by F. Charles Murdock
“Two rooks in flight, one black and one white, each striving to dominate the other with might. But keen eye and keen beak bring swift victory to the strongest of them with clear strategy.” -Rhyme of the Rook
Nearly a half-moon -- twelve days, by Beard’s reckoning -- had passed since the warrior had seen any signs of civilization. Braxia had been the last person he’d seen, but since they’d parted ways, he’d found she hadn’t occupied many thoughts. Even now his mind flashed with images of the ravenous creatures of Himgal and the treacherous wights of the TottenMarsh.
Wuthweirgen’s omen and father’s prophecy might have merit after all, he told himself. That those savage behemoths were suddenly appearing meant dark days ahead. The Eastwood’s army, he thought to himself, Brog, the undead, and the Dark One... what is to befall Krytherion?
Beard had taken route south into the badlands of central Southron, his brother-wolf, Ierremod, having left a few days after Braxia, his keen nose drawing him back to the Northlands... something about “strange scents and a new presence.” They’d spoken of a great many things, but most importantly of how Beard was to return to Thorgithe. Though counterintuitive, the warrior had decided to head not north, but farther south into Deep Southron, to one of the many port-towns there on its coast. There he would take passage on a ship to the Northlands: it was quicker than questing back north.
For now, the warrior walked alone, his pack light, his pace conservative, the grave injuries he’d come by in that fell land of Aguras -- many of which should have sent him reeling straight into the heart of the Great Beyond -- beginning to heal. Even fresh scars were starting to fade. There is no understanding the magicks of the feyrealm, Beard would often remark when his thoughts turned inward.
Now the warrior walked with renewed confidence, carrying with him two days worth of rations, though he hadn’t needed to take of them: game was plentiful in this region and, thus, his belly was always full. There’d been not a single lake or stream, but the storms of the region kept his waterskin equally filled. Even sleep came easy, the Tattered Edge always at his side lest he be ambushed in the night by outlanders.
He knew not where his path was leading him, but that he was to keep moving if sense was to be made of the changes coming to the Inner World. Then something caught his eye a few iles to the south, pulling him out of his weary thoughts. A town, rather small by the looks of it, was rising on the horizon.
Even at middle-day, the small township looked dark and menacing. A column of smoke was rising from its center, but Beard could not yet discern whether it issued from a furnace or a blaze. To be true, the place appeared abandoned, though the warrior was well aware how looks could be deceiving.
The three iles to the desolate township were cautious ones, the warrior employing the full wealth of his stealthful abilities as he approached. He had readied his weapon, but hadn’t yet shown its face to the day lest his coming seem hostile. After all, Beard knew well that intimidation had its place on the field of battle, but that the best of warriors were subtle with even that. Thus he went with reservation, though his body was poised for a quick strike like the Great Syrpents of old.
The plain was without sound just then, not even the wind stirred as the town rose before Beard. He saw immediately the gate enclosing the town, its make of thick iron bars, perhaps to deter raiders looking for an easy target. Beyond the gate were a mill and several silos followed by the town proper -- a place for forty or fifty perhaps.
Croppers, Beard thought as he spied the tilled land to the west of the enclosure. And it appears they’ve already made harvest for the cycle. Then those silos should be full. Beard paused for a moment to better observe the land. Or perhaps they’ve yet to even start planting, he continued, for the fields look untended. How strange.
Beard approached the gate, a feeling of unease pervading his thoughts though he knew not why. After all, croppers were not known for their prowess in battle. Most probably hadn’t even seen a long blade but in lesson books. A shame, really, as hoes and plows make terrible weapons and a gate of even the most resilient iron can be penetrated. Beard remembered well how he’d traversed the Black Wall of Turin and then returned his mind to this new wall before him.
There the column of black smoke rose high above him like a black whirlwind frozen in time or, perhaps, the warning that comes before the land spews magma. Either way, it spelled quiet disaster. Again the warrior’s instincts warned him of some unseen danger, a warning he heeded well. At the gate, Beard peered down the path leading into the heart of the town. As he’d long suspected, the street was abandoned, leaving not a voice or footfall to be heard. The uneasiness in the warrior’s belly flared as his eyes set on something to the side of the path, a small mound that recalled the corpse of Ceolas the Cold, his other brother-wolf, slain by the terrible Isenshrike of legend. Despite all the alarms blaring within him, this was the thing that drew Beard into the town. As the warrior attempted to cross the gate, however, a strong force repelled him, some impassible, unseen magick.
“What demonry contains this place?” Beard whispered. The warrior raised a hand to the open gate, his palm flattening against an unseen wall there. With contact made, Beard watched as black ripples coursed through the air before him, warping his view of the town. As he withdrew his hand, the rippling died out and the effect of the warping ceased.
