by F. Charles Murdock
*"What's with callin' me away from my busy-ness, smithe? I got tinkerin' to do."
"Believe me, you old coot, I'd rather not have, but it seems Beard and the Dark One just crossed swords."
"And how do ya ken that?"
"I saw as much through a side duct as I was passing along the Southron conduit."
"Hmph... and do the others know?"
"Nay, you're the first I've told."
"Well, maybe we should gather the fellas and have us a little palaver about..."*
"Might I join you?"
"Aye... I've... returned to beg a second chance."
"You turned your back on the cause when you chose to venerate the raven-goddess in the stead of greater things."
"I understand the consequences of my choices, but...”
"Well, if ye understand so well, mayhap you should take a hint an' git!"
"I was in love. Am still, to tell true."
"Love is blinding."
"You tell true and I freely admit it. But it's something Beard would understand with a whole heart."
*"Aye, I'll grant that."
"Yeah, yeah, but ye still turned yer back on us... and if ye hadn't noticed, we don't stock much mercy for deserters."*
"I fought along side Beard on the island of Skøgrevid, he of the last four who bind Ralmos still, he who has fled the island in search of sanctuary from the growing darkness."
"Ah, so ye've seen the boy in action, have ye? Hah! Summit special, ain't he?"
"Yes, he is. The Stag speaks of his courage still."
"And you wish to return to the fellowship because Beard has unknowingly convinced you that our cause is not in vain? Is that the case?"
"For that and many other reasons, yes."
*"What think you, Bisbane?"
"Well, let's see what Demon Pappy and the others say before we go 'bout makin' any decisions."
"Aye, let them be summoned. We'll meet in the conduit beneath the desert far west of Kōstof."
"Follow us, Samhaim, an' don't ye be touchin' anythin' with those raven-lovin' hands of yers."*
"Ha, of course."
*"So tell me..."
"What's that, smithe?"
"What have you been tinkering with all the way down there?"
"Oh ho ho! A marvelous surprise for that Dark One bastard. Can't wait to see the look on his mug when he sees what ol' Bisbane cooked up special just for him!"*
"As crazy as ever, I see.”
"Yer damn skippy!"
Beard had trudged on until he could no longer hear the hum of the tram behind him, that strange machine which had bore him to this even stranger city from that of Ku'Linac, ancient home to the demonrace. Then the warrior had knelt, his body still throbbing with the pains of fruitless battle, his mind still thrumming with matters of the heart. After pacing both breath and blood, Beard lifted his tired eyes to the ruins before him. It was once a city, aye, he could see that well, but now all that stood on this forgotten island was its twisted skeleton. From his vantage point on the dead ground before the ruined city, the warrior could see broken buildings and sunken architecture bowing under the weight of the dismal sky, one that seemed to loom above the bland-gray city in a dense twilight. A light rain had begun to fall, but still Beard caught the reek of old death on the wind. The warrior gathered himself, absently playing with the dim ring adorning his mighty hand, and rose to his feet, his eyes sweeping the debris that marred the outskirts of the ruined city lest another ambush interrupt his approach. Seeing nothing, Beard advanced to where the low wall surrounding the city converged into a thick gate of glass and metal. Beard's keen eyes needed but a moment to locate the doorway through the gate, but he let them linger, his curiosity piqued by several strange messages scrawled across the thick glass in fading ink.
BEWARE THE ⊗ THIN MAN said one such message at the far left edge of the gate. ARCHN'MEMNON THE SWARMPLAGUE LIVES!
said another to the right of the sealed doorway. Last, Beard's eyes found the two messages writ directly upon the door, their long skeletal letters seemingly the work of a single graffitist.
DEATH TO THE DEMONS!
KILL ALL HORNSKULLS!
said the other. The warrior narrowed his eyes, his mind trying to make sense of the inherent hatred behind those words. His thoughts evolved into questions of who? and why? and when?, but there were no answers to such inquiries, mayhap none left to offer them.
So Beard restored his clarity of mind and strode to the door, his hands aching to call forth the Tattered Edge to do away with this little obstacle. Never before had returning to Thorgithe seemed so important to the warrior. Never had such an urgency overcome him.
The warrior approached the door, hearing naught but the shifting of the rain on the ruined city beyond the gate. All was still, but Beard's instincts were yet on edge after his chance meeting with the fleshswap on the tram and the Dark One thereafter. Still he could see the battle and feel the rage it conjured in his worn heart. With such anger surging through him, the warrior tore the beaten door from its frame in a single deft pivot and stepped into the gate proper.
As above the tram, tubes of electricity illuminated the small entranceway to the city, though only a single bank still cast its dreary light. A table lay upended to Beard's right, a pile of twisted metal to his left and, though the light was scant inside the gateway, Beard knew immediately the splotches of black on the dented metal walls and tarnished metal floor were the stains of ancient blood. No bodies, though, only the telltale signs of struggle.
Beard trudged through the small room, ignoring the old battle, and came to a great panel of metal at its other side, more wall than door. But the warrior was not one to accept a dead end and so prepared to call forth his great sword.
