed his crew back to the dining room. He smiled and said, "ah yes, the food. Well, don't have much today, to be honest."
"Anything will do," Beard said, staring into the man's eyes.
"Let's see," the man said, a pensive look overtaking his grin. "I have... well... everberries, but..."
Before the man could even finish, a chorus of groans erupted from the dining room.
"I thought as much," the man said with a chuckle. "Well, there's always the thin soup I was saving for dinner tonight. It should be enough to fill you and your crew."
To that, the dining room filled with a hearty cheer, the men banging their fists on the table in anticipation of food and drink (a custom they would perform at any pub or tavern on the many coasts lining the great Southern Sea).
"And drink?" Beard asked as the man began to mix the contents of two vials.
"I've not but water, but I can spare much," the man said. "I'll fetch it once I tend to this one."
"Oh, the soup is in the kitchen in a large pot by the stove. Heat it if you will, but I think it tastes better cool."
Beard kept his eyes on the man for another moment, silent until a question wriggled from his mouth. "What shall we call our host?"
"Ah, yes," the man said, slathering a thick green paste on Fend's swollen lips. "My name be Beg."
"Beg?" Beard asked with a scoff.
"Yes," the man said, shooting the warrior a look of his own. "Welcome."
"Almost done with dinner then?" Beg asked as he sat at the head of the table. "I hope it was to your liking."
"Aye," Crabs said, unceremoniously licking the bottom of his wooden bowl. The other marauders grunted in satisfaction, all but Beard, who stood in the doorway between the dining room and the hallway leading back to the front door.
"I apologize for the wait, but your friend was worse than I thought," the man said, pushing a large pitcher of water toward the center of the table. "He'll be fine, though. The toxins of the everberry are quick, but my salves and solutions are quicker. Drink up and be merry."
The marauders lunged at the pitcher with greedy hands, nearly knocking it off the table, before Beard let loose a terrifying holler.
"Have you savages learned nothing of greed?" the warrior yelled. Beard walked past the stunned marauders and grabbed the pitcher from their stilled hands. He looked into the water therein, smelled it, and then drew some into his mouth. There he held it for sixty beats of his heart before swallowing, the acrid taste of poison absent. He slammed the pitcher back to the table and scanned his crew with rage burning in his eyes.
"Drink," Beard said. "And do so without killing one another."
The men did as told, all silent without so much as a glance toward the eyes of their enraged captain.
"I see you enjoyed the soup," Beg said, inspecting the empty pot that had once held his dinner.
"Not everyone got to eat," Beard said indignantly, his eyes still scanning his rabble of marauders.
"Sorry, cap'n," 19 said, his head bowed in shame. The other marauders shifted uncomfortably like scolded children.
"Have you a bed for me?" Beard said, ignoring his crew. His shifted his hard look to Beg.
"Of course," Beg said. "You may have the attic if you wish. You others can have the large room to the left of the front door. It should be adequate."
"This place is incredible," Crabs said.
Beard scoffed and made his way through the hallway, leaving the baffled marauders in his wake, hoping they would feel the sting of his anger for a long while afterward.
Before turning left and climbing the stairs there, Beard peered into the small room where Fend was resting. His swelling had been reduced by the thick salve on his lips, his face covered in a thick silver sheen that magnified the fine hairs of his stubble. He was as ugly as he was foolish, to be sure. The warrior stared into the man's half-closed eyes for a moment longer and then climbed the stairs.
Suddenly, the Dream Realm was calling him.
Sleep came quickly to Beard despite the hollering and laughter from his rowdy crew. The slumber was dreamless and heavy, much more so than Beard had anticipated. The warrior had long ago taught himself to rest lightly lest he be ambushed in the night. This deep sleep, however, was what ambushed him that night, pulling him across the threshold to the Dream Realm before Beard even knew he was gone.
But the Dream Realm held nothing for him even in such a pronounced slumber. No prophecies or ghosts. No peace nor tragedy. Just the darkness of the Dream Void.
"Yes, lord?" the man asked the darkness.
"HAVE I NOT DELIVERED UNTO YOU THAT FOR WHICH HAVE YOU ASKED?" the voice from the hole boomed into the man, Beg's, waiting ears. Beg winced, shifting inside the maw of the living hole, his eyes filled with the endless void before him.
"Yes, lord," the man said, "you've been more than gracious, though I do not deserve your gifts."
"WAS IT DONE AS INSTRUCTED?"
"Of course, lord," Beg said. "The men ate the soup wantonly, none of them tasting the extract of the mushroom."
"ALL OF THEM?"
"Well, not..." the man said with a shiver. "Not their leader. His men didn't save him any. In fact..."
The void waited in silence.
"He tested the water before he drank of it," Beg said. "There was nothing to taint the water, of course, but it was a peculiar thing to do. I don't think he knows of your plan, only that he's naturally cautious. He's a Thorgithen, you see, and..."
"I CARE NOT OF HIS ORIGINS."
"Of course, lord, I..."
"HE WILL BE HARVESTED WITH THE OTHERS OR OUR AGREEMENT IS VOID."
"I've already managed to force sleep upon him," Beg said. "He caught one of my hatchets, lord, one that I’d coated in an oil absorbed through the skin, one that causes deep sleep."
Silence from the void.
"Shall I kill him, lord?"
"YOU WILL NOT."
"THE LEADER OF THE MEN WILL BE HARVESTED WITH HIS MEN. FEED HIM THE EXTRACT TOMORROW. SEE THAT HE DOES NOT FIND THE OTHERS."
"As you wish, lord."
"EAT THE SEEDS AND BEGONE."
"Yes, lord, of course."
Beard was so lost in the aimless darkness of the void that he almost missed the sound of movement beyond his window. The warrior threw open his eyes, his hand in the air, his fingers ready to manifest the Tattered Edge. He sat bolt upright, his widened eyes scanning the room he'd been too drowsy to navigate before sleep found him.
The attic was a wedge of shadows, all but the rectangular swatch of moonlight from the single large window on the other side of the room. Once he confirmed that his bed was against the far corner, Beard rose from it without sound, eyes still scanning the darkness beyond the amber glow from the window. The warrior's senses quickly differentiated the sensation on his flesh from the feeling of being watched: whatever had awoken Beard was not in the room with him, but close nonetheless.
A voice, gruff, and a cough, both sounding nearly the same to the warrior's waiting ears. Beard made his way to the side of the great window, each step made cautiously and as softly as when a wolf stalks its prey. Beard pressed his body flat against the wall there, scanning the dark room one more time, from bed to door, before peeking through the open window.
The clearing was a tapestry of light and shadows, that which was struck by the moon and that which wasn't. Beard was quick to make this differentiation as well, his eyes drawn to movement near the edge of the forest to the right of the house. One figure... two? Beard didn't waste any time with empty questions.
Navigating the house in the dark was a quick affair after Beard's eyes had acclimated to the lack of light. There was the occasional patch of moonlight along the wooden floorboards of the first floor beyond the staircase, but the warrior was too busy muffling his footfalls to truly notice them. Beard continued, his eyes narrowed in concentration, his memory of the house's layout illuminating his path.
With the front door closed behind him, Beard followed the architecture of the house, hugging his body against it as he made his way to where he'd spied the strange movement. He paused at the corner of the house, his breathing dulled, his eyes searching for tracks in the moonlight. Another cough came to him and then the sound of bramble being pushed aside.
The warrior shot a quick look around the corner of the house, noticing immediately the small building behind it, near the tree line. It looked like a storage building, a woodshed, perhaps, or an outhouse. The warrior could see dull shadows beyond it and, without a second thought to muddle him, he stalked his way to the shed.
Even before he was within a dozen paces of the shed, Beard could hear voices, low but loud. As he pressed himself flat against its frame, he paused to listen, the cup of his right ear angled toward the conversation.
"We shouldn't be here," came a whisper.
"Neither should Beard," came another.
"Listen, I love Thorgithe as much as he, aye," the first whisperer replied, "but we ought not to meddle in the affairs of fate and prophecy."
"Har, says the bastard who tried to save him from that farce of a trial when his pappy got run-through," the other whisperer growled.
"Oh?" the first said, the tone of the voice spiking to a hoarse grumble. "Did you not save him from the Shrike among the pipes?"
"That?" the second said. "That was all smoke and magicks, smithe. The Shrike wouldn't have seen 'im anyways."
"That's not the point, you son of a..."
"Gentlemen, please," a new voice said. Beard closed his eyes, straining to hear as a breeze picked up in the forest.
"Oh, look, his pappy-in-law wants to commentate," the second whisperer said.
"Stifle yourself, you old bastard," the first said.
"Gentlemen," the new voice said, "we have a decision to make. We're already going behind the backs of the others by being on this island, but do we dare interfere directly with Beard's path?"
"Aye!" the second voice said.
"Nay!" said the first.
"It's just removing a little box from a little shed on a little island," the second replied.
"Aye," the first said, "but what if Beard is meant to open that box, eh?"
"Wolfpucky!" the first screeched. "We all know where it'll lead him."
"Such is fate and destiny," said the newest voice.
"And prophecy," the second voice whispered.
"Then we just sit by and watch this play out?" the first voice said, defeated.
"We cannot change the boy's fate, for better or worse," the third voice said. "He needs to heed prophecy."
"But the damn consequences..." the first said.
"We don't know what will happen," the second replied. "Not exactly."
"Only our creators do," the third said.
There was a long pause, so long that Beard began to wonder if he was alone, if he had, in fact, always been the only one near the shed that dark night.
"Fine," the first speaker finally said, "but if the world burns, don't be bitchin' at me."
"He'll find a way," the second said in a warm tone, "I've known him his whole life, trained him at my anvil for most that time. No matter how dark the path is, he will find a way."
"Then it's settled," the third voice said. "We make our leave in great haste before the others find..."
Then there was a grating noise and a slow hum that rose in the night. In an instant, Beard was alone, his ears buzzing with words he was never meant to hear.
"My, what a long night it's been, Little One," Beg told the boy, tucking the sheets around him as the boy slipped deeper into the Dream Realm. "I've been busy, but the harvest will be ample, yes it will. The Merciful One has helped us so."
The boy twitched, his face momentarily crumpled in worry around his broken jaw. Yet he slept on. The man smiled.
"I wish the family had listened to me, Little One," Beg said. "I'm proud of you for sticking by me, for trying to hear the calling as I have since the old days on Krytherion."
The boy's eyes fluttered, the moonlight from the window illuminating them so that they were as a daemon's eyes.
