The Order of the Red Hand

by C.M. Galdre

The air was stale and heavy; it smelled of vomit, blood, sawdust and drink. Beard straddled the bench like a king riding his horse into battle, a mug of ale in one hand, his shield, the massive leg of a gossfowl cooked to crisp skin, his sword, in the other. He had come to the small mountain village of Himgal following the legend of a stone sword, keen, and if the legends were true, indestructible. It was rumored to be found at the heart of the sacred mountain which was the village’s namesake, Himgal, eyrie of the storm drakes. The drakes themselves were of no little interest to the young warrior either: despite his robust beard, his steel-hardened thews, and his knowing gaze, he was young and had yet to carve a name for himself in these strange lands.

The young warrior ate lustily as his keen ears listened for gossip and rumors that might aid him in his quest. So far, he had gleaned little information from the people of the area and it seemed the closer he got to the sword’s resting place, the less enthusiastic folks were about discussing it. The last person Beard had spoken to about the matter had nearly fainted away and when she had regained her composure, she’d bitten at her tongue and had spat at the earth and had thumbed her teeth at him, such were the silly ways that common folk warded off curses. Beard chuckled at this memory and was preparing to order another ale when a man burst into the room and promptly collapsed on the floor. This was not as much of a surprise as it might seem as most of the villagers arrived at the Stoat and Barley drunk from their own stills and only came in to order some beer which they insisted was for their constitution. However, this man was clad not as a villager, but as an adventurer.

On his legs were woolen breeches, cured sheep’s hide wrapped around his thighs with heavy cord. He wore a brigandine about his chest that had the look of recent action and on his back was an empty baldric. The sawdust beneath him was starting to clump with blood from an injury on the unprotected inside of his leg. The villagers ignored him and some took extra effort to pretend he didn’t exist... even the barkeep started to throw some sawdust over him when Beard set aside his empty mug and tossed the stripped gossfowl bone over his shoulder. The barkeep moved away as a dog would when in the presence of a wolf. Beard lifted the man bodily and threw him over his shoulder to gingerly carry the him out of the Stoat and Barley to a shelter he had cut from the woods on the edge of the village.

Beard was no churgeon but he could clean a wound and sew flesh together well enough. Besides, he didn’t want the man to finish bleeding to death before he could answer a few questions. So, after closing the wound with a bone needle and some sinew used for leather-working, Beard gave the man a small swig of the firebrand that he kept in a small flask in his bag. It was one of the few items that had survived his exile and escape from the North. The injured warrior sputtered and came to as the powerful drink reached his gullet. This was promptly followed by a heavy slap across the face from Beard.

“Banir!” the man sputtered. “What in the nine hells was that?” Beard grinned. Banir was a god of mercenaries and adventurers and thus this man was one of his profession if not his nationality. “That was firebrand,” Beard replied, looking the man over now that he’d gained some color in his face. He had a wild mane of blonde hair that surrounded a well-structured face and cool, green eyes. He also had a few days of stubble and a jaw that looked like it could take a few hits. “Let’s start with your name,” Beard said, clapping the man on the back heavily. The man was taking in his surroundings.

“Wothen,” the man replied, starting to understand the situation. While he was mended and unrestrained, he couldn’t help but notice he was also on the outskirts of the village with a man that looked like he could tear a bear in half. “Wothen Durgild,” he continued. Beard handed Wothen a water skin and some salted pork from his provisions. The man devoured them heartily before asking “And you are?”

Beard warmed his hands by the fire and spoke gruffly, “Beard, an adventurer such as yourself, and a man in need of answers.”

Wothen swallowed slowly, but the salted pork stuck in his throat and he coughed nervously before washing it down with another swig from the skin. “What kind of answers?” he asked, his voice settling down like startled birds returning to roost.

“How did you get your wound, for one. But I think I already know the answer to that. How you answer, however, determines how the next questions are asked,” Beard replied with a menacing grin. Wothen sighed as men do when they realize that nearly all of the paths they currently tread lead to swift death.