Beard approached the thick metal, his hands twitching with anticipation, a gleam of oily sweat rising along his scarred brow. He could feel the Tattered Edge within, could hear it calling to him as the lovely but hungry rockhags were said to do to foolish sailors in legends of old. He knew the sword was wearing on him again, was working to overcome his body like a flame that refuses to be extinguished, but Beard held its effect at bay. But just as the Tattered Edge was about to break through nonetheless, the grating sounds of machinery pierced the silence and the magicks of the Forgotten Elders peeled the metal away from the warrior. Thus Beard was allowed access to the ruined city of a lost age.
Two sons born of the last god of the Northlands. Two sons slain in cold blood, one by the cruel hand of the Dark One, the other by the Godkiller's blade, that which also slew their father, he that was buried beneath the mighty ash tree, Yg'grasil, by King Bergrin of Thorgithe in the days of long ago. The tree, that which the Thorgithen call "the Bleeding Tree" for its crimson sap, had never known its end for it had defied death by growing well even in the frozen wilds of the far North where no other plant could catch root.
Now the Motherwolf sits beneath that great tree above the deathplace of her slain husband. She has howled for her dead, for Yol and the past and present, but now turns her proud eyes to the future in contemplative silence. She reflects upon what has passed and what is to come, upon prophecy and promise, and an end to the age of both gods and man.
Beard stepped through the opened gate of the city, his eyes meeting a scene of destruction rivaling only his most gruesome dreams. What was once a grand plaza now appeared a vast boneyard of mortar and metal. The surrounding buildings looked as though they'd imploded at some point in their long history, their structures twisted and toppled upon the paved streets of this dead place as though vomited from the gullet of some primal titan. The stillness and silence that had pervaded the outskirts of the city seemed firmer here, made all the more real by the strange creations of those who'd called the city home but long ago.
To his right, the warrior spied a crosshatching of shadows beneath a toppled building, the windows at its base like a daemon's eyes. Had this building survived the ages, Beard guessed it would have reached far into the heavens, a great tower to the stars. But its creators had been far too ambitious and had paid dearly for their audacity. Pieces of the same building were scattered about this plaza, their distinctive color the shade of sandstone. The warrior stepped over rubble of glass and metal, his eyes searching the calm shadows looming around him. A strange curiosity prodded him on for he was a warrior of Thorgithe, a land of steppe tribes and barbarism. This city was a façade of the future, though the legends placed it in the distant past before man committed history to word both spoken or writ. Again the warrior felt the need to hurry on to Thorgithe because he'd never before felt so far from his homeland than in a misplaced city as this.
Beard turned away from the remains of the tower and headed northwest along a path between the high pillars of debris. The brief gusts of wind that broke the rain soughed through shattered windows and empty ducts emanating from the pavement, what the warrior knew as "bastardstone" from his travels through the Himgal region of Krytherion. Beard rounded the wide path, turning true north beneath the bland overcast sky, his glare sharp, his blade willing to be called at once. Along the lonely path of wreckage, Beard spied a great bridge to the west that had rusted and collapsed into the black water below. Though his internal compass told him that the bridge should lead back to Demonholme, he saw no sign of the sister island.
"Demon magicks, perhaps," he muttered to himself, "or maybe directions are soft on these isles." He peered down the wide stretch of the dilapidated bridge as he passed it, wondering if time had really been the agent that had toppled it. Beard didn't think so -- his instinct told him he was walking through an ancient battlefield, that the inhabitants of this island and that of the demons had had a falling out of catastrophic proportions. What had such a war looked like? he wondered as the remains of the great metal bridge disappeared behind him.
The Nameless has awakened, great son of Kgortel. Come to me atop this mountain in your frozen North. Give me your hand. Give me what I desire and you will be paid thusly. You wish an end to this war? Come and I will grant it. You wish for your father's crown? Come and it will be yours. You wish to be with your beloved? Come and it will be so. You wish to deny the Dark One? Come and he will perish beneath hilt and heel. Give me what I desire and all you wish can be yours. Come. Lay your hands upon me. Hear my call and free me from my rest. My desires for yours.
The first building of preserved integrity rose upon Beard's path a mere hour after he'd passed the fallen bridge. The building was drab and cylindrical, its roof covered with strange machinery that poked odd angels into the hazy northern horizon. The warrior kept pace as he approached it, his eyes on the shaft of yellow light pouring out from the slit between the door and its frame. He stayed to the left of the light, softening his footfalls lest there be unseen guards about. When he finally made it to the door, he could hear naught but the soft rain for his heartbeat and breathing had been softened to even his own ears. Satisfied with the silence, Beard threw open the wrought iron door and peered inside, his hands held before him in tight fists. The warrior's keen eyes met a small, circular room the size of a silo, a great glass bulb illuminating every inch of it from its niche in the ceiling. Set into the rear of the room was a shrine of sorts where a glass cube encased a severed arm, the fingers drawn close to the palm like the legs of a dead spider. The flesh of the arm looked real, but Beard could see that it covered not blood and bone, but a structure of metal and cords that housed electricity. Below the case was a wide plaque of marbled rock with silver letters which read: So Came A New Understanding. Thus Quantum Cybernetics Changed Our World. Beard knew not what this meant, but found the words clinical and self-important nonetheless... "jawshit" in Thorgithen slang. The rest of the room was empty save a door to the left of the arm, but it swelled outward as if it had been struck by a heavy ram or concussive explosion. Its paneling was warped and shone iridescent in the light with an oily patina. No, that door wouldn't be opening ever again.