Then you are coming to, Little One, Beg thought. You will scream, perhaps fight, but you won't wake the others, for they are in deep. But what about that Thorgithen cur? I can't chance that.
"I wish you wouldn't have tried to run those few moons ago," the man said, kissing the boy on the forehead. "I wish I could just let you be, but I know the truth of the matter. You heard the calling, yea, but you couldn't handle the Merciless One. You couldn't give of yourself for the nourishment of the lord. The lord rejected you, but I reasoned with the Merciless One on your behalf and, lo, being the lord of mercy, you were granted pardon from the first harvest... and this as well, I should hope.
“Do you not see what I did for you, Little One? Do you not understand that I saved your life and soul? I've made great sacrifices for you, stared ruin in the eyes for you. So why would you betray me? Why would you seek escape? I don't..."
The man sighed and then continued.
"So I have to do what's best for you. You will eat as you have since you tried to leave me, Little One. I need you here with me."
The man pulled a small satchel from his trousers and placed it on the bed. The boy was tossing now, a low grumble building in his throat. Beg withdrew a large red mushroom from the satchel and broke off a small portion from its wide cap.
"Eat this and be spared the wrath of the Merciful One," the man said, shoving the piece into the boy's bandaged mouth. The boy winced in pain, but managed to bite down on the man's index finger before he could pull it back. Beg yelped and struck the child with his free hand. The boy sobbed, trying to struggle against the toxins of the mushroom. Beg held the boy down as his little body succumbed to its effect.
"Shhh, shhh, go calmly, Little One," Beg said.
The boy fell limp, paralyzed. Back into the dark cage of his body, the place he'd been forced into by the man he'd called father for so many cycles.
"You know, there are some who say that the red mushroom can cause morbid growth, but that's just one of those sailor tales from..."
The boy was pulled away from the man's voice, drawn inward into the pit of darkness there. He felt nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing. All he knew was darkness and silence and the memories of his father before his cruel lord had called him from his life so many hundreds of cycles ago.
Beard's instincts demanded he check behind the shed for signs of the speakers, but a rare curiosity had overtaken him and the warrior denied them. Instead, he grabbed the handle of the shed door, jiggled it to see if it was locked, and then pulled it open. He was met by darkness, but sensing nothing lurking within, he slipped past the door, shutting it in his wake.
By the moonlight penetrating the few cracks in the walls of the shed, the warrior could see it was filled with wood, the tang of which was pleasant on his tongue. Beard's eyes scanned the flat shadows around him, working slowly and efficiently, his back to the door. Now what had the voices said about a box? A box for him, no less? Was Beard meant to find something in...
Then he saw it among the low stacks of lumber in the corner. There was a swatch of red that stood out among the bland blacks and browns of the shed. Beard pushed aside a pile of stripped bark and stooped to get a better look at his discovery.
He took a deep breath, relishing the scent of hewn wood, staring intently at the hint of red before him, like blood at the bottom of a shallow well. To his eyes there were no traps awaiting a foolish hand, no electric prick on his skin forewarning him of harm. After a moment, the warrior reached out to the crimson, snatching it out of the hole between chunks of wood.
A box, yes, red and wrapped in an ornate wax paper, a large ribbon adorning its top. What a strange...
Beard unceremoniously tore the paper from the box like a dead husk, cramming back into the hole in the timber as his other hand opened the flap. Even in the scant moonlight, Beard could see his name within the box. He stared down at it, perplexed, waiting just a moment before snatching at the folded page that read "BEARD" in long, skeletal letters.
He raised the note into the amber moonlight, unfolded it, and read.
AH, SO YOU FOUND YOUR PRESENT! HAZZAH AND ALL OF THAT. YOU SEE, I'VE MISSED SO MANY OF YOUR BIRTHDAYS THAT I THOUGHT I SHOULD MAKE IT UP TO YOU. SO HERE IT IS, YOUR VERY OWN... WELL, I'LL LET YOU FIND OUT WHAT IT DOES.
Beard peered over the page, his eyes taking in the small cube in the bottom of the box. It was heavy in his hand, smooth and metallic with a strange pulsing light, a curious device, but Beard's thoughts compelled him to finish the note.
*RIGHT NOW, I'VE PROBABLY MADE IT TO THE WILDS OF THE NORTH BEYOND THE BLACK GATE... SO CLOSE TO THORGITHE! AND SINCE YOU'RE ON THIS LITTLE ISLAND, I CAN ASSUME WITH CONFIDENCE THAT I'VE ALREADY SHOWED YOU THE CROSSING OF THE GATE. ARE YOU STILL THINKING ABOUT THAT, BEARD? HOW EASY IT WAS FOR ME? I HOPE SO. I HOPE WITH ALL MY HEART THAT IT’S HAUNTING YOUR EVERY MOMENT.
SO COME AND GET ME, BEARD. I'VE ALREADY TOLD YOU WHAT WOULD TRANSPIRE IF YOU DON'T.
THE DARK ONE
P.S. OH, A BIT OF ADVICE: THE LIVING CIRCLE CANNOT LIVE FOR LONG.*
Beard crumpled the note in his mighty hand and tossed it aside, his mind searching for the meaning behind the message. He turned his attention to the small cube in his other hand, his eyes alight with curiosity. He brought a finger to the top of the box, its surface there different than the rest of its make, its feel like finely etched glass.
His eyes were drawn to the pulsing green light therein, a low buzz rising and falling with the ebb of the light. The warrior peered into it, trying to decipher its meaning when he heard the noise behind him. Had he not been led astray by his own foolish curiosity, he might’ve had time to react, to eject the Tattered Edge from the flesh on his back into whoever had been reckless enough to approach him. The ambush had come too quickly, however, and after a blow to the base of the warrior's skull, all Beard saw was empty darkness.
It’d been a long while since the man had had to prepare for a harvest, but his lord had seen fit to give him strength.
The seeds. He'd eaten three this night. Those combined with the seeds after his offerings made how many? The man didn't know. Too many, probably. But he would need the energy, the vitality, the agelessness, to finish the harvest.
He was hungry, but his lord was ever hungrier.
"I'm sorry to put you out, Beard," the husky man said as the warrior slumped forward. Before he was drained of consciousness, Beard had recognized the voice, not just as one from the three speakers that’d been behind the shed, but one from long ago. The husky man rolled the warrior over, being careful to wedge the Dark One's gift into an empty slot in the warrior's leather belt. Once done, the man hoisted Beard over his shoulder and withdrew him from the shed.
"I should’ve never come here, Beard," the man whispered. "It'll be Hunerheim getting back, that's for sure, but..."
The husky man scanned first the large house before him and then the clearing, looking for any sign of detection.
"I had to see you, lad," he said.
With that, the husky man burst into a sprint, the weight of Beard's body not slowing him in the slightest. He cleared the corner of the house, pressing himself against its flat face. The man breathed in deeply, closing his eyes as the breeze brushed past him. For but a moment, he found himself struggling with the emotion that threatened to pour forth from within. Then it passed and he was brought back to his senses.
"It's been too long, Beard," the man whispered, "but we all have our paths. I hope ours will cross again. It will be good to look upon my king once again and during brighter times."
The man sighed once again and, with a savage calculation, planted his powerful legs into the dirt of the clearing and tossed Beard upward. The warrior's trajectory was true and, thus, he cleared the window to the attic without so much as a scratch. Even before he hit the hardwood floor and rolled to a stop by his bed, the husky man that’d assailed him was gone, having vanished into the night.
Beard awoke to silence, his mind groggy, the back of his head pounding. He rolled to his side, trying to remember what had happened. The voices, yes. The shed. The attack... and...?
Beard could feel the lump on his side, something wedged between his trousers and his belt. He withdrew the strange cube and looked over it while the memories of the previous night played themselves out in his mind. Yes, this was a gift from the Dark One, the smarmy bastard. But what was it?
A trap, perhaps? Beard hadn't even had the opportunity to consider a malevolent intention behind the gift before he'd been ambushed in the shed. By whom? Well, it had sounded like... but it couldn’t have been...
After all, Beard hadn't seen the smithe in so long, not since the warrior had been exiled by the council of Thorgithe. Had Bledbuan been on this isle?
Beard's head was pounding and all of these questions were only serving to sharpen the pain. He would stop meddling with the strange cube, would take it back to Satrian Falx to see what the wyrmship knew of the device. Then it was settled: Beard would gather his men and whatever provisions they could find and head back through the forest. He'd seen enough of this damned place.
Beard pulled himself to his feet and trudged across the room, giving the attic one last look before leaving. How quickly had sleep come upon him the night before, how fast and fierce it’d been. This thought burned itself into the warrior's mind as he closed the door behind him and made his way down the stairs thereafter.
The silence seemed even heavier outside the confines of the attic, as though it possessed a gravity all its own. Beard listened for his men, for their voices or breathing, but heard nothing but the dull thump of blood coursing through his head. Each heartbeat was a hammer’s strike on the back of his skull, the pain flaring with the pulse, the taste of alkali prevalent on his tongue. It was Brōg, his traitorous mentor who'd taught him the taste of pain, how certain injuries were too much for the mind to handle and so would strive to understand the sensation as a taste. Beard had tasted a grand buffet of pain in his time – the sweet, the sour, the alkaline too. Truth be told, he rather liked the taste.
A strange smell was wafting through the air as Beard stepped off the stairs and into the long hallway to the dining room. The scent was pleasant, gamey, the smell of a thick stew of slow-roasted meat. The warrior followed the scent, though cautiously, not wanting his salivating tongue to betray him.
Beard came upon the room where their host, Beg, had tended to the everberry poison coursing through Fend's gluttonous body. The door stood open and the warrior peeked around the frame to spy any happenings therein. Beard's senses hadn't failed him: the room was empty of both Fend and the salves and other strange concoctions their host had produced to aid the poisoned marauder.
Beard gave the room another look, this one longer, trying to locate a clue as to where Fend had gone. The wooden floor was absent of a trail, however, not just bare but meticulously polished. Even the pungent scent of the filthy marauder was gone... as though he'd never been there.
Beard continued down the hall, the scent of cooked food once more prevalent as he made his way to the large dining room. He stopped at the end of the hallway to peer around the corner, noticing immediately three bowls of stew on the table. The bowl at the head of the table was already emptied of its contents, but two others on the opposite side were still filled to the brim with a stew consisting of what looked like chunks of meat and diced mushrooms.
The warrior withdrew himself into the hallway and closed his eyes to listen again for any signs of intrusion. The ambush in the shed had rattled him, pushing him close to paranoia, but Beard had managed to keep his wits about him. After all, it wasn't the first time he'd had to struggle with real danger and that which was fabricated from an addled mind. Even so, the warrior heard nothing, sensed nothing, and it jarred him.
