by F. Charles Murdock & C.M. Galdre
The darkness here is just that -- the absence of light. That impenetrable blackness is in truth a deep blue, which in turn is a clear azure like the sky at daybreak during the Winter Solstice. One needs only to pierce this hidden world with his mind’s eye, to draw back the curtain with will alone, to see the secrets at its heart. Courage is a vigilant guide like a lantern of purest white light. But what one sees here, he can never forget.
So this dark plain is peeled away, first its darkest layers, then its visible ones. There are no scents here or sounds, just pressure. Movement is aimless but constant. This world has gone untouched for ages far beyond the history of man both written and oral. It shifts and moves at its own accord, its rhythm indecipherable but faintly present as a fading heartbeat before the Last Path is beneath one’s feet. And at its core is a kingdom of legends, though none know for certain if it actually exists.
Until this moment.
Before the wide sea swallowed this kingdom, it had been the heart of civilization rather than that of the uncharted ocean depths. What disaster befell this grand empire? What had those murky balustrades and shadowed fortifications looked like before the dark waves embraced their destruction?
And what of those who lived there?
There are hells that look kinder than this sunken kingdom, but as the depths unfurl from its edges, a new sight comes into focus perhaps a half-ile away. There a new structure comes to rest after plummeting into the middle of this ocean. It’s only been here for a moment, yes... but, then, why does it look so similar to the Sunken Empire of old?
Beard burst into wakefulness, his eyes wide and searching, his breath quick and raspy. He lay floating upon perfectly still waters, his eyes gazing at the perfectly neutral sky. No sounds of sea birds here, or the endless rhythm of swaying waves, but there could be no mistaking that Beard lay in a vast ocean. He relaxed his body, letting his legs drift down beneath him. It was strange, this serene ocean, like no body of water the Thorgithen had yet encountered. He felt the perfect buoyancy it gave him -- it felt like he was weightless, his position in the water changing easily with the slightest of movements.
The warrior chanced a sip from the still waters, expecting the bite of salt that marks waters of unusual density; it tasted pure, not sweet or salty, not even the taste of mineral was there. If he had to put a word to it, Beard would have said it tasted wet. It was a strange sensation, made stranger by the water’s lack of temperature, for it too seemed committed to this world’s motif of perfect balance.
The grim Thorgithen felt for a breeze, but there was none. Beard looked for Sol, but he was absent. Beard scanned the horizon for some hint, some disturbance, that might be land, but the ocean and sky seemed to be one. In fact, if Beard let his mind wander, he found it difficult to orient himself as his mind deleted the monotonous information of boring things like where the surface of the water ended and where the sky began. The warrior began to make waves, if only to create some variety in the neutral space.
Beard waited for the sky to change. Surely this world had a night and a day? But night never came, nor afternoon or morning: the sky was fixed in a permanent state of a gray high-noon. The warrior could not tell how long he had been in that strange land since waking. Had it been a few odd hours since Vel’Naren had helped him escape the dream world of corpses, blood, and bone? Or had it been days? Beard shuddered as he remembered the effects the strange time of other worlds could have on a mortal.
The warrior never knew how long he had truly stayed within the twilight realms with his demoness lover. He had aged there, yes, but had it been in an instant or scattered slowly across an age? His memory of that time had begun to deteriorate. In his heart he felt he had spent strange eons with the woman he loved before his cursed destiny had pulled them apart. How long had he been here now? How long had he just spent pondering?
Beard decided to swim.
The swimming was easy in the strange water and, though it seemed like he stayed in place, he felt he must have traveled great distance for, after a time, he felt the presence of the ocean bed rising up to meet him from great depths below. The incline was slow and gently sloped and it seemed like days or, perhaps, minutes before his feet began to graze the ground beneath. The entire ocean bed was made of small, smooth, black stones, each a perfect sphere that chimed with queer music when disturbed.
It wasn’t much longer before Beard was able to stand and walk, the water only going up to his knees, and then his ankles, but still as he strode through the water nothing broke the surface save the lone warrior.