“Cultists. The damn mountain is lousy with them. I lost more than just some blood and my sword up there. I was traveling with a fellow mercenary, a woman named Braxia. I don’t know what they did with her, but when they came to grab me, I managed to slip my bonds and run like hell down the mountain. Bastards are keen with ranged weapons though. Took some kind of javelin to my leg and they started tracking me by blood. I managed to shake them long enough to bind it and then headed towards the village when I was attacked by a pack of feral dogs, they were attracted to the blood and tore the binding off. I bled all the way into the tavern,” the man finished and took another drink.

Beard raised his eyebrow and asked “and what were two mercenaries doing on a cult-infested mountain? There are no wars in the area and there is no one here of importance to hire as bodyguards. It would seem to be the last place a coinblade would be found, much less two of them.”

Beard had used the derogatory term for hireswords and nothing insults a mercenary more than calling one a “coinblade.” Wothen eyed Beard venomously.

“We were after the stone sword. Hireswords are a dime a dozen, but employers will pay extra if your blade has a name or even better if it has no name but a reputation, and, better still.. a legend,” he said.

Beards eyes lit up at the mentioning of the sword. “So did you see it?” he asked, masking his excitement as best he could.

Wothen sighed again. “Yes, we saw it, right before they captured me and dragged Braxia off. It was in a large central chamber with tunnels branching off in all directions. The ceiling was high and carved with grotesque imagery. The sword itself was on a central dais made of blood-red stone and the floor around it was stained. We approached it, but before we were even half way to the dais, the red-robed cultists came swarming in.”

Beard reflected on this before replying. “And why didn’t you attempt to save this Braxia? When they had dropped pursuit, you could have circled back and attempted a rescue. The wound in your leg is largely damage from the dogs. It looked to be a clean-cut prior to it being savaged -- it was a leg you could have done some fighting on.”

Wothen frowned. “I was fond of her as a traveling companion, but we both had plans to cut the other’s throat once the sword was in our grasp. There isn’t a legend about two swords on that mountain, just the one and we both couldn’t get fame from it. So I decided to cut my losses and pick up a few young men from the village full of swagger and looking to make a name for themselves and head back for the sword after I healed. I should be thankful: proud mountain men make far better fodder to aid my escape with the sword than a skilled mercenary like Braxia and easy to terminate should any make it out after me.”

Wothen went to take another drink from the skin, but found it hard to swallow as Beard’s fist was embedded so deep in his stomach he heard two ribs crack before he returned the salted pork and water he just drank.

“What did you do that for?” he managed to gasp before Beard’s solid kick to his chest sent him sprawling through the shelter wall and into the trunk of a tree a few feet away.

Wothen started crawling to get his feet under him when he felt Beard’s iron fingers close soundly round his throat, pinning him to the tree. His eyes rolled as the enraged warrior above him crouched down and tore the sinew stitches from his wound like he was pulling lace from a boot. “Wretch! I don’t aid traitors!” Beard growled, “Nor do I let others be betrayed by them.” Beard knew true treachery and had no taste for it. He drew a burning stick that had been scattered from the fire in the fray from the ground beside him and blew on it to form a hot ember. With it, he drew the rune Shoth upon Wothen’s head -- Shoth the Oath-Breaker, Shoth, the mark of a traitor. Beard stood then over the weeping man and kicked dirt into his face before gathering his things and heading into the mountains, towards Himgal where he hoped his destiny lie.

Beard lay like a tiger waiting to spring, every muscle in his body both relaxed and tense, his body perfectly at ease and yet ready to strike at any moment. For three days, he had watched the mountain, took notes of the comings and goings of the various red-robed cultists. He had watched for their secret doors and waited for the perfect opportunity to sneak in. He had confirmed that, each day one of the burlier cultists would come out the door over which Beard was perched, laden with a cart of heavy bags that he would dispose of in a whirlpool formed by the mountain river that men of the mountain called the Bonepool. Any animal unfortunate enough to fall into its swirling waters would be sucked down to drown only to have their bones dislodged in the heavy meltwaters of spring.

Beard slowed his breathing, his ear pressed against the stone outcrop above the hidden door. There, he could hear the footsteps in the hall beyond and the squeak of cartwheels. Beard tensed as the thick head and shoulders of the cultist appeared below him. With the speed of a viper’s strike, Beard uncoiled from his roost, his left hand securing the cultists head while his right drove a dagger through his spine. His feet still holding the rocky outcrop, Beard pulled the heavy cultist up and behind the boulders above the door like a spider reeling in its prey. He donned the red robes which did not show the blood they had been soaked in and leapt down to the door. His curiosity piqued, he unfurled one of the bags upon the cart and his eyes filled with fire from the scene.