This is a city of madness, Beard thought as he withdrew himself from the strange shrine. He shot a look over his shoulder, seeing naught but the towering rubble and the collapsed bridge. Still his instincts told him to be weary, not because of a sense of intrusion, but because Beard had never before experienced a place in the Physical Realm so serene and silent. The warrior continued along the path through the empty ruins, watching the rain on the broken glass and dead machinery as it cleansed this wretched place. The going was rougher now, the path thwarted by great slabs of toppled masonry and mounds of sallow earth that bulged up between wide cracks in the pavement. To Beard this avenue looked like a series of pyres for the long dead though made in great haste.
Then the cold sting of shock came to the warrior as a terrible crash shook the ground beneath him. His eyes were drawn to his right where a large metal carriage was coming to rest alongside one of those disconcerting dirt mounds. Beard shifted his eyes to the mountain of debris beyond just in time to witness another such carriage break loose and roll to the street with the loud, grating whine of old metal.
"This place is dead," Beard muttered. "Dead and yet still dying."
He hoisted himself over a jagged slab of the road, his eyes back on the path before him.
"Our battle was a disappointing one, little Beardling," the robed man said, now back beneath the Long Hall of Kgortel in the North, that which he'd sworn to protect so many cycles ago. "I surely hope our next encounter will be different." The man turned to leave the catacombs where he’d found the land's cowering queen, had pulled her from the darkness and fed her to the pit.
"It will be so, mark me," he said to that same darkness, "for you're not the first immortal I've slain." And then he ascended the stairs of that tainted castle, its famed and feared Ovate Table empty and pitiful, its host murdered in the name of desperate prophecy.
"Nothing can change what the heart contains," he whispered. "But perhaps I can." Then the once-proud hall of the great warriors of the North was subject to a laughter most wretched and cruel.
Beard had spotted the strange blotch of color as he was mounting the fourth heap of spent metal in his path. It had appeared on the restricted horizon before him, a little square of subdued crimson against the monotonous backdrop of grays and tans. It had caught his eye, held him, beckoned for him to come in the tongue of curiosity. So Beard had come to it, although with caution for he was not a man who favored surprises.
Now he was kneeling over the square that was really a cube, its crimson robbed of its former vibrancy by the rain. Beard beheld it and was taken back to the night after he and his crew had come to the house of Beg, a monster in the skin of man. During that night, the warrior had been awoken by a strange conversation, almost otherworldly, and had known the speakers. Hell, one had been Bledbuan, the great smithe of Thorgithe, he who had had a hand in raising Beard at the nose of his anvil. But after they had gone into the night, the warrior had found a gift that the Dark One had left for him, the strange cube that was still among his wares. The gift box before him now was its twin and Beard felt his stomach leap and his senses focus at the thought of that bastard toying with him again, especially after their battle.
"I will break you," Beard said through set teeth. A part of him didn't want to open this box, knowing it was a trap even if it wasn't, knowing full well how a mental snare can be just as debilitating as a physical one. But a small part of him spoke of necessity, that Beard wouldn't have been allowed access to these strange islands if not for the Dark One's first present. The warrior's face quickly matched the color of the box before him as rage surged through his heart like an assassin's arrow. "I owe you no debt," Beard growled. "You do me no favors." He slammed his fists into the patch of intact pavement beside him, shattering it beneath his might. "You will be repaid for the deeds you done, bastard. But know that my swift iron will be but a mote of the cyclone of vengeance whirling inside me."
Beard raised his fist, loosened it, and tore open the gift-wrapped metal box. Naught but a note was inside this one. Even as the warrior fished it out of its dark corner, the rain was seeping in, forcing the ink of the skeletal letters to run.
SO YOU'VE MADE IT THIS FAR... I HAD MY DOUBTS, BUT YOU'VE PROVEN TO BE A RESOURCEFUL LITTLE BASTARD. FINE, THEN. I OFFER YOU A RETURN TO KRYTHERION. I AWAIT YOU, BEARD, IN THE HOUSE OF KGORTEL. GOOD LUCK. P.S. U 2 D 2 L R 2 B A RETURN
More games. More reasons to destroy the traitorous bastard. Beard had seen far more than enough to sign the Dark One's death warrant and in the traitor's own black blood, no less. These thoughts of sweet revenge soared through the warrior's mind as he watched the rain-worn ink of the letter fade to incomprehension. He tossed the letter aside and rose to his feet to trudge on down his path, but not before first delivering a mighty kick to the remains of the gift box.
A moment later, his hands had found the strange cube that had been gifted to him by his enemy, that which had transmogrified as he'd come to the sleeping city of the demons behind him, that which had unlocked the city's secret gates. It thrummed now in his hand, casting a dull green glow onto his battle-calloused palms. It was a device from this strange place, Beard could sense as much, which forced a wedge of unease into his burning heart.