“Seems to be a spell which binds shadow and light into a solid force,” Beard remarked. “How queer.”
“Perhaps all this gate needs is a key,” Beard said, unveiling the face of the Tattered Edge. The warrior flung the naked sword skyward, its blade pointing to the majesty of Sol. Beard crouched as the Tattered Edge climbed, making his barbaric calculations. His mind at ease, his body prepared, the warrior launched himself after the blade, trailing its ascension like a wayward shadow. A moment later its handle was in his hands and he delivered unto the unseen wall a mighty cleave that stirred trees and parted clouds for an ile.
Suddenly, Beard was overtaken by the sound of heat static. He turned his eyes to the tip of his sword in time to see the unseen wall unravel in flashes of black and light. The atmosphere seemed to collapse around the town as the influence of the unseen force faded to nothing, the spell broken by the brawn of an exile and his deadly blade. As quickly as the Tattered Edge had been revealed, it was returned to its shroud to rest on the warrior’s shoulder once more.
As the dust settled, Beard mad his way into the town, the powerful magick that had once repelled him quickly forgotten.
Though that strange mound drew him steadily onward through the town, Beard’s instincts were still in control. The warrior treaded lightly, his keen eyes scanning the silos and houses surrounding him, his mind searching for the danger he felt in his bones. The air yielded the scent of freshly laid soil and the stench of ruin, though neither could be seen. Still no noise pricked Beard’s waiting ears, the sound of the dying magick having tainted the pervasive silence.
As Beard took the modest dirt path through the town, his feet yearned for the cobblestones of Thorgithe. How he so desired to return to his kingdom, to reclaim it from the denizens that so arrogantly trampled its sanctity, not to mention those ancient monsters that even now stalked its streets. He would make his return in time, yes, but the crown still seemed such a heavy load to bear. Would he be ready regardless?
So Beard came to the heart of the town, a great circle of houses that seemed to loom over him as those Elders of Thorgithe had upon his banishment. The black smoke he’d spied at the outskirts of the town was billowing from the chimney of the tallest house, its fire appearing to have been maintained over the course of several days. The architecture was strange, the houses meeting at skewed angles, their height all but uniform. The town had been constructed hastily, but long ago, perhaps by those croppers who’d been forced south by the strangleweed of the Eastwood. But the town now looked just as deserted as that damned living forest -- had its habitants been pushed farther on? And, if so, by what?
Then the warrior spied what had been a shapeless mound to his once faraway eyes. Now Beard could clearly see its shape and stooped to grab it from a muddy puddle. How strange it was to find a child’s toy in a place such as this.
Though Beard had never owned one as a child, he knew an osa when he saw one. Children of all nations and regions seemed to carry these little bears in their youth -- even the Thorgithen, though the children of the North were more inclined to play with actual bear cubs. Still, that some child had dropped such a treasured possession meant that the retreat had been hasty, perhaps during the night.
The warrior’s mind flashed with something just then -- some disjointed memory demanding the full of his attention. Beard denied the rogue recollection, but not before his mind had caught the look of those dead eyes. They were familiar, ever-present among the dark thoughts that slithered just below the pool of sane ones. Then he knew and rage overtook him.
Ceolas the Cold... why had his face come to haunt the warrior in this place? Had Beard not mourned his brother-wolf’s death enough? Would his soul ever be sated? (Then again, Beard had come upon the wolf’s husk and nothing more -- the real essence of Ceolas had been lost... or, perhaps, taken from his dying body).
Then Beard understood.
What he’d thought was an osa upon stooping was actually a stuffed toy dire-wolf. He turned it in his hands, taking notice of all the rips and the mucky softcrop spilling forth like filthy innards. Beard had to wonder if he was cursed, that if some influence of fate had decreed that his torment be cyclical, his memories to be continually bombarded with images of all he’d ever lost.
Even as these muddled thoughts passed through the warrior’s mind, Beard was still able to evade the projectiles that sought to crush his skull. Three large stones whizzed by his head before Beard’s eyes were able to find the assailants. A man and a woman had appeared in the attic window of one of the houses, their arms cradling more stones to belay the warrior. A moment later, several dozen more men and women joined the attack, seeking to stone the warrior to death by strength of numbers.
Though the sky above the town became choked with the hurtled stones, the warrior nimbly dodged the assault until the very last rock settled at his feet. Only then did Beard raise the Tattered Edge into the air, though it remained shrouded. He held it steady, eyeing each of the men and women, noting the lack of fear in their eyes. That they could mount such an attack without slipping into frenzy meant tragedy had recently visited the little town. But in what form? “Halt, outlander!” a yell came from overhead. Beard shifted his eyes to the speaker, a stout man with an unkempt, black beard -- truth be told, he could pass as a distant relative of Bledbuan, the great smithe of Thorgithe. The warrior nodded at the man, who’d stepped out onto the flimsy scaffolding serving as a balcony beyond his attic window. The man was silent for a moment, his eyes measuring the warrior below.