The cart was laden with corpses of women, pale maidens from all over the land judging from their looks, their bodies torn open and completely drained of blood. Beard rolled the cart to small rocky basin and filled it with whatever dry bracken and grass he could find on the mount. Then he struck fire beneath the ivory bodies. Better burned away with clean fire on a makeshift pyre than to left to the elements or caught swirling in a pool till spring. The smoke rising behind him, Beard entered the tunnel with eyes filled with hate.

The tunnel was long and dark, its sides carved with geometric precision. Such was not the work of this age’s men, but of some men or creatures of old. The entire mountain seemed to be honeycombed, but there was some inherent malice that seemed to be at the heart of the mountain. Beard’s instincts told him that this would be where the central chamber -- and the ancient stone sword -- would be found.

The warrior walked the corridors with arrogant confidence. From what he had observed the cultists had no close relations, calling each other “blood brother” with only their gaze to determine to whom they spoke. As such, he would hardly be noticed among them. The whole mountain smelled of iron and hot lighting, no doubt in part to the storm drakes that roosted at the summit. The iron smell was not clean like raw ore, however, for it had the bittersweet tang of sweat and fear. Amidst the sound of robes shuffling hurriedly down open corridors, there was the sound of an iron door being opened and the shriek of a woman in terror. Beard abandoned his path straight to the central hall, bounding down the side tunnel from whence he heard the scream.

This tunnel was unlike the others, rough hewn and without any other halls adjoining. There was, of course, also the desperate claw marks upon the walls made by delicate bloodied fingers to show that the hallway was not only a recent addition, but well-used. Beard hastened his pace, his soft-booted footfalls barely making a noise as he padded down the hallway. At the end of this hall there was a rough, heavy wooden door which had been left slightly ajar. Beard approached it noiselessly, dagger poised in his left hand as he slowly opened the door with his right and slipped through.

There was a flight of stairs on the other side, spiraling down a single turn where it opened up to a long, low-ceilinged room. It was dark and dank there, the air smelling familiar. Since his flight from the North, Beard had found his way into a few dungeon cells and there was no mistaking the smell of misery and human captivity. The warrior stalked down the rows of cells like a panther, his steely thews rippling beneath the red robes. He did not walk like a cultist, but as a personification of a swift, flashing death.

The sound of a woman whimpering echoed softly towards him as he approached a cell with its door ajar. Pressing himself against the wall, separating the open cell from the closed, empty one next to it, the young warrior peered slowly around the corner. Beard’s eyes narrowed as he saw a cultist bearing down upon the lithe figure of a woman hanging limply from shackles bolted to the wall. She had a handsome face, though it was bruised and wet with tears. Her hair was as dark as coawood and her muscles spoke of swordwork. She had been stripped bare and the cultist was making clear what his intent was for the woman when Beard shot through the door quick as a cobra and plunged his dagger into the man’s back with such a force that it burst his ribcage as its point, shattering his sternum from behind. The warrior than lifted him bodily off the floor and, with a shift of his feet and twist his hips and shoulders, Beard flung the rapidly expiring cultist at the cell door where the man’s head passed through the gap in the bars, crushing his skull and expelling his brains upon the outer corridor wall.

The light began to return to the woman’s wet eyes as Beard discarded his red robe and set to work at the shackles.

“My name is Braxia,” the woman rasped, her voice raw from screaming. Beard grunted in recognition, but continued his work. He found a smooth piece of hardened stone in the corner of the cell and, with all his might, struck at the bolt in the banded metal around her ankle. He did not crush her foot and she did not flinch at his effort for the man had a presence and a control that told her he never missed a mark with any weapon he used. The bolt shattered under the force and Beard quickly set to the other ankle, releasing it quickly as well. The arm bonds around the woman’s delicate but functional wrists were too small and kept chipping the stone, so Beard struck at the link of chain connecting the bands to the wall. This was quicker work and soon the woman was free. Braxia wasted no time donning the red robe the warrior had left upon the floor and tore out its hems to form ties which she used to wrap a simple undergarment and tie the robe more snugly to her body, allowing her a better fighting form. With a deft flick of her wrists, she wound the chains around her hands and forearms to form heavy chain gauntlets.