Then Beard saw a similar green glow ahead encircled by a wide corona of darkness.
After climbing atop one final dislodged slab of concrete, Beard found a clear path to the haunting glow, though only now could he see the tunnel in which it was housed, its walls of the same construct as the rest of the city's advanced architecture. The warrior passed the last stretch of ruin and paused at the mouth of the tunnel, darkness before him, restrained misery behind. His eyes shown with the green light buried within the bowels of this dead city and, as he raised the modified cube to eclipse yonder light, he understood that he'd ultimately been directed here, though whether by the gods or destiny or by the cruel influence of his adversary he did not know.
Beard stepped into the tunnel, its apex nearly thrice his height, and immediately the drumming of rain seemed to die away. He held the glowing cube against his body, one of its edges pressed firmly against the still-tender flesh that had become a wide black scar upon his torso after his skirmish with the Dark One. So he walked blindly through the darkness, his body drawn, his mind ensnared. And then the glow was a light and the light a square. Beard stopped before the source of the sharp neon glow, the silence in the absence of his footfalls as smothering as the darkness outside the halo of green light. The glowing square before him was housed in a pane of glass and, upon inspection, contained numbers and letters of the common speech. The warrior knelt and read, but ken not what was writ before him.
SYSTEM STARTED... PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD: ********** PASSWORD ACCEPTED LOADING SYSTEM DATA... DATA SUCCESSFULLY LOADED 1 FILE FOUND ENTER COMMAND AND PRESS RETURN TO EXECUTE print b:\return/prophecy.txt /d:lpt1
"More godsdamned jawshit..." Beard scoffed.
The warrior watched the blinking green rectangle at the end of the text for a moment. Then he shifted his gaze to the tray placed before the pane containing the electric letters. There were six rows of metal prongs that glistened in the neon green from the text, but a word to their extreme right caught his attention. RETURN was scrolled there in official looking letters. The warrior placed a finger upon it and felt the word depress beneath its weight like a small lever.
Instantly the tunnel was filled with a shrill grating noise like the rage screech of a kwyjibo, the bald man-ape still reputed to stalk the Northlands of Krytherion. Beard whirled around, the Tattered Edge summoned to his free hand as his senses worked to pinpoint the intrusion. Then just as the suddenly as the noise had severed the silence, it was gone, and in its wake, the warrior heard the soft flutter of something falling to the ground to his left.
Beard rushed to the gentle noise, made all the more prominent in the sudden absence of the screeching. There he found a rectangle of paper and the strange machine that had spit it out. With a quick swipe of his hand, Beard pulled his blade within the body and brought his empty fist down on the noise machine, flattening it with his brute might. Beard sighed, admonishing himself for permitting his mind to get so rattled by a damn relic from the Age of Forgotten Elders. Then he knelt and picked up the paper, turning it over to see what new jawshit graced this page. Then his ice-rimmed eyes widened for he saw upon the page the words of the old tongue, words he had learned from Brog during his hellish training.
The note was as such:
Hwanne thæs kyklos enti viūt ginnan Hē velle awæcnian Bluot aba destruere spildt Tarchann unti lucēre offe nīwe
And then below the ancient script was its translation in the common tongue: When the cycle ends with no beginning, here he will awaken, the Blood of destruction spilt, dark and light made anew
These were words of prophecy and grave words indeed. And further, they were familiar words Beard somehow knew as if from a dream or buried memory. The warrior stared at the words for a long while, the green glow from the text behind him, casting a hazy shadow on to the floor beyond the page.
Beard folded the note and placed it within the small pouch upon his belt. Then his eyes were on his shadow and he saw the bottom of the door adjacent to the bludgeoned machine. There was a moment of hesitation, but after considering turning back to the neon gibberish and the ruined city beyond, Beard pulled his thoughts into line and advanced on the door. The door opened with ease, the white light beyond blinding to the warrior's unaccustomed eyes. He placed the thrumming cube back into his waist pouch and stepped through the doorway, the metal door clicking shut behind him, its echo trailing off down the stone walls of the stairwell but a few paces away. Beard waited a moment to let his eyes adjust to the onslaught of light and then began to descend what he could soon identify as stone steps.
Those words of prophecy kept resurfacing in his mind in both tongues, intermingling like two battling serpents, poisoning any bystanding thoughts with their toxic fangs. He cleared his mind, but not without effort. Then the questions came...
What is this place? What happened here? What do those damn words mean?
And then the warrior was at the bottom of the stairs, facing yet another metal door. Beard shot a look over his shoulder and found that he'd descended what looked like a hundred steps. He turned back to the door, its surface reflecting the many banks of lights overhead, and reached for the handle. And so he came to the ancient heart of the city buried deep beneath its demolished hide.
The door pulled open with as much ease as the one at the top of the stairs and, as Beard stepped over its threshold, he came upon a sight most awing. The room beyond was dimly lit and housed what looked like a tall arch of black iron. The structure was enclosed in a cage of intense red beams of light that were suspended in the air as if by magicks. They seemed to form a barrier around the strange arch, most likely a means to secure it.