“Whether you be friend or foe, be gone,” the man said.
“Despite your warm welcome, I mean none of you harm,” Beard said. “I’m only passing through to Deep Southron.”
“We’ve precautions to take, stranger,” the man yelled, “lest we be caught off guard again.”
“Of what do you speak, gaffer?” Beard asked the man.
“The name’s Dolan,” the man said. “Dolan fon Kōstof.”
“Then this be Kōstof?”
“It is,” Dolan said. “And you... what name have you, outlander?”
“Such a name suits me as any other,” Beard said, lowering his blade.
“Then Outlander be thy name,” Dolan said. “Now what business have you here?”
“None,” Beard replied, “but it was damn hard to enter this place, I should say.”
The men and women of Kōstof glared at each other, their stern looks eroding into those of subtle confusion. Only Dolan’s eyes were stilled, the man content in challenging the glare of the one called Outlander.
“The magick at the gate...” a woman shrieked from a rooftop to Beard’s left. “You felled it?” Beard nodded almost imperceptibly.
“How?” someone else asked.
Beard began to raise the Tattered Edge as his mouth formed an answer, but a barrage of questions from the townsfolk halted him much like their countless stones had just a moment before. The warrior stilled his tongue, ignoring the banter as he had that of the death-dealer, Crūce fon Brambell.
“Then we are free to leave!” someone rejoiced.
“To the children!” another shouted. “Somebody please think of the children!”
“Assemble, people of Kōstof!” Dolan yelled above his neighbors. His thunderous voice brought silence back into the plaza. Before he could continue, however, the man disappeared into the attic behind him, his lonely footfalls echoing throughout the town. A moment later, he was level with Beard, the heavy deadbolt of his front door having been undone with eager hands.
“We venture to reclaim the young and now!” Dolan yelled as he made his way to the warrior. At once, the attics were emptied, the townspeople filing into the plaza from their houses. Now Beard could see just how drab the people looked, as though the many grays of the town had bled the color from its inhabitants as well. Their clothes in tatters, their eyes sunken and tired, the townsfolk of Kōstof assembled behind their leader and waited.
“Continue along the alley to find your way south, Outlander,” Dolan said, his eyes still locked on Beard’s. “The magick shall have been severed there as well.”
Beard nodded and made his way through the crowd, the townspeople parting to let him though. As he went, the warrior could hear their subdued breathing, could see the slack in their postures: these people had come to know terrible tragedy, this much was easy to see, but more apparent was the fact that these croppers knew not how to regroup after such. Then again, all this was made naught by Beard’s unwillingness to care in light of what was taking place elsewhere -- Thorgithe needed to be reclaimed from treachery, both old and new.
“Please!” a young woman pleaded grasping Beard’s forearm to stop him. “This Outlander could help us.”
Beard turned to the woman, her cold hand drawing his eyes. She was turned away from the warrior, however, her attention devoted to the plea she’d given the gaffer.
“Still your tongue, Jena” a man said behind her.
“Alkom is right, Jena,” Dolan said. “This is not the Outlander’s problem.”
“But... I want my baby,” she said, her voice losing its edge. “I want Dyrven back!”
“Jena, we want him back as well,” a rather large woman said beside Dolan. “We want them all back, but do your eyes not see what trusting a stranger has done to us already?”
The woman, Jena, now on the brink of tears, turned to Beard, her pleas devolving into whimpering. The warrior looked into her eyes, past the ring of earthen green, and saw the desperation and fear consuming her. His heart felt a pang just then, his thoughts unsure of where to guide him. Yet the people of Kōstof were right -- their problem was theirs alone.
“Please,” she whispered to him, her slender hand tightening around his bulging forearm. “Please bring my Dyrven back.”
Without a word, Beard turned away from the woman and her ilk and continued down the lane, leaving behind the disheartened people. For a moment, all that could be heard was the shroud of the Tattered Edge rustling in a sudden mad wind, but this was soon joined by angry protests -- Jena by the sounds of it.
“How is a disheveled gaggle of croppers supposed to mount anything against the daemon that took our babies?!” she screamed. “Four nights have passed since the Dark Wanderer stole them away and locked us in our town like beasts of burden. Four nights have come and gone since I’ve last seen my boy. He’s out there still, cold and hungry and scared! Will none help him? Will none bring him home?” “We’re all cold and hungry and scared!” a young man yelled back. “We’re all as childless as you, Jena! How can we expect an outlander to aid us and, what’s more, how could we even trust him after all that’s transpired these last few terrible days?”