After a deep breath, Beard made his way into the dining room, his sword waiting to be summoned into battle. He looked over the table, hunger cramps clawing at his guts as he caught sight of the stew once more. He examined the empty bowl, walking along the edge of the table, giving it a wide berth for, should a sudden fight break out, he would need room to work – the warrior had learned this the hard way in the sewers beneath Buildar's Gate so long ago.
A chunk of browned meat was bobbing on the surface of one of the bowls of stew when Beard came upon it, his mouth watering, his hunger pangs as sharp as a dagger. The smell was alluring, inviting, irresistible... except... something was off, something that recalled a gruesome memory buried deep within Beard's mind…
When Beard had been but a child of seven cycles, there had come a morning when the light of Sol had awakened him and not a stiff blow from his ruthless mentor, Brōg. That alone had been cause for alarm, but as the Beardling had pulled himself out of bed, he’d been astonished to discover the usual bustle of the Long Hall of Kgortel and the surrounding town seemed muted. Though the child's warrior senses had not yet been honed, he’d known in his bones that all in the vicinity were absent, though he’d known not why.
Young Beard had dressed quickly in his training clothes – thin leathers and a tunic – and had made his way through the castle, trying to sense any danger that might’ve been afoot. Beard could remember well how the wind ripped through the empty Hall of Kgortel from the Balcho of the Motherwolf and over the ovate table where his father would gather Thorgithe's finest warriors to discuss strategy and the affairs of the Inner World. He’d stood there for but a moment, letting his primal senses search for what his eyes couldn't see.
Then he'd heard a dull thumping like a stampede of crowned elk retreating the jaws of a dire wolf. Beard had listened to the sound for a moment before bringing his ear to the stone floor of the Long Hall as Brōg had taught him during his hellish instruction. The thumping had been louder there, definitely underground. In the catacombs, perhaps...
The Beardling had been quick to lose all pretense in his discovery, bolting into a sprint to the stairwell that would carry him to the ancient catacombs beneath the ruins of Kgortel's once-proud fortress. He’d taken the stairs three at a time, leaping in a mad dash like a drunken billycoon. The thumping had grown with each step into the sound of countless stomping feet, which meant but one thing...
Beard had hit the landing at the end of the stone stairs with a final leap, his attention immediately drawn to the large crowd before him. Within the bowels of those catacombs, the Beardling had learned the meaning of the pervasive quiet.
"Kvelth, you stand accused of a crime most heinous," a familiar voice rose above the stomping. At those words, the noise had died down. Beard had scanned those present, noting that most held the title of Thorgithen warrior. The young Beard had understood well even then that he was witnessing the trial of a warrior, one who must’ve committed a crime most heinous.
"You are charged with the murder of one of our own, a fellow warrior, a brother in arms," the voice continued. Beard had wound his way into the crowd, past the well-muscled bodies of his father's military, so that he might witness what was to come. The young warrior hadn't been surprised to find that those cryptic words had belonged to the Grand Elder of Thorgithe, the blind man of honor who had exchanged his name and identity for his title, a true sacrifice to the country he’d served for, it is said, five and forty cycles. When he spoke, all listened, as had been the case in this trial from Beard's reaching memories.
"What say you to this charge, Kvelth?" the Grand Elder had asked.
"The trees told me!" Kvelth had screeched. "The Eastwood told me that if I killed him, I would be spared!"
"Spared?" one of the Elders standing in a semicircle behind the red-robed Grand Elder had asked.
"From what?" another had asked.
"Death!" Kvelth had exclaimed. "True death is coming! It will be ushered. The trees told me! The Forgotten Elders prophesied its coming! Death is creeping across the land! I had to slay Volkt! I needed his strength! I must heed the voice of the trees! I must...!"
"He's gone mad!" one of the warriors before the Council had yelled. "He's been driven insane by the jibbering demons of the forest!"
"Mad and ravenous!" another had agreed.
Beard had kept his eyes on Kvelth, watching the man's eyes as they widened, his lips moving without speech. His insanity had been apparent: Beard had seen rabid livestock inflicted with madness, their eyes and demeanor matching those of Kvelth just then.
"He's killed one of our own," a brawny warrior, Lusvek, had said calmly. "That’s all that needs to be known. That murder and his obvious admission to it."
The Grand Elder had simply nodded, turning away from the trial, directing the lesser Elders through the great black arch and into the back room for deliberation. That's when the real trial had begun.
Now, the Thorgithen recognize tradition and honor it at all costs, but they also recognize a heartless murderer of a fellow warrior when they see one and Kvelth had clearly been guilty in their minds. Thus the crowd had quickly taken to berating him with questions and accusations, which had even more quickly devolved into a wall of threats on his life. Beard had watched all of this in silent wonder, watching men he'd known all his short life throw their composure to the wayside to scream into the face of the one who'd betrayed their brotherhood. He would, several cycles later, be subject to this same wrath at his own trial.
Beard remembered well the faces of those around him, those of his father's warriors and the terrified face of Kvelth. There was one he remembered above all others, however, and not because of the anger and fear upon it, but rather the lack thereof. Beard had spotted Bledbuan as the warriors threatened their cruel brother, had stared at the smithe as he, too, watched the anger pour out of the others in the catacombs. Bledbuan had stood with his arms folded, his face composed, indecipherable. Then he'd turned his powerful gaze onto the young Beardling and nodded. Beard had nodded back, not knowing what else to do.
Before the enraged warriors could make good on any of their threats, the door to the deliberation room had flown open and the Grand Elder had led the lesser Elders back through the archway. As the Council of Thorgithe assembled, silence had crept into the vast catacombs so that only breathing could be heard among the warriors. The Elders were hooded, the lessers in their gray robes, the Grand Elder in his crimson. Only he had bared his head, his blind eyes opal in the torchlight of the dungeon.
"Kvelth, son of Kreg, son of Leveg," the Grand Elder spoke, "you have been deemed guilty of the murder of Volkt, son of Veryt, son of Klind."
"No!" Kvelth had screamed, his voice carried through the vast underground as an echo. "I had to! The trees! The voice told me! It warned me that war is coming to..."
"Silence!" the Grand Elder had roared. "As is customary in such tragic circumstances, you will be punished in the old ways. Your death will be slow, excruciating, and an example to all who would follow in your traitorous ways. Your name will be stricken from all Thorgithen records, your honor stripped, your place in Hunerheim most assuredly set."
"No!" Kvelth had said, his voice as defeated as his posture.
"Dethorith!" a warrior had screamed in response.
The Grand Elder had simply nodded, folded his crimson hood back over his head, and left the warriors to carry out the judgment.
"To the byre!" the same warrior yelled, his voice a siren of rage. Most others had yelled in agreement, their eager hands already prodding Kvelth toward the stairs that would lead them out of the catacombs. In a moment, the dungeon had been emptied of both Elder and warrior, all but Beard and Bledbuan, both of them staring at one another.
"You shouldn't be here, young master," the smithe had said.
"Is it true?" Beard had asked. "Did Kvelth slay Volkt?"
"You knew both well, being who you are, your father's son," Blæðbuan had replied. "But yea, I am inclined to believe the Elders' conclusion is an accurate one."
"How could he do that?"
"I'm also inclined to believe Kvelth's testimony," Blæðbuan continued. "The Eastwood is a terrible place, full of daemonry and fell magicks. It charms those who are easily led astray."
"The slaying..." Beard had asked. "How?"
"So full of questions, lad," the smithe had said, his voice warmer. "But I'm not sure if I should tell a child of so few cycles of such cruelty."
"I'd rather hear it from you than from a villager a moon from now."
"Well..." the smithe had said. "If you must know, it is said that Kvelth ambushed Volkt in the middle of the night. Both had been sleeping and... there were few Thorgithen in the vicinity, none truly saw what happened. Those who scrambled to Volkt's aid came upon a gruesome sight indeed."
"What did they find?"
"Do you really want to...?"
Bledbuan had sighed, but had continued nonetheless, knowing the son of King Bergrin the Knowing was destined to see just how tragic life could be. "They came upon Volkt’s body. It was... split open, the innards on the ground beside him. Then they saw Kvelth and what he held in his hand... and his mouth."
"Volkt was cannabalized," the smithe had said. Beard remembered this well. "Do you know what that means?"
Beard had nodded, his gaze distant and forlorn. After a moment, he’d spoken again. "I want to see the Dethorith."
"It's a gruesome penalty, Beard."
"I want to see it."
"Then go, but alone. I've seen a fair share of executions in my many cycles."
The young Beard had simply nodded, watching the smithe closely as the man trudged away, his breaths like a series of sighs. Then the boy had been alone, the catacombs seeming much grander in the wake of the Council and the multitude of warriors. Beard had peered upward to the zenith of the great black arch, a peak of some strange, overbearing mount. Then he'd run to catch up with the mob, following the beat of the marching.
By the time the Beardling had caught up to the crowd, the Bonecasters had already begun the ceremony. Several of them had shackled Kvelth's writhing body to the stone byre, the chains having been tempered by Bledbuan 's own mighty hammer. The man had screamed, his words devolving into drivel, a thick foam of spit coating his beard and neck as he was forced to lie upon the great slab of granite.
"...that we sacrifice he who has chosen to weaken the bond between his brothers...," one of the Bonecasters had said, laying his hands upon the head of the accused. He’d scrawled an ancient symbol upon the man's head in ash, the profane mark of Shoth the Oathbreaker. Then the speech was done and he who had possessed the Blade of Dethorith stepped forward.
"Father...," Beard had whispered to himself, watching King Bergrin look down upon Kvelth with pity in his heart. Pity but not mercy – such had been prevalent in the king's ice-rimmed eyes.
"Kvelth," Bergrin had said. "You have betrayed not only your country and your brothers, but your king as well."
"Bergrin, you misunderstand!" Kvelth had squawked. "The trees, sire! They spoke! They...!"
"And you listened!" Bergrin had roared in reply. "Speak not my name, for I no longer recognize you as one of my own. As such, you will not have my sympathy... nor my mercy."
Bergrin had raised the short blade so that all in attendance might see that incarnation of Thorgithen justice. The blade had shined in the new day's light, compelling those in attendance to recollect its legend: that this blade alone had ended the Low Wars of a generation ago, its edge having unwound the cycles of all who had met it in the throes of combat. It was a hungry sword and full of ill-omen.