Beard strode across the strange room, the sound of his heavy boots upon the stone floor a counterpoint to the electric hum of the concentrated beams of light. He stopped before the barrier to peer through one of the wide squares that were framed by the crimson beams. For some odd reason unbeknownst to Beard, the arch recalled home and so vividly that a deep sorrow stirred within the warrior's usually hardened heart.
Beard reached up to touch one of the beams of light, to test what happens to those who would violate it, and immediately withdrew it when the flesh on his forefinger began to char. The warrior narrowed his eyes at the barrier, relishing the pain he felt for it kept his mind from delving into pointless questions about the prophecy he know kept folded against his hip. Beard absently rubbed the new burn on the tip of his finger, the pain heightening his senses. Thus he finally noticed the panel to his left that contained another pane of glass with green letters writ within it. He trudged over to the text, being careful not to come in contact with the fiery beams of light, and read its strange message.
TRANSPORT READY GUARDGRID DEFENSE DEPLOYED DEACTIVATE GUARDGRID LASER DEFENSE SYSTEM (Y/N): y PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD:
Anger flooded Beard's mind on the tail of the stinging coming from his burnt finger. Enough of this, Beard thought, his fist already raised high into the air. And then he saw the rows of letters below the glass containing the text, though they were arranged strangely and out of order.
"Perhaps the Forgotten Elders began their alphabet with Q and ended it with M," Beard mused, trying to rebuke the rage that had come over him. There were other symbols along with the letters and even the great numbers, but Beard's eyes were yet drawn to a single word: RETURN.
Beard tapped RETURN with his burnt finger and prepared himself for another grating whine, his eyes on the green text. Thus came the machine's response: INCORRECT PASSWORD PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD:
"No more games," Beard whispered, his rage so intense it actually calmed him. Once again he summoned his fell sword and brandished it at the glass and its strange configurations. He lifted the Tattered Edge and brought it down, but stopped just before its tip pierced the convex pane.
Beard breathed deeply and spoke evenly, though his blood ran hot that moment. "I owe you nothing, Brog. You only seal your doom by aiding in my return." He pulled his blade inside his broad body and brought his hands to the letters below the screen. "But if you truly desire to die by my sword, I will not deny such a wish."
Then Beard pecked out the following sequence on the rows of letters and symbols: U2D2LR2BA Then he finished with RETURN. PASSWORD ACCEPTED GUARDGRID LASER DEFENSE SYSTEM DEACTIVATING... There was a loud whirr and then the red beams of light in the middle of the room faded from view. GUARDGRID LASER DEFENSE SYSTEM SUCCESSFULLY DEACTIVATED TRANSPORT PRIMED ENTER KEY AT TERMINAL 7-G
A new light flickered to Beard's right by the black arch, another pane of glass with more electric letters. Beard sighed, growing tired of this cursed, dead place and its stubborn machines. He crossed to where this new text shone forth in dull white, his attention divided between the arch and the machine beside it. For but a moment he was in awe that a field of harmful lights had barred his passage, though it was quickly swept away when he approached the glass and the words within.
WELCOME TO TERMINAL 7-G INITIALIZING SYSTEM... SYSTEM SUCCESSFULLY INITIALIZED PASSWORD: ********** PASSWORD ACCEPTED ENTER END-POINT LOCATION: delta omega LOCATING TARGET "delta omega" FOR I-D TRANSMISSION... TARGET LOCATED: AQUARIO LOCK ONTO TARGET "AQUARIO" (Y/N)? y LOCKING ONTO TARGET "AQUARIO"... TARGET "AQUARIO" SUCCESSFULLY LOCKED PRINT COORDINATES FOR LOCATION "AQUARIO" (Y/N)? n PRIME TRANSPORT MODULE FOR TRANSMISSION TO ENDPOINT "AQUARIO" (Y/N)? y TRANSPORT PRIMED PLEASE ENTER KEY INTO INTERFACE SLOT
Beard scanned the many letters and symbols in the console below it and rediscovered that deep frustration with the sterility of this place. But then a connection was made in his mind amidst the rage. His keen eyes were drawn to the left of the letters to a shallow frame of metal where an object could be inserted. And then Beard understood.
The warrior withdrew the transmogrified cube from his waist pouch, feeling its thrum in his bones. Its green pulse had quickened, intensified. He made crude measurements with sight and sense and then furrowed his brow. He was quite ready to be rid of this strange device.
Thus the cube that was no longer a cube was placed within the fixture, its strange angles shifting to fit the machine, its stranger ruins glowing emerald in the scant light of the room. The pane of glass beeped once and displayed a new message: KEYSTONE ACCEPTED CONFIRMING ENDPOINT ACCESSIBILITY... ENDPOINT ACCESSIBILITY CONFIRMED TARGET "AQUARIO" NOW ACCESSIBLE I-D TRANSPORT MODULE "ARCH 19" ACTIVATING...