“Please, good people of Kōstof,” Dolan interjected, his hands raised to calm their angry spirits, “we will do as we can to return our stolen young, but bickering among ourselves is no way to...” “Where did this daemon go with your children?” Beard asked at Jena’s side. The crowd hadn’t noticed the warrior slipping back so that, when he spoke, the eyes that turned to meet him were wide with wonder. The warrior waited as the townsfolk composed themselves before turning his eyes to Dolan.
“Did you not understand, Outlander?” Alkom asked, the contempt in his voice punctuated by his sharp inflection. “This is not a problem you need be concerned about. We can handle ourselves.” “Clearly,” Beard said. “Just look how well you all did when this... Dark Wanderer... came for your children. Tell me -- Alkom, was it? -- what did you do to stop it from happening?”
“Me?” Alkom said. “Well... I...”
“You were thrown across the plaza by a toddler,” Jena said.
“Stifle yourself, Jena!” Alkom said before stomping away. “That was no mere toddler, not anymore! Why, he possessed the strength of all of us combined!”
“And then you began to weep and... relieve yourself,” the young woman continued. There was no retort this time as Alkom had shut himself up in his house, making sure to relay just how angered he was by slamming the door behind him. Nobody seemed sad to see him gone.
“Jena, that was unnecessary,” Dolan said. The gaffer gave the woman a stern look and then turned his attention back to the warrior. “Why do you ask about the Dark Wanderer, Outlander?”
“My people -- like most good people of Krytherion -- have struggled to contain the daemon populace,” Beard said. “If one is stalking the plains and attacking villages such as yours, I would do well to stop the threat now before others come.”
“You would help us?” Dolan asked, his voice peppered with suspicion.
“Yes,” Beard said, “but on my own conditions.”
“I will lead a party of four, a strong number, but not overbearing on the trail,” the warrior said. “Send those who are able, but not your best -- they should stay behind to guard your ravished town. Meanwhile, the others should tend the land lest the harvest be missed this cycle.”
“Your words are wise, Outlander, I grant you that,” Dolan said, “but as we’ve told you, we cannot place our trust and hope into the hands of one unknown to us.”
“Then do as you will,” Beard said. “I’m off to slay your Dark Wanderer, though it be a shame none of you would be there to bring your children home.”
“You wouldn’t return them of your own accord?” a timid woman asked.
“Why should I?” the warrior retorted. “I’m just an outlander, after all, one not to be trusted.”
The warrior passed by Dolan, heading back up the path to the front gate.
“Oh, but if I do find your youth -- and they still happen to be drawing breath -- I’ll be sure to explain why their parents did nothing to save them.”
“Such arrogance!” a man yelled, his fist raised at Beard.
“Wait now!” Jena interrupted. “The Outlander has offered his help. This stranger has come into our town and offered to save our children. Does that mean nothing?”
“We have no reason to trust him,” Dolan said.
“Yet no reason not to,” Jena retorted. The woman approached the stout man and took his worn hands in her. Beard watched curiously as she kissed them. Dolan sighed, shifting his eyes from hers.
“Father, please,” Jena said, “the Outlander is our only hope against that monster.”
“Jena, I...” Dolan said, his voice wavering for the first time since Beard had heard him speak. “I have to think of the welfare of the whole town. Its people and...”
“Dolan!” someone called from behind the crowd. “Alkom had returned, his demeanor far more reserved then when he’d taken his leave. “Perhaps the Outlander could earn the trust we require.” “I’m not a coinsword,” Beard said indignantly, “and I don’t run errands for belligerent cowards.” Alkom shut his mouth and stepped away from the crowd.
“Yes,” Dolan said, “Alkom’s idea is a grand one.”
“Hear me well, gaffer,” the warrior said, “I don’t play run-around for...“
“This task isn’t for our benefit, Outlander,” Dolan interrupted. “You’ve said you wish to be done with daemon populace... were you true in saying so?”
“Then you will revel in destroying the daemons we’ve managed to seal in one of the silos over yonder,” Dolan said, turning to point a finger in the direction of the crop silos Beard had passed after dispelling the gate. The warrior scanned them with distant eyes, the weight of his blade intensifying, his body aching to destroy the evil that had laid waste to the small cropping town. Beard turned his eyes back to Dolan and nodded.
“So be it,” the warrior said. “I’ll clean up your mess. If you are then convinced, we will away to slay this Dark Wanderer, but shall do so under my conditions.”
Dolan looked around at his fellow townsfolk and, not seeing any protest, nodded back at the one he called Outlander. “Agreed.”
“Then I suggest you and your ilk make haste to wherever is safest,” Beard said. “As you say,” Dolan replied. He let his daughter’s small hands fall away and then signaled the townspeople to return to their homes. Surprisingly, they all complied, not one of them stopping to protest as they emptied the plaza. Even Alkom was silent, though he shot the warrior a sideways glance before closing his door behind him.