"I deserve neither sympathy nor mercy, lord," Kvelth had said suddenly, seeming to have come back into sound mind. "I know what wrong I have done you and its degree. So, please, great king, slay me. I beg you, put an end to the voices that call me, that turn my thoughts against me."
"I grant you death, traitor," Bergrin had said, his face as hard as the granite byre, "but it will be a miserable one, I assure you. And you only have two dark pits to look forward to when all of this is done: Cōm-Labi for your body and Hunerheim for your soul."
"End it, Bergrin!" Kvelth had shouted, a line of tears having joined the pool of slobber around his mouth. "End my agony!"
Bergrin had brought the edge of the blade to the base of the man's ribcage, all in attendance watching closely as the king cleared his throat. The eyes of the warriors had locked onto Kvelth's twisted face; only Beard had stared at his father, his young eyes trained on the sliver of the king's face that had been visible from the boy's vantage point.
"Then I released your blackened soul to eternal damnation," Bergrin had said "and thereby cleanse the Inner World of your travesty of a life, as dishonorable as it was."
A moment of silence.
"He who was once called Kvelth is hereby no more," the king had muttered and then had pulled the Blade of Dethorith across the abdomen of the accused. Kvelth had not yet begun to scream before Bergrin had made another long cut, completing the wide X that would spill forth the dying man's innards.
The X hadn't seemed to exist for an instant before thick blood began to boil around the slits, manifesting the injury as if through magicks. Then the flesh had sagged and given way and Kvelth had begun to writhe again, his screams splitting the silence of the clearing between the Long Hall of Kgortel and the vast hunting grounds of Thorgithe. The man's organs had not spilled out of him, but erupted as his body had pitched upwards as though possessed. The crowd had watched as though mesmerized, each face drawn into a satisfied smile, all but those of Bergrin and his young son.
The Thorgithen king had cleaned the Blade of Dethorith with a long cloth, his eyes locked on the weapon and not the damage it’d done. To tell true, Bergrin didn't know how many such kills he’d performed over his long reign – enough to tire of them, surely. The young Beard had watched his father intently, waiting for the king to turn to him, to acknowledge his presence as had Bledbuan in those ancient catacombs beneath the ruins of Kgortel's keep. No such acknowledgement had been extended, however, for the king had been quick to take his leave, foregoing his usual speech of brotherhood in arms. His mind had been elsewhere – most likely on the preparations for Volkt's ritual of Sending.
Only when Bergrin had taken his leave had Beard turn his attention to the dying man upon the stone byre. Even as a boy of so few cycles, Beard had seen many gruesome sights. After all, had he not, at the behest of Brōg, accompanied his father to old battlegrounds where the Low Wars had transpired? Had there not been a field of bones there? And aimless souls who'd not yet found the Last Path? Had the smell there not been the gritty stench of decayed blood and stale death? Still, the execution of Kvelth had halted the boy's breath, had drawn his eyes and held them.
"The... trees," Kvelth had tried to say after his throat denied him any more screams. "...war." Then the coughing had begun and the convulsions that come to a dying body in its last few moments. The man had pitched upward one last time, his clanking shackles pulled taut as his abdomen spewed forth the rest of its contents. The stench had been acrid, much different than that of the killing fields of the Low Wars. Fresher, it seemed.
Then the man had fallen still, his mouth as agape as his glassy eyes.
The Beardling had looked down upon the man in disgust, not only for his fowl death, but for the even fowler deeds that’d lead him to the stone byre. He had killed his own... gods, was there a worse offense that that? Beard could think of only one: the slaying of one's own king. He'd pushed that dark thought from his mind and let his eyes follow the line of entrails that’d rolled from the body and off the edge of the byre.
"What in Hunerheim is that?" a warrior had asked, bringing all eyes to the dead man's freed stomach. Beard, too, had set his eyes upon the swollen organ as it began to pulse on the dirty snow of the forest floor. Then, like a hatching egg, the stomach had split open, running forth with bile and frothy digestive fluids. Beard had stepped back, his mind refusing to believe what his eyes were showing him.
Blood and Teeth. Volkt's, no doubt. Then those chunks of meat still within the ruptured organ? The crowd roared in anger and disgust, all present finally understanding just how wicked Kvelth had become in the bowels of the accursed Eastwood. The warriors had spit upon the corpse of the cannibal, some had thrown stones, others had simply cursed him, promising plans of further desecration after the carrion birds had finished picking apart his body. Beard had simply stared at the contents of that busted stomach, a feeling of emptiness pervading him. Never before had he felt the bloodrush of vengeance, but that day it was born inside him to be carried onward through trial and tribulation, of which Beard attracted like a corpse attracts meatflies.
For but a moment, the bowl of stew before Beard appeared as a ruptured stomach full of teeth and meat and frothy bile. Then the warrior's strange memory released him and he saw true once more, though the result be the same: before Beard sat a meal of human meat. Was he expected to eat this filth then? And why three bowls... and why in the nine hells was one already empty?
Anger exploded behind Beard's eyes, surging through his mighty arms, so that, in but an instant, he threw the table across the room in disgust, the bowls of vile stew overturning in the air, coating the wall in a thick chowder. The warrior turned away from the mess, deciding he'd had enough of this house. He pulled open the front door and stepped out into the new day, the once-prevalent silence beaten back by the jarring sound of chopping somewhere in the forest beyond.
Beard scanned the tree line before him, trying to locate the source of the noise. Clearly an ax was being used somewhere, but the island was vast, the air still – sound could carry for iles under such conditions. Undaunted, the warrior chose a direction and charged into the forest, letting his senses guide him as they’d done the day before when Beg had ambushed him and his men.
The man had already downed three trees, his wide ax splitting the fourth when the terrible pains began in his stomach. He felt the seeds cutting into his innards, feeding upon his blood, preparing to take root in the fertile earth beyond the stomach that had incubated them. Beg had felt these cramps many times in his long life and knew exactly what to do.
He dropped to his knees and heaved, feeling his stomach contract, pushing the plump seedlings up his esophagus and out of his mouth along with a pint of blood. The seeds landed in the soil before the man, shuddering, wanting to take root and grow. Beg obliged, covering the bloody seeds with an inch of dirt. He rose to his feet once more and took up his ax, waiting patiently for the next waves of cramps to begin.
The boy was propped up in bed, conscious but unable to move courtesy of the toxins of the red mushroom. How long had he been in this state, conscious of mind but not of body? How many moons? Cycles? As always, answers to such questions eluded him.
Unable to control his body, the boy had quickly learned to draw himself inward, ignoring the reality around him, the world he'd been disconnected from by his lunatic father. But was the man his father anymore? The boy no longer knew. His memories were fleeting things, fragile within the darkness of his thoughts. Still, he did possess memories from before this strange catatonia. He even had a few slivers of recollection from before they'd arrived on the isle, what the man had deemed "the Gate to the Merciful One." How many cycles had it been since they'd left Krytherion as a family, he and the ten others who'd come with the man on the promise of a better life? More questions with impossible answers...
The most vivid memory the boy possessed was of the day the man had dealt him this punishment, to remain conscious as his limbs atrophied, his body a cage of secrets. The boy could not deny he'd heard the voice of the Merciful One, had been drawn to that living hole in the center of his father's bedroom, had even given of his blood for the seeds that promised eternal youth. These had transpired with his father at his side. How joyous the man had been to find that his son, too, had been chosen by his lord to give and accept in the ritual of bloodletting. Perhaps that's why the boy had been spared thus far, why he'd been banished to his own darkness instead of that of the Great Beyond. After all, was the boy not the only one of them who'd believed the man, who'd followed his instruction, who'd reaped at the first harvest?
The boy could remember well that last day of freedom.
A long time ago, the boy had been chopping wood with one of his small hatchets, trying to remember what Krytherion had been like before his father had been called across the sea. That was around the time the others had begun to disappear – first his cousin Mik, then his aunt Zelda. Eventually the others would go missing as well, all but the boy and his father, but at that point, the child had not known why they were beginning to vanish.
He’d dropped the hatchet suddenly, nearly splitting his left shin in the process. A voice had spoken his name, low as if accompanying the wind. The boy had looked around, wondering if his cousin or aunt had called on him for help, but there was nobody there. The others had gone deep in the forest, even his grandfather as sickly as he was, to scavenge for food. A part of him had wanted to dash into the trees to look for them, to tell them of the voice that’d spoken to him, that’d frightened him to the core, but the forest held naught but mystery as well; such a flight would have been fruitless. So the boy had tipped his head back, closed his eyes, and listened.
"YOU..." the voice had said.
"Who is it?" the boy had asked anxiously. "Who's there?"
"COME TO ME, CHILD," the voice had replied. "AS YOUR FATHER HAS, SO SHALL YOU."
"You are my father's lord?"
"I AM YOUR FATHER’S EVERYTHING NOW," the voice had said, now within the boy's own mind.
"Why have you called upon him?"
"I AM A HUNGRY GOD," the voice had whispered. "AS HUNGRY AS YOUR FATHER."
"I don't understand," the boy had said.
"COME AND YOU WILL KNOW."
The boy had entered the house before he'd even known it'd happened. His body had been drawn, no longer requiring thought to perform actions. Is this what his father had felt? And on what grander level? For had the man not dragged his family across the Southern Sea to this place?
The boy had passed through the dining room and into the small room beyond where his father stored his medicinal herbs and various concoctions for mending injuries. With a will all its own, his hand had found a small notch in the thick wood on the far side of the room and pulled on it, opening a small door at the base of the wall. The boy had crawled through the darkness, the voice in his mind jibbering in a strange, guttural tongue. He’d seen the light right away, but for some reason had cowered away from it, preferring the darkness of the tunnel. But why?
Then the boy had come upon a room of strange design, a hallway of sorts that lead to a large room. This hall was lined with torches and a crude venting system that pulled the smoke from the room. Surrounding the hall were two other rooms, but their doors were closed and his body hadn't let him explore them. Instead, he’d trudged into the great room at the end of the hall where a bed sat in the corner and axe-heads lined the walls. The boy's eyes, though, had been drawn from these things and onto the living hole in the center of the room. He'd feared the thing since first sight, but still his body had approached it.
"YES, COME," the voice had said, much louder now. "ENTER MY REALM SO THAT I MAY SHARE MY SECRETS."
"I'm... afraid," the boy had groaned.
"ALL ARE AFRAID TO GAZE UPON THE MERCIFUL ONE," the voice had said with a laugh. "YOUR FATHER WAS AFRAID."
"How do I enter your...?"
"What are you doing here?!" a voice had said from behind the boy, startling him so that he fell to his knees. The living hole cackled at such prostration. The child had turned to meet the eyes of his father and the look of concern upon his weathered face. Then he'd spoken.