The black arch to Beard's right began to thrum with the same buzz as the cube had before the warrior had relinquished it to the machine. He turned his eyes to structure and watched as the space between its prongs began to warp. The sight of the shadowy stone wall behind it grew hazy until it was finally obscured by a strange whirling cloud of gray light. The pane of glass beeped once more and then all was silent and still save the slow spin of the glowing cloud beneath the zenith of the black arch.
I-D TRANSPORT MODULE "ARCH 19" NOW READY FOR TRANSPORT PLEASE STEP THROUGH "ARCH 19" TO ACCESS TARGET "AQUARIO" THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE DAY
Beard scowled at the last of the text and then trudged to the gray cloud, feeling its tug on his skin as though he was caught between two giant magnets. He breathed deeply, ignoring the collective pain of his many recent injuries in lieu of the wonder now coursing through him.
"To Hunerheim with all of this," he said and then rushed at the gray cloud, any pretense of hesitation flushed from his warrior's heart by the splinters of rage and vengeance that had long ago been put there by the cruel hand of fate. And so the warrior leapt into the unknown, his body pulled through the whirling gray light much like his mind had been when the Dark One had summoned it through the Black Door on the Isle of the Isenshrike. And so he left the ancient ruined city from the Age of Forgotten Elders...
...only to find himself in another place of similar construction. There had been a sudden jolt when Beard had passed through the gray cloud and then he had gained himself elsewhere. On the other side of the cloud, he stepped out through a similar tall arch at the end of a long hallway made entirely of shimmering steel.
Immediately, the warrior could see a great many machines before him lining the bright walls and ceiling, making him claustrophobic with their many sockets like empty eyes to nowhere. He heard the unmistakable surge of ocean water around him mingling with the now-familiar hum of electricity. He was disoriented from the pull of the gray cloud, his body trembling, but still he kept his wits about him even as the surrounding machines began to notice his arrival.
"Alan! We have a security breech in A2!" The man, Alan, pulled his attention away from the many screens of text and surveillance before him and turned to the screaming man. He spoke with the patience of a professional, though a thin thread of duress had worked its way into his quickened heart. "Settle down, Grant. This damn thing is impregnable." "I don't know," came the frenzied response. This man, Grant, was a lanky man prone to outbursts, but this security issue had really wound him up. He pressed a few buttons on the device he wore on his left forearm, his eyes widening as it clicked and buzzed with updated information. "Preliminary reports are saying that... the transporter in the bay at the end of A2 was remotely activated." "Activated how? Like... patched?" "Don't know, but..." There was a moment of silence as the intruder -- a strange, hulking beast of a man -- appeared on one of the many small surveillance screens overhead. "Holy shit, Al," Grant said. "I think we have company..."
Beard's pace through the long steel corridor was slowed by a sense of impending danger. The many jagged machines set into the walls seemed to follow his advance and the warrior found himself restraining the urge to destroy the humming fixtures. He would've already launched an offensive against this place if not for his need of stealth: his instincts told him to be as the winter wolf stalking its prey from the shadows.
The warrior came to a corner where the corridor kinked upward at a slight grade, this new hall jutting off from its parent at a sharp angle. Beard turned the corner and had but a moment to notice the continued monotony of this new passage before a sharp pain bit into his left shoulder. He was thrown back against the wall, the reek of his own charred flesh filling his flaring nostrils.
"Dissociate: Sparkspear!" a voice cried ahead of him. Beard shook off the daze coming over him, taking but a moment to check on his newest wound, a terrible burn that had blackened the flesh on the ball of his left shoulder. Then the warrior's eyes were set upon the man rushing toward him, he who'd managed to catch Beard off his guard. The man was dressed in the garb of a soldier, his outfit consisting of loose trousers and a small tunic, both a deep burgundy that reminded Beard of the worn banners that Thorgithe had long carried into war. The man was young, but brave. Brave or stupid. Either way, he approached the warrior still, the mechanical spear he'd been brandishing, that which had caused injury even at such a distance of twenty paces, falling away to nothing as he went. "Associate: hV.I.P.E.R. 2!" the man screamed.
Instantly, the soldier's seemingly empty hands were filled with heavy steel which manifested itself out of the surrounding æther. Then he was holding a long hand-cannon, a weapon of legend which was said to have accompanied Turin's men into battle in the days of Kgortel. Beard was awed by such a sight, but not shaken. "Listen, I don't know if you can understand me," the young soldier yelled, "but that blast of electricity was a warning shot. I bet it hurt like a bitch, but if you don't halt and let me restrain you, I'll be forced to follow it up with something a little more lethal."
"I await the fulfillment of such a threat," Beard said, his hand suddenly weighted by the familiar heft of the Tattered Edge. A sliver of wonder flashed in the soldier's eyes before he turned his newest weapon upon the warrior and made good on his claim.
"Damn, Grant, you didn't even give him a chance to say hello," the man said, his eyes narrowed on the screen before him. He'd been watching as the young soldier, Grant, had ambushed their unwanted guest, whom the CPU had come to designate "Intruder1." Every so often the man, Alan, would peel his gaze away from that central screen to check some other facet of his post, which was the heart of this place, a command center with links to every machine and module. But always his eyes would return to the fight brewing on the main screen above his console. "Get that bastard!" he screamed, his own hand gripping the weapon at his side.