Dolan and Jena had remained behind, both of them staring into the warrior’s eyes, though what they were looking for was not apparent. Only then could Beard see their familial connection -- their similar facial features, the way they carried themselves. These were good, but naïve people blindsided by the grim and hard reality that the Thorgithen were taught as a fundamental truth from birth: the world is a cold, dead place.
“You are to take leave as well,” Beard told the pair.
“We will,” Dolan said.
“But not before we tell you what awaits within silo #2,” Jena said.
“Go on,” Beard said.
“Look to the ground and tell me what you see, Outlander,” Dolan said.
Beard did as told, his keen eyes trying to make sense of the gaffer’s riddle. He first caught sight of that damn toy wolf, but quickly dismissed it before the mangled body of Ceolas the Cold flooded his thoughts. He scanned the path around them, his eyes moving quickly, but it wasn’t until he looked at his own feet that he noticed an anomaly.
“You both lack shadows,” the warrior said, watching his own sway as the breeze brushed past his battlewear.
“They betrayed us on the night the children left us,” Jena said.
“We had to fight them back,” Dolan said in a somber tone. “It took all we had to seal them in that silo, so if you aren’t up to keeping your word to destroy them, you best leave now because once you let those damn shades out, there’s no capturing them again. Our fate is in your hands.”
“You said this task wasn’t about you,” Beard said, raising his eyes to the stout man.
“If our destruction is meant to come, it will,” Dolan said, “but Jena is right in saying you’re our best hope.”
“Leave now,” Beard said.
“Words spoken to you only moments ago,” Dolan said. “Such a funny thing, fate.”
“I don’t find it funny,” Beard said sternly, raising the Tattered Edge skyward.
“Either way, best of luck, Outlander,” Dolan said before making his way back to his house. “May the gods be with you,” Jena said and joined her father.
“How I wish it were so,” Beard whispered, longing to see the face of his wolf-mother once more. He turned his thoughts from the face of that wolf as well, shifting them to silo with the number two painted in white upon its side, the Tattered Edge seeming to warm in his hands. How eager it was for destruction... as eager as he, Beard supposed.
With the townspeople shut inside their homes, silence returned to Kōstof. Beard scanned the houses, as he had upon his arrival, and then took to the muddy path back to the northern face of the town. Unlike before, though, the silos there appeared ominous, the news of what awaited within tainting the warrior’s perception of them.
Beard’s footfalls to the second silo were heavy: stealth no longer mattered, only preparation for the coming battle. The warrior flexed the vast network of muscles covering his body, loosening them so they might be that much more ready to bring doom to the heads of his enemies. He swung the Tattered Edge in great arcs around him, its weight by then second nature to the warrior. This was an important relationship and fundamental tenant to a Thorgithen warrior’s training: one should be as much a part of his weapon as his weapon is to him.
Then silo number two was before him, its girth easily eclipsing the majesty of Sol above. There the warrior waited in its awesome shadow, his thoughts drawn back to the grave look on Dolan’s face as he’d explained what awaited Beard in such an innocent place. Only there, before the tall door of the silo, did Beard bare the face of the Tattered Edge, its shroud wound about its handle for greater traction. There he stood poised, the blade raised, his eyes narrowed on the door, his hand itching to unleash the hell within.
The instant Beard touched the mammoth slide-bolt that locked the door in place, the silo began to quake. Its sides began to swell outward, the sound of twisting metal splitting the silence. The door bulged toward Beard, either as a staunch warning to the warrior or a plea to be exorcised of the evil dwelling within. A moment later, the silo was still again, though its appearance had been made all the more sinister by what had just transpired.
“You done yet?” Beard said with resolve.
The warrior laid a hand on the bolt once again and slid it from the door frame. As the door swung open, Beard leapt back, allowing himself ample room for slaughter. He assumed a battle stance, the Tattered Edge held with both hands, the blade poised to strike at the warrior’s side. But after all this preparation, nothing stirred beyond the threshold of the silo door.
Beard chuckled at this. That whatever dwelt within the darkness was foolish enough to believe that a warrior of Thorgithe wouldn’t go into absolute blackness for a kill was as a joke to Beard. He dropped out of his battle stance, his eyes narrowed on the stretched rectangle of dim Solight on the floor of the silo. Still chuckling, he strode to the door, his demeanor nonchalant as his broad silhouette grew within that splotch of light on the ground.
The air became heavy with the scent of decay. Undeterred by the stench, the warrior took a step into the impossible darkness, his eyes slowly adjusting to blindness. Then he was inside, the light of Sol behind him, his quick senses deciphering the secrets of the darkness.