"The voice, father," the boy had said. "I heard it. It called me here."
For but a moment, his father's face had been indecipherable, but then he'd smiled and pulled the boy to his feet. Then they had embraced, a gesture the two hadn't shared since before leaving Krytherion.
"Finally, my son, you've heard the voice of the Merciful One!" his father had whispered, his eyes full of tears, his words blunted by emotion. "You have been chosen, my boy."
"For what, father?" the boy had said into the man's chest. "I'm scared."
"You have been chosen to receive the knowledge of..."
"BEG," the voice had roared.
"Yes, lord," the man had said, turning his son so that both were facing the undulating hole.
"THIS CHILD WILL GIVE OFFERING."
"Yes, lord," the man had said.
The boy had looked up into his father's wide eyes and said, "what do I do, father? What does it ask of me?"
"Peer into the well of darkness, Little One," his father had said, "I will do the rest."
That had been the first time his father had called him Little One, a name he’d come to fear for it was a cursed name, he was sure. Despite this, he’d done as his father had asked, even when his father had gouged his little forearm with an ax blade and wrung the blood into the living hole. Even after his father had fed him the seeds for the first time. He’d done this because he loved his father – still did, in fact, despite all that’d happened and for what was to come. Including...
The boy was pulled from his memories for just a moment. Movement, heavy footfalls in the dining room. A long pause and then a terrible crash. What was happening out there? Had help come? Was it Beard, the name he heard sometimes in the darkness? Then his cruel memories charmed him once again and he was forced to relive that last day of freedom.
The others had been gone for a week by then, leaving only the boy and his father without any food, for it’d all been eaten during their long stay. That was when Beg had begun talks of a harvest and a promise from the Merciful One. He'd told the boy the lord would provide food and drink for as long as they would feed it their lifeblood and accept the seeds. Merciful One, indeed.
That's when the boy had learned his father's dark secret, far darker than the living hole beneath his bedroom. That was when he'd learned where his family had gone and what he would have to do to satisfy hunger.
The man had brought the boy through the secret tunnel to the torch-lit hallway. He'd taken him not to the living hole to give a second offering, but one of the rooms therein. Beyond its the closed door he'd found his ten lost kin, frozen in time and perfectly preserved via the toxins of the red mushroom, another gift from the Merciful One.
Then his father had given him a hatchet and had asked him to make harvest... any of them he'd wanted.
The boy had chosen Mik, but he'd known not why. And then he'd...
The boy was quaking now, tears running down his frozen face. Why had he succumbed to such murderous temptation? Why had he raised that hatchet? Forty-one times for sixteen pieces... his father had to finish the job... and then Beg had told him what they were to do with them.
"We need our strength to give strength to the lord," his father had said.
The boy had refused. He’d struck his father, had screamed, had denied the Merciful One, had tried to escape from the island. And then his father had caught him and fed him the red mushroom and pleaded to the Merciful One on his behalf. And then his father had turned the rest of the family into stew...
The boy stopped. He didn't want to think anymore. No more memories. He just wanted out, off the island, back to Krytherion and his lost life.
Beard had tracked the noise of chopping deep into the forest, his keen ears eventually differentiating between true sound and its echoes. He was close now, so close he could hear breathing between the reports of metal being wedged into wood. He stalled his breathing and slowed his heartbeat to aid his ears. To this end, there was no doubt his target was just up ahead and that...
The chopping stopped so abruptly that Beard's mind confused it with its echo and almost stalked off his set course. The warrior paused to listen as a new sound made its way through the forest, a hoarse choking noise that made Beard narrow his eyes for it confirmed just how close he was to his target.
After a half-hundred paces, Beard found himself in a small clearing, the stumps of countless trees therein sitting dead upon the earth like so many corpses pulled from shallow graves. And on the other side of the clearing was the man who'd called himself a most peculiar name. Beg, was it?
"So you've come, Thorgithen," Beg asked. He was on his knees, doubled over in pain so that the tangle of his hair brushed the dirt before him. Then he wretched, bracing himself with both hands so he wouldn’t topple. Even at a distance of thirty paces, Beard could see that what the man spewed was blood, though he knew not whose, a thought that heated his own surge.
"I have," came the warrior's reply.
Beg took a moment to cover his mess with a layer of dirt before standing and turning to his acquaintance.
"Good," he said, clearing his throat. "I’ve been wanting to talk to you."
"About?" Beard asked. He was looking past Beg now, at the wide ax the man had buried into the trunk of a tall tree before his sickness had come upon him. Beg hadn't grabbed for the ax, but he also hadn't moved away from it. Beard turned his attention back to the man, wondering how long he would let the bastard talk before letting the Tattered Edge change the tone of the conversation.
"How is Krytherion?" Beg asked. "I haven't seen it in a wyrm's age. I used to live there, you see. In Southron, a mountain town called Al'Ravene."
"I've not seen Krytherion in many moons," Beard said.
"That's a shame," the man said. "I have many fond memories of life there... not that the island here isn't great." He chuckled. Beard was not amused.
"What about the Black Wall?" the man asked, his smile widening.
"What about it?" Beard retorted.
"Well, as strange as it seems, Turin's Wall is rather dear to me."
"Naught seems strange to me anymore," Beard said, "but why would such cursed construction be so dear to you?"
"I'd a hand in its creation," Beg said.
"You mean upkeep?" Beard asked.
"Upkeep? Hah! Such brilliant construction will never need upkeep, I assure you. Even before the mages came to fortify the stones, the Wall was impregnable," Beg said, his tone sharper.
"What you say seems unlikely for the wall was constructed hundreds of cycles ago."
"Has it been that long?" the man said with a laugh.
"Who are you?" The warrior's patience was wearing thin.
"I've told true, Thorgithen," the man replied after a moment. "My name is Beg and this is my isle."
"When did you come here from Krytherion?"
"You already know the answer to that one, I warrant. I brought my family here... what was it? Hundreds of cycles ago?"
"Enough foolishness," Beard barked.
Silence swept the clearing on a warm breeze that brought the scent of saltwater from the nearby sea.
"When I came to this island, there was nothing but a few hundred trees and..." the man paused. "And... how long do you suppose it took to build that house of mine, hm? How many cycles?"
"I care not."
"Of course you don't," Beg said crassly.
Beard scanned the trees around him for a moment before returning his eyes to those of the man opposite him. He spoke flatly. "Why do you only harvest lumber from trees such as that behind you?"
"Because the ironwood is the only I can harvest. I dare not take of the runewood. It is a gift, each planted by my hand, each seed given to me by..."
The man shot Beard a hard look and then finished. "The ironwood alone suits my needs."
"You mean to say that every runewood tree on this damned isle was planted by your hand?"
"Yes," the man said, "that's what I mean to say."
"What about your family?"
"What?" Beg asked.
"You said you brought your family here," Beard replied. "Did they not help you build your paradise?"
"They... they believed in the journey, but not the hard work at its end."
"And where are they now?"
Another silence, this one far more tense.
"They're about," Beg finally said.
"About... half-digested?" Beard replied with a smirk.
The look on the man's face was one of surprise and sudden anger. His hand moved a little closer to the handle of his ax.
"I don't know what you..."
"I'm sorry to say I couldn't eat of your stew this morning," Beard said. "The taste of hume doesn't do much for my appetite."
"Hm... so you know, eh?" Beg asked, a strange smirk growing on his own face.
"Where are my men?"
"You think me savage for eating my own, I warrant," the man blurted, "but you wouldn't understand!"
"About that we agree."
"The Merciful One sent you to me, you and your men," Beg said. "The lord sent me a harvest for we were growing hungry and needed sustenance. We needed to give offering, you see. The Merciful One saw fit to take away our hunger for a decade at a time, but we still needed to eat. For our mutual survival, you see."
"What do you mean 'we?'"
"My son and I, Thorgithen!" the man yelled. "He who will one day come back to his senses to follow in my footsteps. We will eat of the flesh of others as we have for so long for strength... strength of blood we offer to our lord. Together we will sustain the Merciful One as the Merciful One sustains us. The lord will give us seed and we will grow the seed into trees."
"You are mad," Beard spat, but was quickly interrupted by the man's zeal.
"I once cleared trees such as these on Krytherion, yes I did. I did so for Turin, to make way for his great wall. Then the forest called me, its mouth brought me here. Runewood trees, they are... roots from the netherealm. They gather, they will prevail over all who dwell on the Inner World. The Merciful One will lead them."
"Just like Kvelth..." Beard said.
"What was that, Thorgithen whelp?!" Beg screamed.
"I was just offering you passage to the Bone Gate," Beard said, manifesting the Tattered Edge into his waiting hand. "Free of charge of course."
"You have a razor-sharp sense of wit, I'll give you that," Beg said. "I'll also give you something that’s equally sharp!"
As quick as a bolt of lightning, the man withdrew two throwing hatchets from his belt and heaved them at full force. Beard was surprised to find that both went wide, far off into the trees. Yet Beg seemed sure of himself. Truly, he was mad.
The warrior heard the double-strike of the hatchets as they both caught trees somewhere deeper into the forest, raising his blade to show Beg how soon doom would befall him. But the man simply stared at Beard, laughing as jovially as a child eating a sweet, his lips pulled back in a mad smile of gray teeth. The warrior narrowed his gaze, his eyelashes framing the face of the man he would destroy for the benefit of all who inhabited the Inner World.
"Don't worry, Thorgithen," the man said with a chuckle. "I shan't be poisoning you with the sleeping salve this day."
Beard grunted, finally understanding what had cursed him the night before. When was such poison administered? Beard asked himself. And then he remembered the hatchet he'd caught. How could he have been so foolish? No matter, he'd flog himself later for now he had a job to do and the Tattered Edge was craved flesh and bone.
Suddenly, the air overhead was split by some unknown force. Magicks? No, such carried palpable weight with it. This was movement, almost undetectable. Were there others on the island then? Had the man lied about how much of his family he'd brought with him to be consumed in the name of madness?
Then truth hit the warrior in the form of a tall tree, one Beg had previously hacked away in preparation of ambush. So the wide hatchet toss had been enough to bring the whole tree down. The warrior was slammed to the ground, the full weight of the tree hitting him square in the shoulders. He groaned as pain exploded through his body, managing still to move his arms to ensure nothing was broken. That's when Beard remembered Beg had thrown two hatchets.