Again Beard was thrown back by an unseen impact, his torso opened up just below the bottom of his right ribs. The pain had the taste of old copper with a deep sting that burned like vinerash. And from the hole came a rush of scarlet blood so perfuse that it quickly obscured half the scar of Dethorith he'd been awarded upon internalizing the wyrmship, Satrian Falx. The warrior ignored the hole left by the hand-cannon and charged into battle, a trial of blood spilling out as he went. Grant fired two more shots, but Beard managed to evade one and deflect another with the edge of his sword by the grace of instinct. A metallic twang echoed down the hallway as the shot ricocheted from the blade and struck one of the many mechanical fixtures jutting from the high ceiling. It came crashing down behind Grant, but by then, the young soldier was being confronted by the full wrath of the warrior.
As easy as it would've been for Beard to assuage that streak of murder burning within his heart, he needed answers to the questions burning in his mind. Thus, instead of swinging his blade for a deathblow, the warrior drew the Tattered Edge into his body and struck the soldier's strange weapon with his balled fist. The hand-cannon flew from Grant's throbbing hand and collided with the wall to his right. The weapon seemed to shatter as if made from glass, leaving but a small black club with a spherical node at its base.
Then Grant was being driven into that same wall, the warrior's mighty hands lifting his modest frame by the neck from the metal floor beneath his black leather boots.
"What cowardice to use that firing machine in combat!" Beard roared. "Have you not the skill or honor to meet an opponent in true combat?"
"I was... ordered to... neu... neutralize you..." Grant sputtered against the hands that gripped his throat. "Were you ordered to do so in such a pathetic, scheming manner?" Beard barked.
The man said nothing, but the way he trembled beneath Beard's hands spoke the words his stilled tongue could not. "I could kill you... should kill you," Beard continued, "but I'm in more need of information than I am in sating bloodlust. Beard narrowed his eyes. "For now."
"I... I don't..."
"What is the name of this cursed place?" the warrior asked, raising the soldier even higher against the wall. Some of the machines affixed to the surrounding walls buzzed and clicked and seemed to follow the action. "Ack!" the man spat. "If you vomit on me, I swear to the Motherwolf I'll..." "Aquario!" "Aquario be the name?" "Yes," the young man said, his breathing raspy and staggered now. "The name of the city?" "Ssss..." Grant wheezed. Beard shook him violently. "City?" "The city of machines." Beard's tone had grown deeper with impatience. "No, no city..." the soldier said between coughs. "This vessel." "Vessel?" Beard inquired. "Mean you ship?" "In a... a way, yes." "Where is the Aquario?" The soldier stared down at Beard over the warrior's arms with glazed eyes. His head lulled for a moment before Beard relented in his grip but a bit, not out of mercy, but to allow for answers to flow through the pathetic boy's windpipe. Grant sputtered for a moment before sighing and continuing in a cracked voice that the warrior guessed had pervaded his speech but a few cycles ago when the boy's body had finally heard the call of the changes of life. "Last time I checked," said the young soldier. "We had just past seapoint-217, which is..." He bunched his eyebrows as if in concentration. "...twenty-four miles south of the lowest point of the Continent." "The Continent?" Beard asked indignantly. "Start speaking sense or I'll make sure any future words of yours are but grunts."
"The Continent..." Grant said, trying to recall the description he'd gotten during his briefing. "The land north of this sea and its islands. The smallest of two. The one with the weird wall. Sparsely populated by..." And then there was understanding in his eyes.
"You're one of them..." the soldier said in awe, his eyes widening. "One of the primitives."
"Poor choice of words," Beard said before pivoting and heaving the soldier into the opposite wall.
"Ah, shit..." Alan said from his command center. The words trailed the sight of Grant collapsing to the floor and the savage continuing down the corridor. The soldier, a few cycles older than the man who'd just been tossed to the wayside, leapt to his feet and withdrew a familiar club from his belt.
"Associate: Restraint Plates!" Alan bellowed as he raced to the access door beyond the vast network of machinery. The door closed on silence, all but the buzzing of the CPU and its countless children.