Beard closed his eyes, preferring the blackness there to the void infesting the silo. He listened intently, paying close attention to the prickling of his flesh for it would be that sensation that would aid him most in dispatching the unseen fiends lurking about. At that, both his ears and flesh began to buzz, both immediately aware of sudden movement from behind. As a metallic clash rang throughout the silo, Beard knew what had happened even before his body had spun around and his eyes were open again: the silo had been tightly closed, the path to the outside world at once severed. Now there was only this realm of darkness and danger.
Whereas a normal man would’ve fast taken to whimpering and fits of panic, Beard stood resolute even as his senses told him danger was approaching. As heavy as the air had been before the world had been lost to the warrior, it seemed to thicken as Beard raised the Tattered Edge in anticipation of combat. Claustrophobia was trying it damnedest to bore through the warrior’s focused mind, the walls seeming to grow closer as though the whole silo were imploding.
Beard took labored breaths as they came, trying to keep his body alert despite the burning for want of relief in his lungs. A metallic pang and the echo of chatter drew the warrior’s attention upward where something was watching him as a murder of reapercrows is wont to glare at their next meal from the top of cemetery gates. Yes, the silo was choked with the smell of death indeed. But the warrior didn’t much feel like joining their ranks this day, so when he swung his blade at the approaching darkness, the sneer on his face was wide with delight.
As sure as the warrior had been with his attack, the blade met nothing but the dirt floor of the silo. Beard quickly recoiled, preparing the Tattered Edge for the onslaught of his enemies. As he set himself for another swing of the heavy blade, he could hear the wild chatter closing in on him and knew he was correct in thinking these fiends an opportunistic drove. This was the last thought he had before the full brunt of the looming darkness met him in battle.
Before he could deliver another blind strike, Beard’s arms were pulled behind him, his torso subjected to a barrage of blows from the cowardly army. Pain flared up along his flesh, reminding him of old wounds that’d yet to heal. But the warrior managed to plant his blade into the ground before the collective might of his unseen foes brought him off his feet. From the moment his broad body hit the ground, it was overrun by a crawling pressure that threatened to crush and maim.
Beard, not one to enjoy being uprooted, offered a barrage of his own, throwing his arms and legs at wherever the pressure on his body was most severe. Some of these blows connected, but the impact felt like breaking the surface of a pool of water: whatever these daemons were, they didn’t seem to be wholly part of the physical realm. This didn’t matter to Beard, of course, as he’d already marked the bastards as enemies and thus, as a warrior of Thorgithe, would hunt them down until his final breath ushered him to the Great Beyond.
Despite the onslaught, Beard managed to fight his way to a crouch, the darkness like heavy shackles around the warrior’s broad body. A moment later, he’d managed to land enough loose blows to climb to his feet, though he knew by then his fists alone wouldn’t be enough to repel his attackers. As the warrior fought to regain his bearings, he took a step forward, hoping in that instant his instincts were more accurate than his wild punches and kicks.
With each step he made, the darkness seemed to solidify around him as more and more of his enemies gathered to bring him down. Their chirping was incessant now and painfully loud, but this did little to deter Beard: he was a warrior on a mission and was putting all he was into destroying what had been awaiting him inside the confines of the silo. Then he felt it -- the rough texture of jute twine in his grip -- and knew the time had come to show these vile bastards just how merciless an enraged warrior of Thorgithe could be.
With a deep howl rolling from his throat, Beard withdrew the Tattered Edge from its resting place at the center of the silo. The blade had been pulled with such force that the pressure hanging from the warrior’s body was immediately knocked away. For a moment -- the span of an anxious heartbeat -- Beard was free of the deadly pressure that had threatened to crush him... and a moment was all the warrior needed to show the darkness just how opportunistic he could be. The mind of a Thorgithen warrior is much like a riveting game of Rooks, a game of strategy from the Age of Elders. Much like a Rooks player strives to force his opponent to surrender at his own corner, the warrior of the North constantly searches for the quickest and most efficient victory in battle. To be victorious in both, one must think ahead and realize the future he desires. Thus, Beard, being of sound mind and ample forethought, didn’t further waste his time swinging his blade at shadows, but directed the Tattered Edge elsewhere, his Rook’s Skull moving one square closer to felling that of his adversary.
The sound of metal being sliced echoed throughout the silo as Beard’s blade tore a long, gaping hole in the northern side of the structure. There, the light of Sol poured through, transforming the hole into a scar of fire that drove the army of shadows to the little darkness that still remained. A terrible hiss filled the silo then, replacing the incessant chatter from moments before.
Beard stood with his back to the hole, the Solight bathing his shoulders as he raised his blade high into the air. He peered into the waiting darkness, watching with the patience of a true hunter as the hint of form swelled within. Though the warrior couldn’t exactly see the shades, he could sense every one of them and just how enraged they’d become.