After punching the air the few times to get a feel for their weight, she nodded to the warrior to signal she was ready to leave. Beard could see why Wothen was more worried about fighting this woman than any number of unskilled men: since releasing her from the wall, she had transformed swiftly into her mercenary form.

“We need to understand one thing before we continue,” Beard stated, his massive form blocking the door. “The sword is mine. It is why I came here and it is a small price for your release. I assume you have no objections.”

Another nod from the woman and the two were off down the corridor, checking cells to see if there were any other prisoners. There were none, though there were grim bones in a few cells. It appeared that Braxia was the last living woman in the mountain. The two warriors raced in single-file down the rough hewn hall and back into the main complex, turning left as they reached the ancient stones of the near-perfect tunnel and headed towards the main chamber.

Beard pounded down what he sincerely hoped was the last leg of the hall. They had encountered few to bar their way, but they had left a few bodies behind them and the warrior was sure the cultists would soon realize what was going on. Braxia had proven herself quite an adept fighter with her improvised chain weapons. At times, she kept them wound round her fists, braining her foes with swift strikes. At other times, she let them hang loose and swung them like deadly iron whips, causing even battle-hardened Beard to stare in awe as he saw a cultist’s head twist round and snap at the neck from the whistling deadly strikes. He would need her strength now as up ahead of them was a group of five cultists with long javelins barring entrance to the grand hall, their eyes dangerous and full of lust for blood.

The first threw his javelin at Beard with deadly accuracy and a lesser man would have fallen to it, but Beard had been brought up fighting since he could stand. He twisted deftly aside and caught it by the shaft, twisting round again and tossing it back with double the strength. The javelin cut through the air in a blur and caught its owner in the gut, disemboweling him as it continued its journey right through him and into the floor behind. He died grasping desperately at his spilling guts. The other four braced for impact, their blades held out in formation before them as if they were being run down by a man on horse. At the last second, Beard dove beneath the blades into an acrobatic roll. As he came out with his feet beneath him and low to the ground, he sprang with arms held wide at his sides. The unfortunate cultist to the right took Beard’s dagger full in the hip, right in the soft flesh between leg and joint. The one to the left received an iron-hard fist to the gut, bowing him over as Beard dislodged his blade in a spurt of blood from the other. In a swift motion, Beard brought his thick leg up in a sweeping kick and brought his heel down hard on the bowed cultist’s neck, killing him instantly. While Beard was dispatching his two cultists, the remaining two had turned their heads in a knee-jerk reaction to seeing their comrades killed with blinding speed. It was their last mistake as Braxia used the opportunity to sweep the javelin blades aside with one whip while bringing the other swiftly across their faces. The initial impact killed the first, but softened the blow for the second, though he was duly wounded and, as he began to regain his vision, the last thing he saw was a chained fist bearing down swiftly into his swollen face.

Their enemies slain, the two warriors assessed the room. It was as Wothen described, a cavernous room with strange carvings on the ceilings and tunnels running off in every direction. The carvings that had been described as grotesque depicted great battles between men mounted on wild creatures long forgotten, mixes between bat, lion and scorpion, and another force which appeared to be mounted on the fabled storm drakes. In another situation, Beard would have liked very much to study the carvings for they had similar ones on stones in the North and if one knew how to read them, he could learn a great deal from them. There was another carving, too, at the base of the relief, easy to miss as it appeared to be a border, but a trained eye saw it had both an end and a beginning. It depicted a serpentine creature of considerable hideousness with a face like a starved horse and teeth like a thousand needles. It appeared to be devouring the dead on the field. Beard shuddered at the idea that such a thing might once have existed and turned his mind to more pleasant things.

Braxia was already heading towards the dais, her eyes full of lust and her body covered in sweat from the flight and subsequent fight in the hall. Her hand stretched out over the blade and was about to grasp it by the hilt when Beard appeared beside her. Swift as a clouded leopard, he had run out to her side and stayed her hand before it touched the blade. He remembered the girls drained of blood and had noticed the red hands of the cultists that held weapons just as he saw now the stains upon the floor from blood old and red and fresh.