Beard traveled for a time in the smooth ankle-deep water and still saw nothing, but felt a strange presence before him like a spider web woven in the air, waiting to cling to him as he passed. The weary warrior placed his hand out before him and he felt the world warp and bend around it as if he pressed against the very fabric of reality.
The warrior pressed on and the world tore away beneath his grasp.
Beard found himself before a mighty keep, built not of stone but solid white pearl. A brutal structure without ornament, window, or crenelation. It had two great towers that stood like obelisks against the dark void that surrounded him as the rest of the neutral world faded away. Only the keep and the warrior remained. The fortress had no door, or gate, or portcullis, the white surface was smooth and without crack or hint of a hidden door. As Beard laid his hand against the structure he felt a sudden jerk, as if an iron hook buried itself in his gut and pulled: suddenly, the bewildered Northman found himself inside the keep.
On two great thrones towering high above the warrior, sat a woman dazzling and beautiful, to her left a man handsome and sardonic. The woman was wrapped all in gold, the man in silver, but each had a single eye hidden from view. The woman hid her right eye behind an alabaster quarter mask set with a sapphire replica, whilst the man hid his left behind a black rag tied round his head.
“Welcome, Beard, son of the line of Kortel,” the woman spoke with a voice high and mellow like the sounding of a hunter’s horn.
The silver man remained silent.
“Is that any way to treat your favorite die, fair brother?” the woman addressed her sardonic kin.
“No, fair sister,” the man answered, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I was merely pondering the existence of all things.”
The woman laughed with a knowing glint in her eye. Beard felt as if this was some sort of joke between the two of them.
“Beard, son of the line, I am Lys, though some may call me ‘Destiny.’ I am the goddess who sees the world as it should be and calls to those who can change the world,” said the woman, her eyes boring into Beard’s soul.
“And I, little warrior, am Terulen, though some may call me ‘Fate.’ I am the god that drives the wolves at the warrior’s heel to ensure he dies a hero’s death. I am the drum that beats in the distance. I am the black flag that flies before the field. I am...”
“That is quite enough,” Lys interrupted her brother.
“Why do you not kneel in the presence of such divinity?” Terulen spat at Beard, grinning from his high throne.
“Where I call home even the gods fear a keen edge. I see no reason to bow to anything that may be slain or is enthralled with its own vanity,” Beard replied.
Lys giggled. Terulen grumbled.
“What brings you, warrior, to Castle Or’i?” Lys asked.
“I seek the daemon dream god Släfgeit so that I may exact my vengeance upon him and find my way back to the waking realm,” Beard replied.
“Well you have succeeded at one already,” Lys laughed. “Or’i certainly doesn’t exist within the Dream Realm. You seem to have wandered your way out of dreams and into our realm, though I see not how... such a thing would take great sorcery.”
Beard glowered. “And what of Släfgeit? Where does he reside that I may find him and take his skull? If I need to return to the land of dreams then so be it. The fool god shall lose his head to me, even if I must squeeze it free with my bare hands.”
“That child has run away, probably to his nest within the slumbering god’s lair,” the sardonic god Terulen replied. “Did you really think him a god? That fool boy is a twisted mixture of sorcery and a misspent youth.”
“He did seem less noble than other gods I have encountered,” Beard reflected.
“The slumbering god is the true lord of dreams, and a most inactive one at that. I believe he will not wake until the end of the nine realms has come. Isn’t that right, sister?” Terulen spoke, sounding both bored and aloof.
“Yes, it is true that he is destined to wake at the end of all ends... unless you have seen differently, dear brother.”
Terulen grinned. “Perhaps I have. Does it bother you, sister, that your vision is so limited to your perfect world? Do you not find it distressing that I see so much more and you can only watch as so many fail your perfect vision?”
Beard felt uncomfortable, like a child stumbling upon bickering adults.
“She is scared of you, warrior. Do you not see it?” Terulen goaded. “Her perfect vision has seen two destinies for you. Oh yes. In her sleep she calls you both ‘Beard the Redeemer’ and ‘Beard the Reaver’ and sometimes she has called you the d...”
“SILENCE!” Lys erupted, her voice thundering through the chamber with rage.
“Have I touched a nerve, sister? Does it bother you to be so conflicted about a single pawn?”