Satisfied with his work thus far, Beard leapt at the shadows, crossing the blade before his chest to rip another hole in the southern side of the silo. His enemies fled again, their hissing much more prominent now that their precious darkness was dwindling. Again, the warrior observed the fiends cowering in the corners and again he launched an attack, indirect but far more potent.
In a final, grand swing of the profane blade, the entire base of the silo was severed. Beard watched with cruel mirth as the whole structure began to tip. A well-placed kick sent the silo over, the moment of eerie silence before it crashed to the ground punctuated by the warrior’s laughter. Rook had felled rook.
Beard had been more than two dozen iles from Kōstof three days ago, when the Dark Wanderer had left the town childless, its remaining inhabitants subject to the ruthlessness of combat against their own shadows; thus he hadn’t heard the screams that had overtaken the usual calm of night. Had he heard the death-wails and distraught screeches of the townspeople, he would’ve been amazed at how similar the screams of the shadows were the moment Sol’s unforgiving light bore into them. So, when Beard readied his blade again, his ears were filled with a most unwholesome warble, like the sound of feral animals fighting.
Though Beard’s eyes needed a moment to readjust to the light of day, he could still see clearly the shadows dissolving before him. Just as the beguiling gate of Kōstof had crackled and flashed when meeting its destruction, the possessed shades of the townsfolk began to swell and fade, their indignant screams climaxing as they disintegrated before the warrior’s narrowed eyes. There they were exorcised of the daemon-magick that had wrought them from the deepest circle of Hunerheim below. There they stained the floor of the toppled silo, all of them reduced to naught but amorphous strips of darkness pressed flatly against the ground.
The warrior was quick to realize his aim had been true: the silo had fallen across the muddy avenue that bisected the little town, but hadn’t caused collateral damage. Only now, after the terrible army had burned away, could Beard see why such a rancid scent had permeated silo #2: among the deflated shadows and grimy leavings from previous harvests were countless bodies, all adult and all decomposing. Even in the open air, their stench prevailed above the sweet scents wafting from the fertile fields surrounding the town. The sight was pitiful, but was made all the more so when Beard discovered the townspeople watching from the edge of the plaza, each of their faces contorted with sorrow at the sight of their dead kin.
“The deed is done,” Beard said. “You can bury your dead now.”
Dolan was the first to approach, though the rest of the townsfolk were quick to follow. Each face was pulled gaunt with disbelief as the crowd made its way to the fallen silo. It’s a trade in their favor, Beard thought as the townsfolk began to survey the damage, their lives for their way of life. Besides, they still have two more crop silos... unless those hold dark secrets as well.
“Outlander,” Dolan said, his eyes locked on the warrior while the others preoccupied themselves with the death surrounding their feet. “You’ve saved us from ourselves. To you we are greatly indebted.”
“You can repay me by teaching your ilk the ways of combat so this never happens again,” Beard said, surveying the crowd. “The plow is an important tool, to be true, but the sword is just as essential in such dark times. That you’ve not yet learned to defend yourselves is disconcerting. Know well that, next time trouble comes, there might not be an outlander among you so willing to save this cursed town.”
“Your words ring true, Outlander,” Dolan said, “and I swear to abide by them to...”
The gaffer’s words were arrested suddenly when some grave sight drew his attention elsewhere. Beard watched Dolan as he stepped over the low outcropping of metal that once served as a base for silo number two. The old man proceeded to the far side of the damp circle that had been its floor, his eyes welling with tears as he went. Other townsfolk had already made their way into the circle, some mourning the tragedy that had befallen them, others reclaiming their once-vexed shadows. Dolan, though, didn’t seem to notice them, his eyes squarely on something beyond where the others were gathering.
“Marith...” Dolan said, dropping to his knees before the decomposing body of a small woman. “Gods, I’d hoped you’d found shelter before those bastards started their assault.”
The old man cried openly for the dead woman, the warrior watching his plight with indifference. It wasn’t until he heard a scream that Beard was forced to help the man and, even then, the warrior’s actions came late. Sometimes things just happen too quickly to comprehend, you see, even for the quick wits of Kgortel’s bloodline.
From the collapsed silo came a black blur that collided with the weeping man. At once, Bread leapt to his rescue, knocking away the nimble attacker with the hilt of the Tattered Edge. Even before the thing had a chance to hit the ground, Beard snatched it out of the air, holding it aloft with a mighty fist. It felt slippery in his hands and burned like bottled lighting, but the sensation was dulled when the warrior realized what he had arrested: Dolan’s possessed shadow had been the sole survivor of Sol’s wrath and had decided to seek vengeance on its original instead of the outlander who’d felled his brethren.