Beneath the dais was a small alcove within which was a silver vessel filled to the brim with bright red blood and Beard saw that the hilt of the blade was coated and stained with the marks of red hands grasping its hilt. This troubled Beard for there seemed to be some trick to use of the blade and a consequence if handled incorrectly. The two warriors heard footsteps coming down several passages and made for one that sounded silent, but Beard broke off suddenly and ran towards one of the fallen bodies and, in quick work, tore the heart out from the dead man and ran to the dais, squeezing the blood from it into the silver vessel. Then he tossed the empty organ to its corpse and ran to join Braxia in the shadows just as a group of fifteen cultists entered the hall from various tunnels.

The robed figures swiftly converged on the dais and then noticed the bodies of their brothers on the floor. There was one among them who had a slightly different robe, one hemmed with gold, and wore a circlet of black metal around his cowl. As the others inspected the bodies and then ran to raise the alarm, he bathed his hands in the blood of the silver bowl and laid his hands upon the stone sword.

He lifted it freely and without consequence and then called out into the hall. “Come forth fools! I know that you are hiding and soon this hall will be swarmed with my brethren. Come and face me now and you have a better chance at your escape!”

Beard, never one to back down from a challenge, strode forth into the hall, his body language confident, proud, and without fear. The robed man drew back his cowl and revealed a hideous face that appeared as if it had been scorched by a wicked fire at some point for his skin was shiny as a snake’s and there were strings of healed flesh that formed over his misshapen mouth. He swung the sword wildly as he ran to meet Beard. He swung at the warrior with hacking slashes of surprising strength and speed, but Beard was always a step ahead, dodging and moving around him. With each miss the stone blade struck the floor and a horrible squelching sound filled the hall. Beard circled round the wild cultist till he could see the man’s fallen comrades behind him and then dodged the blade yet again. This time, as it struck the floor he saw the body of the cultists whose blood he added to the bowl convulse and become marred. Beard knew then the true nature of the sword: it was ensorceled with some wicked magick of sympathy. The blade was unbreakable as long as it had blood upon it and the damage dealt to it would be transferred to the owner of the blood. Beard imagined that if no blood was made available the blade would make due with the flesh contact of a hand and deal the damage to the wielder. Such is the nature of weapons of vile sorcery.

The nature of the blade revealed, Beard formulated a plan of action. With lighting speed, he threw his dagger at the crazed man and caught him in the leg. The wound was not lethal and the man howled in triumph as the grim warrior he was facing no longer had a means to strike him down or deflect his blows. With reckless abandon, he now struck out at Beard who tumbled out of the way his hand grazing the floor where the crazed mans blood had fallen. He crouched then and waited for the man to strike him down. As the heavy stone blade came down, Beard brought his hands up and stopped the man’s hands. Turning the sword to the side, he tried to break the man’s grip, but as he expected, the blade seemed to feed the cultist supernatural strength and so Beard gambled and wiped the blood from his fingers upon the blade before dashing away and out of the biting blade’s reach.

The burned face of the man became furious and wild at the thought of being nearly disarmed and grew more cautious though his strikes were still wild and full of strength. This time, though, when Beard dodged a powerful downward stroke and the blade sank deeply into the floor and the squelching noise came from the beneath, the cultist’s robes as his back erupted with blood as if he had been slashed by a heavy blade. The man howled in pain and Beard set to swift action, picking up his fallen dagger. He went on the assault not striking at the man, but at the stone blade with each strike causing a fresh new wound upon the man until he was little more than a gurgling pile of bloody pulp. It was then, with a scream, Braxia came running into the hall with men in red robes close on her heels. Swiftly she came to Beard’s side and the two of them began to frantically look for an exit for there were far too many men to fight in their current state and they were both loath to use the cursed blade. Nevertheless, Beard picked it up and they ran for the only door that was not currently brimming with cultists.

As they were about to cross into the only empty hall, they heard a desperate plea from behind them: “Do not cross the threshold with the blade! You know not what you do!” There was true fear in the man’s voice and the robed masses halted.

Beard and the woman spun round and he bellowed back “and what will you do to us if we don’t cross into this hall?”

There was an uneasy murmur and bloodlust in many of the mens’ eyes, but nonetheless the voice from before called back. “We will let you go.”