In an instant, the warrior rolled his body against the grain of the thick tree, bark tearing at his flesh as he did. He managed to get a leg underneath the tree and kicked upward with enough brute strength to knock it away from him. Beard pitched his body sideways, out of the clearing and into the tree line and just in time: the second tree crashed to the ground beside him, sending a plume of dust into his face. The warrior took a moment to wipe his eyes and catch his breath before climbing to his feet.
Beg was gone, the clearing empty and silent.
Beard stepped over the fallen trees and reclaimed the Tattered Edge, which had been knocked from him by Beg's clever trap. He tore off into the forest the way he'd come, listening for anything that would prompt direction. Beg's god might be the Merciful One, but Beard was looking forward to showing the man just how merciless a being could be.
The warrior's eyes scanned the trees before him, catching small clues as they went – a broken twig here, a fresh boot print there, stripped bark, the smell of sweat. His instincts extrapolated this information, guiding Beard along, the tip of the Tattered Edge a compass pointing to the destruction of yet another enemy.
Then the sword was held before the warrior's face, its unyielding edge deflecting two more hatchets that’d flown from the trees before him. He was on the right trail then. Beard pushed himself on, his muscles pulled taut, his shoulders aching, but unhindered by the blow from the falling tree. Another hatchet flew past him as he pressed on, the warrior sparing an eye to make sure the blade hadn't brought down another tree.
There was movement up ahead now, the rustling of bramble and the sound of boots kicking up foliage. Beard charged through patches of Solight, pushing aside branches as he went, his sword at the ready lest Beg decided to choose a more honorable form of combat rather than the guerrilla tactics of a coward. Then the warrior broke the tree line and was back in the great clearing with the house and its maker standing before it.
"Before I destroy you," Beard said. "Where are my men?"
"Awaiting consumption," Beg replied with a smile. "All but one, that is..." The man's laughter was grating, but it was his tone that enraged Beard.
"You would have had me eat one of my own?!" Beard screamed.
"Oh, you didn't like my stew?" Beg asked with mock hurt in his voice. "That's fine... though I'll say your friend's name wasn't apt in the least bit."
"What do you mean?"
"Fend... he did no such thing as my ax separated him." More cackling. Beard had heard enough.
The warrior charged the man, his keen eye watching the ax Beg held, his mind making the minute calculations it always made to ensure survival. The Tattered Edge split the air before the man, but caught nothing save the ironwood handle of the man's great ax. The blade was deflected, but the warrior spun with the blow, bringing it back for another struck. This one landed on the head of the ax, showering both men in blue sparks.
Beg landed a blow with the ax-handle, driving the warrior away from the house, though Beard was hardly affected. An instant later, steel was brought to steel, again and again and again. Both men fought from pools of energy held deep within, their bodies thrumming with it, their respective weapons filled with hunger for blood.
Then Beg heard his master calling.
The man lobbed the great ax into the air, catching Beard off-guard as the warrior's eyes followed it for but a second – that's all the time Beg needed to deliver a wild kick to Beard's sternum, sending the warrior reeling. Beard pitched himself up, dodging the head of the falling ax as it came to rest in the sodden ground before him. The warrior looked past the handle of the ax with narrowed eyes, noticing straight away that the man had retreated into the house.
The boy could hear someone coming, quick movements through the tunnel. Then he heard even quicker footfalls in the great hallway, running past his room. Someone was running to his father's bedroom and the living hole within.
Beard hurdled the handle of the ax and charged into the house, the Tattered Edge held before him as it always was when danger was afoot. He was in enemy territory, the house of another, one with intricacies he'd yet to explore. The warrior kept this in mind as he scanned the kitchen to his right and an open door to his left, which led into a room with several empty beds.
Sensing no signs of life therein, the warrior passed on to the dining room, ever mindful of any cunning traps that might be triggered by bad decisions. The large table was still overturned, the stew of Fend's remains congealing on the wooden slats that composed the innermost layer of the far wall. Beard quickly searched the room with his eyes, his body already moving to the opposite door.
In the hallway beyond, the warrior came upon the room where he'd last seen Fend. Beard remembered well how quickly Beg had worked with his salves and various concoctions... and how innocent the treatment had seemed. The warrior grunted and turned away from the room, almost deciding to try the stairs to the attic where he'd stayed the night before a scream stopped him.
His father was talking to the Merciful One again, though the boy couldn't decipher the words of either. The man sounded winded as though he'd run a great distance in a short time. Even worse, the Merciful One sounded happy in a sinister kind of way. Then the conversation had abruptly ended and all the boy could hear within the shell of his body was a sickening slurping noise... and crying. His father was crying, though it was muffled.
The boy was frightened, not for himself, but for his father. The man had become a monster over time, true, but the boy still remembered how warm Beg could be before the Merciful One had called him away from his life to do horrible, disgusting things. He remembered the face of his father as both that slurping noise and his father's crying intensified.
So, the boy fought. He fought the toxins and the bad memories of living on this isle and, most bravely, the voice of the Merciful One. He fought to move his body, to regain control, to free his voice. And that last he managed to do, forming a single word with his numb lips.
"Beard!" the boy screamed, hoping it wouldn't be the last to pass through his long-silenced mouth.
Beard had heard his name, that much he was sure of, and it’d been enough for him to reconsider the small room where Beg had brought Fend, but the warrior was still unsure of the origin of the scream. He stepped inside the room, ignoring the strange scents that wafted through it – some sweet, some bitter. The room was lit by a single torch, though there was enough light to see the contents of the cabinet at its far side. Many small bottles and vials lined the shelves there, some full of bright liquids, others of seeds, berries, and shrooms. Beard wanted to put a strong arm right through that damn cabinet and its contents, but he thought better: after all, who knew what kind of vile poisons and potions Beg kept locked up in those bottles.
The warrior took a cautious step to the center of the room, over the spot where the poisoned marauder had lain, and then paused. A strange sensation struck him there, a subtle change, but enough to draw his attention. A stream of cool air had brushed his leg, bringing pain to the small wounds he'd sustained as he'd charged through the forest. Yes, the air pressure changed slightly there, but why?
With his free hand, Beard tested the air, finding the direction of its flow. From there, the warrior followed the change of pressure to the far wall, to a spot just beside the cabinet of strange concoctions. Beard gave the vials and bottles a wide berth as he inspected the wall for the source of the cool air. He ran his hand over the thick slats of ironwood and over the seam between the wall and the floor. The architecture was impeccable, all except for a rather ghastly knot in the wood there, which offended the senses, both visual and tactile.
Beard ran his mighty hand over the large knot, his fingers cooled as they went. Then this was where the stagnant air of the room was broken. The warrior stooped before the wall and knocked the section above the knot; the sound was hollow like lonely footfalls before a sepulchre. A moment later, the same mighty hand was digging into the knot and pulling open the secret door in the wall.
"Clever bastard," Beard said to himself before cocking his head to the side to listen. A strange sucking noise came to him, muffled but rather close, even considering the acoustics of the house. Then the warrior knelt into the tunnel beyond the secret door, the Tattered Edge leading the way along the downward slope to the torchlight at the other end.
As Beard crawled through the darkness, the slurping grew more pronounced, bringing with it a feeling of heaviness like the very air of the house was thickening as before a lightning storm. He was underground now. Once out of the tunnel, the warrior pulled himself to his feet, taking in this new room slowly so that his eyes might adjust to the ample torchlight within.
The room opened into three others, two on the sides, both with their doors closed, and one ahead, from where the awful noise was emanating. Beard pressed himself against the wall to the right of the tunnel and crept along to the closed door, his heart a hammer in his broad chest. With an eye on the room at the end of the hall, he opened the door at his side, searching the room beyond for the bastard who'd brought hell to him and his men.
But his men were exactly what he found there.
"So here you are," Beard said to the marauders, all of them heaped upon the floor, unmoving. Beard took a wary step into the room to inspect the men, noticing that one was missing after a quick headcount. Fend... then it was true.
"Men..." Beard whispered hoarsely, but not one of them stirred. Quick as lightning, he pulled the closest marauder to the doorway so as not to be locked in the room with his men and inspected him. It was Crabs and though he appeared unconscious, his eyes were open and his body rigid. Poisoned, but not deathly so for the warrior could see a pulse in the man's neck. Then Beg had spiked that stew the marauders had so greedily devoured the night before. Beard couldn't help but wonder if its recipe had called for hume meat.
"I'll play your savior here," Beard told his crew, "but let this be a lesson to all of you about greed."
The warrior withdrew himself to the entryway, his eye back on the far room as he closed the door behind him. Again he pressed himself against the wall, this time creeping back to the tunnel, passing it, and coming to the door opposite the room with his men. As before, he opened this new door cautiously, peering inside before making any rash decisions.
This new room was lit by nothing more than a few candles, but Beard could see clearly the boy in the bed and the bandage that covered his small head. He approached the child cautiously, his sword at the ready lest a trap be waiting. He came to the boy's side and said...
The boy knew the brawny man who now stood at his side, but only from dreams. He was Beard, though the child knew not the source of such knowledge. The man was as blessed as he was cursed, but the boy didn't fear him.
"You too?" Beard had asked the boy.
Then he was a savior. Thank the gods... the real ones, anyway.
Beard shook his head in disgust, having long since grown tired of Beg's antics. For the warrior's injuries, the man would pay. For Fend and his paralyzed crew, the man would die. But for this child, the man's own son, Beg would be sent screaming to the heart of Hunerheim to suffer there forevermore.
Beard turned from the boy and left the room, pulling the door shut behind him. There was naught left but to confront the strange slurping sounds emanating from the far room. It was time.
So Beard came to the last room, peering in to approximate how much space he’d have should combat come upon him. Beard's eyes passed over a bed, drawn forth by the multitude of axes and hatchets that lined the walls. Beard could hear sobbing now, just barely audible under the wet slurping. The warrior took a deep breath and rushed into the room, the Tattered Edge as hungry as its master was angry.
Before Beard could deliver one of his pithy lines and cut Beg down, he was stopped by a gruesome sight. Beg was bent over the mouth of some fell beast, its maw like a pink undulating hole in the scant torchlight. The mouth folded around the man, all the way to his waist. Beg was swaying as the mouth pulsed around his body, a giant proboscis that indulged on his entire being. Despite this, the man spoke within the darkness of the maw, his lunacy knowing no bounds.
"I give myself to you, o Merciful One," the man said between sobs. "I give you my strength so that you may rise up and destroy our enemy. I make my ultimate sacrifice and offering so that you..."