The shadow screeched and writhed within the warrior’s powerful grasp, the light of Sol beginning to eat away its smoky form, but Beard’s hand was as a hunter’s trap around its gullet -- there was no escape. Beard looked into the shade’s black, opaque eyes, throttling the creature as he did so. For a moment, the warrior turned to look upon the body of the real Dolan, an action which seemed like an opportunity for escape to the living silhouette. There was never really a chance, however, not for such a heartless thing.
Beard turned back to Dolan’s shadow, his eyes wide with the rage he felt in his heart. In a single fluid motion, much faster that the shadows cowardly attack had been, the warrior skewered the shade, holding it high so that all might see the death of that final wretched shadow. Sol finished the deathblow, melting away the fell thing until it was just a tinted pool of nothingness on the floor of the fallen silo.
The next sound to be heard was a familiar one even to the Outlander’s ears. Jena was at her father’s side, tears streaming down her face, a mad wail coming between labored breaths. The townsfolk turned to the weeping girl, her cries drawing them forward until they formed a tight circle around her. Beard knelt beside her, not to offer comfort, but to inspect the wounds that had caused her distress.
A great slash had opened the gaffer’s chest from shoulder to shoulder, though it appeared shallow. There was minimal blood, most of which was already clotting. The warrior placed a finger at the edge of the cut and brought a dab of the blood to his tongue to test for toxins. The old man winced and sat up, a good sign to be sure. A moment later, the warrior spit and informed him that the bitter taste of poison was absent from the wound, a drop of good luck in a cauldron of bad. This did little to calm Jena’s spirits, however, as she had also discovered the body of the woman whom Dolan had called “Marith.”
“Mother... no!” Jena screamed. She grabbed for the corpse that was her mother four days prior, but heavy arms held her at bay. Jena turned, expecting to see the Outlander’s arms around her waist, but found her father’s instead. Dolan may have appeared beyond his middle cycles, but he was tenacious, have no doubt. And there, on the resting place of so many of their friends and family, Jena and Dolan embraced, both mourning the loss of Marith, the gentle woman whom all of Kōstof had so fondly called, “Old Mother.”
“People of Kōstof,” Dolan said, climbing to his feet, “bury your beloved. Send all who perished to the Great Beyond with kind words and praise. Then assemble at the plaza to discuss the Outlander’s plan for he has done us a great service this day.”
“Father...” Jena said as the gaffer stooped to pick up his dead wife. “Father, please, you’re hurt. Don’t strain yourself.”
“I’m fine, Jena,” Dolan said. “Tend to the others.”
Jena did as told, though reluctantly. As she walked to the nearest mourner, Dolan whispered something into his dead wife’s ear. Beard couldn’t hear the old man’s private words, but he could clearly read his lips. There, near the long gate that had for four days separated Kōstof from the rest of the Inner World, Dolan was stating the last rites to guide Marith along the Last Path. There would be many Sending Rituals performed that day and much consecrated ground broken, but for that brief time before the multitude of burials commenced, there was only mourning to be heard in the small village of Kōstof.
Beard watched as the townsfolk carried their dead down the muddy path and through the plaza. His eyes were again and again drawn back to Dolan, who was the last to leave, his broad arms full of his wife’s remains. The warrior would let them have their bereavement, hoping silently that it would ignite the flames of rage within their souls because, after all, their children were still out there. Them and their taker.
Beard inspected his blade, but found no remains of his enemies, only the sheen of Solight from above. A moment later, the Tattered Edge was resting well beneath its shroud. He would wait in the plaza for the people to assemble... and they would because, like all people in the throes of agony, they would want revenge on the devil who’d done this to them. Their vengeance would bring them... and concern for their stolen youth.
So Beard made his plans in solitude, his mind working even as he watched Dolan take a turn and disappear behind the strange architecture of the plaza. The warrior kept his eyes on that spot for a moment, his thoughts demanding they be drawn to where the second silo had once so proudly stood. He denied these thoughts, however, knowing already what they were trying to tell him. After all, he had clearly seen Dolan’s shadow trailing him, the shade faithful once more, the dark magick that’d come to possess it severed by an ancient blade.
“Beard Weirheowdth,” the Whisperer said to itself. “It seems you’re coming at last. We shall celebrate your arrival, make no doubt... yes, christen your coming with the blood of babes...” The one whom the forlorn people of Kōstof called “the Dark Wanderer” turned to peer through the wall of shadows that so tightly contained their children. Over two dozen sunken eyes stared back -- the warrior would have to hurry lest their rescue be futile. Either way, however, the daemon would get its way: unbeknownst to Beard, he was cornered, his rook ripe for the taking.
“After all,” the Dark Wanderer whispered, “you’ve slain my children without so much a second thought... so perhaps I shall return the favor, Beard... yes, before your very eyes...”
Then came a cackle like a death rattle and the children wanted with all their hearts to scream, but the crimson eyes held them once more and, this time, would never let go.