Beard laughed a hearty laugh and shouted back “not likely!” and then ran across the threshold with Braxia on his heels. Behind them suddenly came the sound of hundreds of screams and the sound of scales against stone and the very mountain seemed to shake. Beard chanced a glance as they reached what looked to be a long steep stair heading to the summit of the mountain. What he saw gave wings to his feet for the room they had left behind was stained in crimson and gore and, behind them, slithering down the hall was a massive serpentine creature that bore a strong resemblance to the one carved in stone on the ceiling of the hall, made more horrific by its albino body and milk-white blinded eyes stained and smeared with red blood and bloody offal dripping from its needled maw.

The two warriors made haste up the steep stairs and held fast as the stones shook as the great creature struck head-first into the stair base. The creature shook its head briefly before slithering up after them, slower now as it had to coil its body and press against the opposite walls to keep its massive bulk from sliding down the steep incline. Braxia’s breath was ragged and she began to look pale. Even mighty Beard was showing signs of fatigue, but his iron constitution was greater than hers and he grabbed her by a flailing arm and dragged her along.

Soon they found themselves at a platform between the bottom set of stairs and a narrower steeper set of stairs that headed even higher. What’s more, it seemed that the creature was reluctant to follow them to that point and had wedged itself like a pit viper in the hall some thirty feet below, its head bobbing side to side, hoping that they might collapse and slide down into its waiting jaws. The two adventurers took a breather for a moment and saw that, on either side of the platform, was a statue of a storm drake looking down the stair and the smell of lighting was stronger now than in any other part of the complex. Beard imagined what lay ahead and the prospect of facing a storm drake now was less appealing knowing that he could not, in good conscience, use the stone blade against them. But it was not as if they had an alternative. With grim determination, Beard and Braxia mounted the final set of stairs.

It didn’t take them long to clamor up the final stretch of stairs. Before them stood an ancient wooden door well preserved for its appearance and all around it was the thick dust of ages which had only been disturbed now by the feet of the two warriors panting before it. Beard wished he had stolen one of the cultist’s weapons and held the stone sword behind him. Whatever he met beyond the door he would meet with his fist and not risk using the blade. So the two slowly pushed the door open and found themselves in a grand room with a temple-arched ceiling and rows of pillars all around. It was well lit for in all directions there seemed to be exits to the side of the mountain and the two adventurers could see why.

The hall was filled with the roosting nests of storm drakes. They clung to the high pillars and slept in their broad stone nests. There were places by each nest that held pegs, some with the dangling remains of what may have been harnesses, and all around were fountains and food troughs clogged and green with algae or filled with the kill of the day. Beard could envision it now: a race of people that took to the sky on the backs of storm drakes from their mountain halls with sorcerous swords and lighting breath they would have been a force to behold. All that remained of them now though was a mountain full of cultists, a single sword, and a feral colony of drakes.

The two adventurers were about to make a swift but silent exit through one of the less inhabited areas in the hall, but just as they moved to leave a fight broke out between two large horned males. Their spat woke the other drakes in the deadly roost. After an initial spat of biting and clawing and rolling around, the two massive creatures faced each other and began to circle. Their bellies and chests glowed with the white-hot plasma, swelling and churning in their eternal glands. As they growled he light of pulsing white hot death emanated from their bulging throats. A roaring grew among the crowd of drakes that had gathered around the combatants and the two loosed their deadly breath. The bolts of hot plasma met between them and a bursting shower of sparks erupted where they met. The great beasts dug their massive claws into the stone beneath their feet and struggled to overcome the others sparking beam. The stones between the two combatants began to melt to slag as arcing bolts branched off from the battling currents and struck the floor around.

The stray bolts worked their way around the drakes watching, as if they emitted some type of ground that prevented the searing bolts from hurting them. The combatants and drake spectators were in no real danger, this was more of an arm wrestling match than a dangerous fight. However, the crackling air began to lose its oxygen and the smoke rising from the stones caused Braxia to go into a fit of wracking coughs. The battle stopped as suddenly as it began and all reptilian eyes turned to Beard and Braxia caught awestruck mid-retreat the two of them coughing in the thin, electrified air. Braxia began to lose consciousness, Beard having been viciously trained his entire youth to survive high altitudes and with a general lack of air, was struggling but alert.