His words were cut short by the jaws of the living hole, which twisted violently, tearing Beg's body in half. The man's legs fell to the floor with a dull thump, both twitching for a moment before coming to rest, one by the bed and the other beside Beard's left boot. Beg's top half disappeared into the maw of the beast with a series of crunches and slurping. The man hadn't screamed once as ruin fell upon him. Good riddance, Beard thought as he brought the Tattered Edge before him.
"THE FOOLISH MORTAL," the living hole said, Beg's blood gushing from its edge. "HE THOUGHT SUCH AS I WOULD GRANT FAVOR FOR OBEDIENCE? HE THOUGHT ME MERCIFUL? HE WAS NOTHING MORE THAN A VESSEL OF FOOD, AS ARE ALL MEN WHO COWER BEFORE ME."
The living hole rose from its place in the wooden floor, an undulating column of muscle leading to the great void within its mouth at the top. The hole turned itself to face Beard, its edges rippling like water in a pond, its smell as stale as death. Beg's fell lord cackled at the warrior and spoke once more, its tone proud and without fear.
"AND YOU, MANLING?" the Merciful One said. "WHAT DOES YOUR BLOOD TASTE LIKE? SHALL I SUSTAIN YOU? GIVE YOU CYCLES BEYOND YOUR SHORT LIFE, HM? SHALL I TAKE AWAY HUNGER AND THIRST SO THAT YOU ONLY NEED TO FEED ON OTHERS LIKE YOU EVERY TENTH OF A CENTURY? BEG THOUGHT THIS A REASONABLE OFFER. HOW ABOUT YOU? WILL YOU LET ME TAKE OF YOU? WILL YOU EAT THE SEED OF THE EASTWOOD AND SPREAD MY CHILDREN?"
"No deal," Beard said, rushing the hole with his blade raised high.
The mouth of the column sprang forward, its edge snapping shut like the mouth of a piranha. Beard dodged the bite, treating the twisting column to a hard blow from the hilt of his sword. The wall of pink muscle recoiled against the wall, the whole room creaking with the sudden impact. The warrior leapt into the air, splitting it with a mighty swing of his blade, looking to put an end to this monster who thought itself a god. But the creature was much too quick. It not only slithered away from the blade, but back into the floor, away from the hole there that the man had fashioned as its entrance.
"Two choices," Beard yelled in the wake of the retreating creature. "I can wait for you to come back up here or I can follow you down there. Each choice ends in your death, so I guess I'll choose for you."
The warrior placed himself at the edge of circle, peering down into the darkness. After a moment, he raised his blade and a boot over the hole, preparing to jump in after the monster. Just before he could make his descent, however, the thing rose to meet Beard once again, shooting upward through the floorboards, the ceiling, and the foundation of the house above, half of which toppled under the geyser of power that’d erupted beneath it.
"A god, huh?" the warrior said, after landing near the tree line as debris fell around him. "You look more like a sandworm to me... perhaps a tad bigger."
"YOU KNOW NOTHING OF MY POWER, PUNY MANLING!" the giant worm screamed.
"Then show me," Beard said defiantly, rising to his feet, his blade skyward and ready.
The towering worm wasted not a moment before thrusting itself at the warrior, the many black spines on its hide working in tandem to launch the great body across the clearing. Beard looked up at the worm as it raced to devour him, the majesty of Sol eclipsed for just an instant before the great mouth descended from the heavens to snag its meal. In the next instant, the warrior was side-stepping the giant maw, which struck the ground with a terrible crash that shook the whole island.
The worm had burrowed down half the length of its body before Beard could deliver a blow to its pulsing hide, the length of which easily cleared the treetops overhead. The warrior made two quick strikes with the Tattered Edge before the worm was completely underground. He'd seen the phantom X of his attack carved into the lightning-fast body of the wound, but was unsure if he'd done any real damage. Before he could ponder such a question, the ground opened up beneath him, the soil parting for the great maw below.
Beard was thrown skyward by the force of the worm ejecting itself from the ground, his blade nearly spinning away from him before he pulled it into his body, a thick stream of black smoke trailing in its wake. At the apex of his ascent, he twisted his body to the worm, bracing for a collision with the gaping maw just behind him. The warrior hit the edge of the mouth, grabbing onto its edge with the crook of his right elbow. Before another moment could pass, though, the hole closed around Beard's arm, the sudden pressure within the mouth threatening to shatter the collection of bones therein.
Beard roared in anger, manifesting the Tattered Edge from his hand within the worm's mouth. The blade struck out into the void within the maw, catching the undulating edge and forcing the worm to release the warrior's throbbing arm. Beard withdrew his sword as the creature roared back, pulling it inside his body only to manifest it from his chest, shooting it through the thick hide of the worm's lip. The worm shook violently, throwing the warrior from its mouth, another roar from each splitting the calm air above the forest.
Beard latched onto one of the many black spines on the worm's side, his teeth set, his eyes narrowed in anticipation. He brought his free hand against the hot flesh there and fired the Tattered Edge from his tight fist. The worm rolled, seeking to crush the warrior, but Beard climbed the spines, managing to stay atop the monster even as it whipped and thrashed. He manifested the sword in his hand once more and with all the power he could muster, Beard stabbed it downward through the thick hide of the worm.
The monster screeched and bucked, sending Beard tumbling down the long coil of its body. Unable to grab onto another spine, the warrior timed his impact and rolled to safety, his shoulders stiff with pain courtesy of the falling tree from his previous fight. The warrior pulled himself to his feet, turned to face the creature bearing down on him, and raised a fist to the hungry mouth hovering above him. That's when he noticed the hilt of the Tattered Edge, its blade still deep within the worm's hide.
Beard pitched himself sideways, the wide mouth of the monster barely missing his battered body. He delivered a quick uppercut to the creature's head before veering off back toward the house, the front of which was still standing. That bastard Beg kept dozens of axes in that place, Beard thought as he sprinted, they'll have to do until I can regain my blade. But the worm was a quick devil, its head crawling in a wide semicircle before the warrior's path. A moment later, Beard found himself in a canyon of spiny flesh and a coil that towered above him, threatening to crush and impale him as that damned mouth waited with predatory patience to devour whatever remains there might be.
Beard set his teeth and pushed himself into a full run, jumping at the closing wall of pink muscle, looking to bound up the spines of the worm with all the agility he could muster. But his enemy was too fast, too clever, for each time the warrior tried to scale the body, its mouth would strike at him, halting his advance. The worm was a cruel hunter, its hunger insatiable, its appetite infinite. Then it spoke.
"YOU HAVE LOST, MANLING," it said. "WHATEVER INJURIES YOU HAVE GIVEN ME WITH YOUR LAUGHABLE POKING STICK HAVE HEALED FOR MY STRENGTH IS GREAT AND LONG HAVE I FED ON THE BLOOD OF YOUR KIND. BEG WAS NOT THE FIRST, NOR WILL HE BE THE LAST."
The warrior stopped, peering up into the maw of the worm with narrowed eyes.
"DOES IT ENRAGE YOU, MANLING?" the worm said with a laugh. "DOES IT PAIN YOU TO SEE MY TRUE STRENGTH? TO KNOW THAT I WILL SOON DEVOUR ALL OF YOUR KIND? THAT MY CHILDREN HAVE ALREADY CLAIMED HALF OF THE INNER WORLD, THE LANDS OF THE NORTH IN KRYTHERON? THORGITHE WAS YOUR HOME, WAS IT NOT? HA HA HA! HOW FITTING I DESTROY YOU JUST AS MY OFFSPRING HAVE DESTROYED YOUR HOMELAND!"
"I'll be sure to give your kids your regards when I wipe them from the face of the world," Beard said with a growl, his mind working to form a strategy.
"LAUGHABLE, PUNY MANLING," the living hole said. "NOW FILL MY ENDLESS BELLY WITH YOUR BLOOD SO THAT I MAY JOIN MY CHILDREN IN THE TAKING OF THE INNER WORLD!"
The worm coiled its body upward, a great cyclone of undulating muscle. In an instant, Beard was being crushed by the creature as a coil serpent is wont to strangle its meal before consuming it. The warrior struggled against the tight body squeezing around him, the spines jabbing him, only his head visible as the mouth of the worm blotted out the tiny patch of blue sky Beard could still see. Then there was only the approaching darkness of the worm's gullet, the endless void that hungered for blood and flesh.
Beard didn't close his eyes as his destruction descended upon him as such was long ago beaten out of him for it was the way of the Thorgithen warrior to stare death straight in the eyes, even if he be immortal. After all, there exist fates worse than death and the warrior was gazing up into one such example. Still, he stood his ground, even as his head began to pound with a rush of blood and his body was stricken numb.
Because Beard was so vigilant, he was afforded a wondrous sight: suddenly the body of the worm was toppling sideways, its great body relaxed by an impact that the warrior felt deep within his numb body. Beard watched as the sky reappeared above him, his body collapsing to the ground once the coil of the worm was stripped away. As he came to rest, Beard scanned his surroundings, giving his body a moment to regain feeling, but saw nothing save the remains of the house. All was silent and still.
Beard breathed deeply and climbed to his feet. Once upright, the warrior looked around him, letting his instincts instruct his senses. His mind was surprisingly clear as he shook himself out of a daze, his body sore but competent once more. He licked his lips and arched his back, feeling each vertebrae respond with a satisfying crack. Then a new crack split the silence from the direction of the runewood forest.
Beard turned just in time to see the draconic face of Satrian Falx rise above the vast canopy of the trees. The worm was thrown skyward by the wyrmship, its body writhing in the light of Sol. Both came crashing to the ground beside the house, the warrior's legs nearly betraying him as the whole island quaked beneath him. There have been but a few times in Beard's life when he was so confounded by what was happening before him that he was unable move – this was such a time.
As the dumbfounded warrior watched beside what remained of the once proud house, the two great creatures battled for supremacy. Both roared and fought, the worm with its great mouth, Satrian with its claws and tail. One would attack, the other counter, one would charge, the other evade. All the while Beard could only watch as they clashed overhead.
Then the warrior felt a familiar tugging on every fiber within him as the hilt of the Tattered Edge came into view.
Beard took off for the worm, his eyes set on nothing else but his sword. Satrian landed a hard blow to the worm's midsection, sending it reeling as its many segmented muscles worked to regain its balance. The warrior saw his opportunity and leapt at the pulsing belly of the monster before him, his hands held outward in anticipation of catching one of its many black spines. He managed to grasp one, shifting his weight to counteract the swaying of the body beneath him. So there he clung to the side of the colossal worm, a voice breaking through the clarity of his thoughts.
"What in the nine hells are you doing, warrior?" Satrian said within Beard's mind.
"Partaking in a little revenge," Beard thought back. "Keep me covered."