“And what of you, brother? You, who spends your waking moments following his every move, slobbering over all the visions he produces, how his path diverts into a thousand darknesses, how you have never felt more alive than when you are watching this warrior push on beyond your sight and out of my own as well. ‘MY PRECIOUS WILD CARD’ you called him!” Lys spat at her grinning brother.
“Oh yes. I am so very interested in this one. Is it really my fault? It’s no fun seeing all that could be, but never that which will be. You know this... you share the frustration, seeing only what should be and never what will be. We both lack definition in our vision, but can you not see how interesting it is when even parts of what could be are hidden. Even when what should be is hidden?” replied the sardonic god.
“There is a certain appeal,” Lys conceded.
Beard coughed. “If you don’t mind, I have a daemon to slay, a nation to save, and revenge to be had for my father’s murder -- I am swamped. So, if you could just show me the way to the slumbering god’s palace, I would take my leave.”
Lys and Terulen grinned together in a most unsettling manner.
“It would be our pleasure,” they replied in unison.
The twin gods pointed at a point in space before Beard and a shimmering portal appeared, a gossamer veil, beyond which Beard could see Släfgeit scrambling towards a great stone palace in the distance. Beard nodded appreciatively to the cyclopean gods and lept through the portal.
“Mind the butcher bird!” A sardonic voice laughed as Beard passed into the nothingness between realms.
The fire burned bright against the dark night sky: Porgos the City of Thieves was alight. All along its cloistered walls, men were impaled on great iron and wooden pikes and the streets were slick with blood, but not a cry or sound went up within those walls for all were dead within. A single figure’s shadow stretched across the landscape, a lone warrior of hulking build with beard magnificent, his eyes blazing blue in the dark. He bore a blade wreathed in shadow, unfurled, and ready, dragging in his right hand.
A horse approached... the King of Thieves, Gamdling, returning home with the jewel of the Eastersea in his saddle bags. As he passed the warrior on the road, rushing to his burning home, the warrior made a single strike at him, deflected by the thief’s nimble short blade. The horse slowed and then stopped, both horse and rider erupting in a torrent of blood from wounds unseen.
The warrior came upon a weeping girl lying in the dirt of the road a few iles from the carnage of the burning city.
“You brute!” she wailed. “I asked only for you to slay Ibistan who stole away my sister! She was still within the walls!”
Cool steam billowed from the warrior’s mouth as he spoke. “AYE, SHE LAY WITHIN THE WALLS, BUT IBISTAN HAD ALREADY MADE IT HER FINAL RESTING PLACE.” The warrior paused in contemplation before continuing. “HAVE I NOT BUILT HER A GRAND FUNERAL PYRE?”
“They are all dead... all dead because of me.” The girl sobbed.
“THEY ALL SIGNED THEIR OWN DEATH WARRANTS LONG AGO. DO NOT LET IT TROUBLE YOU. I NEVER KILLED A MAN WHO DIDN’T NEED KILLING,” the warrior replied.
“It’s all my fault,” the girl continued. “I introduced Ibistan to my sister. I thought him a decent man... perhaps a bit rough on the edges, but he seemed alright at the time. Now they are all dead... I should be dead.”
The warrior raised an eyebrow and cocked an ear, hearing a voice only perceptible to him and the dead that raised it.
“VENGEANCE ACKNOWLEDGED, REQUEST ACCEPTED,” The revenant warrior breathed.
The girls sobs faded away as the ragged black blade of the Tattered Edge slid slowly though her back, splitting her ribs and bursting out her chest, splattering the ground with thick red blood.
The warrior’s mind swirled with the memories within his body, the blood jogging its memory: Ibistan lay on the ground, flayed alive and the girl pinned against the wall on a spike of iron. Oh yes. He wasn’t the one who killed Ibistan... it was HIM. HE was the one the warrior hunted. Which way had he flown in his ragged blood splattered cloak? Ah yes... south... always to the south. And so the warrior walked, his mind filled with shadow and vengeance. They were so much alike, two spirits of carnage, both on missions they deemed just -- the living blade known as the Tattered Edge and the creature called the Isenshrike.