Beard had little choice but to place the blade between him and the woman and braced for what would surely be his greatest and last fight in his short career. Beard silently hoped Braxia was a fine story teller, for if he could get her out of this, she would have a fine tale to tell; the end of Beard of Thorgithe. However, the drakes’ attitude changed at once when the blade was drawn. Many bowed their heads and averted their eyes as some genetic understanding bred into them came bubbling to the surface from a long dormancy. One of the fighting males then approached Beard and lowered his neck to him as a well-trained horse will lower to a rider to aid in their ascent.

Beard hesitated, but only for a moment before grabbing hold of Braxia’s hand and, with a deft swing of his leg, he was mounted above the thing’s wings behind its great neck where he hauled the woman up to sit behind him. He felt then the sword give off a sort of humming sound and Beard felt his mind invaded by images of the mountain from the air, fresh kills, the sight of foolish little cultists running around, and a memory that spanned ages: the creatures mind had become connected to his own.

As most boys do with a new toy, Beard tested its capability. He imagined a white-hot bolt of plasma shooting out and turning a stone pillar to slag and was delighted to see that moments later there was a molten pile of stone where a pillar once stood. He then envisioned the air outside and a swift flight down the mountain.

The beginning of the flight had been rather unpleasant, the loping gate of the drake as it picked up speed, the undulating bones beneath the scaly hide as it took to the air, but now that the drake was gliding softly towards the village, it was quite a pleasant way to travel. The stone sword in Beard’s right hand hummed the whole way and the warrior soon realized why as he began to feel drained of all energy. The sword was feeding off of him and generating a kind of sympathetic tone with the drake, allowing Beard to control it. The young warrior could only imagine the fortitude of the races of old to fly into battle with such blades, draining their strength until they could take first blood and the constant risk of them being turned against their wielder. Truly it had been a savage age.

Beard had the drake touch down quietly out of sight of the village and dropped Braxia off. She had made a few insinuations as to her intent of rewarding the warrior once they had found an inn, but Beard turned her down as he still had business on the mountain. “Blood debts before brunettes” Beards fathers voice echoed within his mind as he watched Braxia walk away. Never had the decision to recklessly pursue vengeance been more difficult for the young warrior. A grim smile upon his face, Beard flew towards the mountain, ensorceled blade in hand and breath of white lighting at his disposal.

The warrior found the mountain in complete disarray, the death of the Red Hand’s leader and the unleashing of the white nightmare within its halls had the mountain swarming with robes of red running out of every entrance. Beard didn’t know how he could strike at such a force when an image of the past formed in his mind. Then he understood with great awe the true power of the stone blade and entered into a dive towards the nearest entrance pouring out cultists. With the energy swiftly draining from his body, he hurled the blade with all his might towards the door, imagining a bolt of plasma connecting with it as it struck the stone and the whole mountain igniting in electric fury. He heard the bolt swell in the drake’s chest and felt the heat between his thighs as it gathered in its throat, but the strain of sword use was too great on him and he fainted and fell off the creature just as the bolt was unleashed and the air was filled with the smell of charred flesh and molten stone.

The air was stale and heavy, it smelled of sweet hay and mountain flowers, but they were only used to cover the floor and mask the smell of the reeking poultice that Beard found upon his chest. He appeared to be stripped naked with a thin blanket across his loins and one arm in a makeshift splint.

The poultice cracked and fell away as he sat up and took in his surroundings. He had somehow made it into an inn. There was a fire crackling in the fireplace which smelled as if it may have been brewing the poultice material. A set of red robes was laid over a chair and Braxia lay naked by his side. He recognized then the materials used and the familiar smells of a fever-reducer and antiseptic poultice that his mother had once used on him as a child.

This mercenary woman had not only found him in the woods, but had been good enough to treat his ills and use her body to warm him when neither could afford a blanket. Beard rotated a ring on his left hand, visible only to himself, and the room was filled with the pleasant scent of a past lover. Then he laid back down beneath the sheet and waited patiently for Braxia to awaken. In the distance, Mount Himgal burned, the air riddled with storm drakes cleansing the mountain with their deadly breath.

This article is my 12th oldest. It is 6783 words long