"Such foolishness," the wyrmship replied. "Hurry up then. I'll not last much longer."
Beard climbed along the spines with the agility he wished he'd had when his thoughts had turned to the collection of axes in the remains of the house. The worm was far too consumed by the bigger battle to notice the warrior creeping along its hide like a lowly parasite. It bucked and wheeled, but Beard moved along with the body beneath him, climbing from spine to spine, ever closer to the Tattered Edge. Then, seeing that Beard was in prime position to reclaim the dark blade, Satrian took hold of the worm with its mighty claws.
Beard was afforded but a few precious seconds and wisely let none go to waste. Just as the worm was beginning to break free, the warrior reached for the hilt of the Tattered Edge, drawing it into his body before being thrown skyward once again by another powerful whip-crack of the creature's body. Even as he plummeted back to the ground, Beard watched well how the puncture wound in the worm's hide vanished without blood or scab. He grunted in frustration, still ignoring the patch of ground he was fast approaching.
Before the warrior slammed into the hard earth beside the house, Satrian slid beneath him, drawing him within its body as Beard had done with the blade. The warrior floated there within the extra-dimensional pocket that was the wyrmship's heart, Satrian cycling between wyrm-form and ship-form to keep Beard in such a state while remaining vigilant against attacks.
"How many lives do you owe me now, warrior?" the wyrmship asked.
"You've lost count already?"
"Funny," Satrian replied. "What's to be done? And hurry, this constant metamorphosis is draining me."
"Give me a moment to think," Beard said, his mind already working toward some hazy solution. The moment was afforded, though the worm had grown far more aggressive since the warrior and the wyrmship had become one; evading its frenzy was becoming difficult.
The boy was face-down on the ruined hardwood floor, his bed in pieces around him, the result of the worm first uprooting itself from the deep hole where it’d waited for untold cycles for the taste of human blood. He was conscious, but unable to move, his eyes half-open, his hearing muffled by the knot of bed sheets that'd gathered around his head. He was sweating profusely, his thick hair matted around the loose bandages that held his broken jaw together. Still, his attention was elsewhere, on the sounds of a tremendous battle raging overhead.
An image came to the child's mind just then, something he'd never before seen, but knew was important. It was a memory, one from the deep banks within the warrior called Beard. He knew not why such a mental connection had been established between his mind and that of Beard, but it was as real as the pain and torment he'd endured at the hands of the man he'd once called father.
The boy wrapped his thoughts around the image, holding onto it with all his being before sending it outward, pushing it beyond the boundaries of his young mind and into the grand aether that exists between all living things. There it sailed onward to its desired recipient, into the heart of the wyrmship and the mind of the waiting warrior.
"A LIVING CIRCLE CANNOT LIVE FOR LONG."
The memory of the Dark One's letter burst through Beard's mind like a wayward arrow. Instinctively, the warrior's mind went to the strange device he carried on his belt, the flashing cube of unknown origin, but such a misdirection of thought didn't seem right. Then Beard spoke to himself the post-script from the Dark One's letter, the very memory the boy had conjured within the warrior's mind. A living circle cannot live for long, Beard thought and then, after a moment of contemplation, realized what was to be done.
"Satrian," Beard said to his host.
"Have you decided an action, warrior?" the wyrmship responded with a tone of subtle desperation.
"I have," Beard said. "Manifest me from your tail, catapult me to that of the worm, and provide a brief distraction."
"As you say, warrior," Satrian said, "but know this might be your only chance at redemption for I grow weak, my cycles too many for such combat."
"Do as I say and your worry will be for naught," Beard said, already being drawn to the long tail of the wyrmship.
Satrian mustered what little energy it had left to deliver a powerful headbutt to the midsection of the worm, at the same time whipping its great tail at that of its enemy. In an instant, Beard materialized from the extra-dimensional riff within the wyrmship, his flight established by the momentum of the tail. The warrior manifested the Tattered Edge in midair, landing upon the tail of the worm, his mind clear of doubt, his hands ready to deliver a deathblow.
With the Dark One's riddle in mind, Beard turned his blade to the broad nub of the worm's tail and swung it in a wide arch, severing the tip. Before the wound could heal and even before the worm had noticed its newest injury, Beard withdrew the small satchel of salt from his belt and dumped it into the exposed tissue. The monstrous worm roared, pulling its attention away from the wyrmship and turning the gaping hole of its maw to the warrior. There Beard waited on the less vicious edge of the worm, his sword drawn back inside him, his demeanor calm, a grin set upon his hard face.
The injury took but a moment to heal, but it was as the warrior had hoped, for even though the severed tail had regenerated, the salt he'd crammed into it still forced his foe upon him. Beard watched as the wide mouth rocketed toward him, looking to devour the man whole. He made his crude calculations, crouching near the last spine of the tail as the living hole fast approached. Then, as the mouth was about to swallow him, Beard leapt into the air, rolling past the worm's maw as it enveloped its own tail.
Beard landed a dozen paces away from the writhing body of the worm, immediately turning back to watch as the living circle slowly consumed itself. The warrior had finally come to realize just how insatiable the worm's appetite really was, that when it began to consume something, it not only wouldn't stop feeding, but couldn't – this included its own body. So the worm cannibalized itself there in the vast clearing between the ruined house and the surrounding woods, its mouth slowly swallowing its body. Both the wyrm and the warrior watched in silence as the worm began to choke and sputter, its maw coming to the midsection of its body, pulling the circle tighter and tighter until the body split open from the tension. In but an instant, the great body of the worm had burst without spilling a drop of blood, its remains falling to the ground in one piece, a dead circle.
"Satrian!" Beard yelled. "To me and quickly."
The wyrmship did as ordered, its advance slowed by a severe limp and the heavy loss of scales on its left side. Beard ran to meet the wyrmship, wanting off the island and back to the calmness of the sea. Satrian stooped before the warrior, pulling him back into the extra-dimensional pocket within before Beard had even begun to climb its stout body.
"Hurry, now," Beard thought, the mental connection to the wyrmship at once reestablished, "to the others behind the house!"
"As you wish, warrior," was all the wyrmship said.
Satrian trudged around the front of the house, digging into what remained. The marauders were still there, all still frozen in time by the poison of the red mushroom. As quickly as it could, the wyrmship drew into the extra-dimensional space the unmoving marauders and turned to leave, but Beard halted it with sudden yell.
"Wait, Satrian!" the warrior yelled. "There's another, a boy beneath the rubble behind us. We need him."
The wyrmship sighed deeply and backtracked for the paralyzed boy. After digging through the remains of the house with tired claws, the child was found and joined the others within the body of the wyrmship. With that, Satrian Falx trudged through the thick forest to the sea, the wyrmship wanting to leave the cursed island as much as its master.
At last the sea opened before them and the wyrmship was able to metamorphose into ship-form, its body battered body becoming a battered ship. Then Satrian stopped, unable to cast off after sustaining such dire injury. There it rested, wanting nothing more to do with the wars of men.
After placing the marauders upon the worn bridge of the wyrmship, the boy had been placed in the captain's quarters, his body still stricken with paralysis, but his mind at ease after he'd gained knowledge of the worm's demise. He'd also learned of his father's cruel end, but had turned away from such thoughts, wanting nothing more to do with the cryptic and profane.
Beard had stood over the boy for a long while, his face set in silent contemplation. He'd looked into the half-lidded eyes of the boy, but hadn't spoken a single word. Then he'd left the child to rest for other matters were also on his mind.
Now as Sol was setting upon both wyrmship and island, the captain stood before his immobilized crew, wondering if they'd learned anything of greed and gluttony, wondering if he should bring them back or let them rot in their self-imposed cages. But Beard chose mercy over cruelty for he had a vast debt to repay the wyrmship. So there on the wide prow of the ship, Beard manifested the Tattered Edge for the last time that day and brought its blade down into the deck. Satrian shuddered beneath him, wanting to ask what Beard was doing. But the warrior had already begun.
"I gave to you my strength," Beard said as the blade bled his body of power. "Your wounds will be mine and you will be healed, thus my debt is repaid."
Thick tendrils of black smoke rose from the Tattered Edge as Beard spoke these words. His body trembled as the sword made good on its master's words, the power within him being transferred to the waiting wyrmship. In exchange, the warrior was sheathed in pain, the agony blinding, the torment too much.
Beard sat before the boy, his own eyes half-closed as a shallow sleep tugged at his mind. He felt drained, was drained, to speak in the literal, but wanted no sympathy from those he'd helped. Such is the way of a warrior of Thorgithe.
He held in his hand the strange cube left to him by the Dark One in a gift box he was supposed to find. Was it fate? Destiny? Prophecy? Beard had long since grown tired of pondering such notions. Still, the device was intriguing and he wished to learn more about it. It and the boy... should he ever awaken.
As that cryptic thought sailed through the blackness of Beard's mind, the door to his quarters swung open and a familiar form filled its frame. Then it spoke, Beard quickly returning the strange cube to its place in his waistbelt.
"Cap'n," the voice said. It was Crabs, his voice level and warm. "The men have all regained themselves and we've all concluded that it’s thanks to you. We know not how, but you saved us out there."
"It's... nothing," Beard strained to say.
"Nay," Crabs said with a smile, "for you see, cap'n..."
The marauder brought his hands before the warrior's glazed eyes.
"...my hand has been healed," the marauder said, his smile widening. "I guess I no longer have need for the name of Crabs, eh?"
Crabs laughed, the echo lonely in the bare room.
Beard said nothing, only stared into the face of the boy, his body thrumming with pains he didn’t know could exist. Crabs withdrew his hands and turned to leave, waving as he left.
"You get some rest, cap'n," he said at the door, "we await your orders whenever you're able."
Then he was gone and Beard was alone with his thoughts. In such solitude, the warrior's mind went back to those words that had so haunted him before the Isle of Beg had opened its secrets to him.
"Nothing can... change... what the heart... contains," he struggled to say and then was silent, his eyes on the boy, his face twisted in anguish made all the worse by the terrible wounds that now marred it, wounds he'd drawn from ship and crew alike, taken on as a sacrifice for the better of the whole.
Had Beard not been so withdrawn by wounds and troubled thoughts, he would've immediately recognized the sound growing within the vast forest of the island. A terrible drumming was rising in the night, first from one evil heart, then from a dozen, then from thousands. Then the trees began their march toward the docked wyrmship, each of their seedlings grown within the belly of a man once called Beg, who'd fed them with his own blood, who'd raised them on the order of his god, a man who'd long ago been drawn across the sea in the days of cruel Turin.