Beard trudged along, trying to ignore the compound pain of the previous battle. He tried to digest the information he'd beaten out of the pathetic soldier, but so few answers only ensnared his mind with further confusion. Still his mission remained the same: he would overcome this Aquario and return to Krytherion (the Continent?). And then vengeance would at long last be his. He could almost taste the... "End of the line, savage!" A flash of metal overtook the warrior and he was forced to his knees by a strange machine. Two concave metal plates hovered about him, their influence restraining him through some sort of forced paralysis. "Gotcha!" said a solider who'd appeared at the end of the hallway. Beard growled, attempting to break through the unseen shackles binding him. The new soldier approached the restrained warrior with bravado, a thin smirk parting his face. "I can't believe one of you savages managed to find a way onto this thing," the soldier said. "Grant and me could've gone our whole stay without a stowaway." "Free... me... or..." Beard grumbled. "Or...? What?" the soldier said with a chuckle. "Grant is a newbie, straight out of camp. I've been manning shit like this for years. You're not the first ape I've had to deal with, y'know." The soldier knelt before Beard to look him straight in the eye and then laughed again. "Such a pathetic, prehistoric satchel of..." Before he could finish, Beard called upon the Tattered Edge so that it first jutted from his spine to destroy the hovering metallic plate behind and then from his chest directly through the mark of the lidless eye to disable the other. Thus, in the span of time between heartbeats, Beard was standing once again, the two plates crashing to the ground in an explosion of sparks and thunder. "...shit." The soldier retreated in haste, his face pale, his hands trembling. "Dissociate: Restraining Plates!" he yelled as he went. Immediately, the ruined plates around Beard lost their reality, both desolving to nothingness as a mound of sand is wont to do in a desert wind storm. The warrior kept his eyes on the man, however, having grown tired of this place and its fell magicks. As the soldier rounded the distant corner, Beard took after him, his pace quickened by the urgency he felt in his heart. And though the soldier was driven by a desire to survive this chance meeting with a true son of the North, Beard was much swifter and was soon on his assailant like a charging devilboar. Beard delivered a heavy kick to the middle of the soldier's back, sending the man flying forward, well off his feet. The soldier came down as hard as the metal plates had, his arms and legs splayed, the metal rod he held skittering off farther down the hall. The man was quick to begin crawling away, which confirmed his cowardice to the warrior. And when his device was back in his hands, he leapt to his feet and continued his retreat. "Associate: Sonic Cannon!" the soldier yelled to the metal rod in his hand. There was a buzzing and then a dull thud from the device followed by the monotone unisex voice of a speaking machine. "Negative," it said. "Due to extensive damage to the OMNi-12 Æthershift Bastinade, required attached inter-dimensional materials cannot be drawn or assembled to form 'Sonic Cannon'" "Fine!" the man bellowed. "Associate: Buzzlauncher!" "Negative. Due to extensive..." "Associate: Adhesive Bomb!" "Negative. Due..." "Associate: hV.I.P.E.R. 2! Sparkspear! Restraining Plates!" "Neg-... Neg-... Negative. Due to..." "Useless wad of shit!" the fleeing man screamed, tossing the stubborn device over his shoulder as he picked up speed. "...extensive damage to the..." A moment later the heavy boot of the warrior came down upon the blathering machine. Then there was only the sound of the fleeing soldier's hurried footfalls and the ever-present hum of bigger machinery.
Moments later the door to the command core reopened as the retreating soldier, Alan, made his way back to where he'd spent the last six moons or so carrying out one of the important missions for the Colony, a mission his superiors had dubbed "Project Bluehook." The first directive of the mission had been to abstain from interacting with the native inhabitants of the land and, well, he'd more than failed on that count. But now that was in the past and the soldier was thinking about the future. About survival. Alan scrambled to where he'd kept his post for so long, looking for anything he could use to defend himself before... Just as the metal and glass doors were beginning to slide shut, they stopped and reopened before the brawny body of the intruder. The warrior walked into the room, his hand poised to call upon his blade, his keen eyes scanning for the man who'd assailed him. "You're in here, fiend," Beard said. "Show yourself or I'll swing my blade until it finds you." Silence. Stillness. "As you wish," Beard said with a measure of mock regret in his tone. He summoned the Tattered Edge and raised it skyward, his eyes searching for a good place to start. "Wait! Just... wait," came a timid voice behind the desk. Alan appeared, his hands empty and raised in surrender. "I'm unarmed and willingly submit." "No more magicks or machines?" "Um... no," the soldier said. "No, definitely not." "Do I need to relay what will happen if you go back on your word?" "No, I'll be good." Beard sheathed his sword within his body and took a few steps toward the cowering soldier, his eyes taking in the multitude of machinery in this great room. Alan could see that the warrior was impressed, but the soldier dared not express pride in the machines, sensing that the man before him was a cannon with an impossibly short fuse. "So, this is the Aquario, is it?" Beard asked. "Yes," Alan replied. "How did you know?" "Your friend told me before I rendered him unconscious," Beard said. "By the way, those uniforms of yours offer little protection." Alan was silent for a moment before an old question surfaced in his mind. "Okay then... how did you get here?" "A tear in the physical plain," the warrior replied. "On the Forgotten Isle." "The Forgotten Isle?" "Enough of your questions. It's my turn." Alan shifted uncomfortably in his boots, a small part of his mind wondering if fear sweat had overtaken him or if he'd simply wet himself. "Why are you here?" "We... well..." Yeah, definitely piss. "We're on a mission from our colony to gather fresh water." "You mean to steal water from the Inner-World?" Beard roared. "No, no!" the man exclaimed, taking a step back in terror. "The Aquario... it's equipped to bring our stale water and exchange it with fresh water here. Both are filtered, though the water we drop off must circulate through the local water ways to be truly purified." "What kind of deviltry is this?" "Not deviltry," Alan responded. "More like controlled environmental manipulation. See, we... uhh... create a localized weather system over the sea with the used water, which falls as rain, as we draw in the new water from the sea itself." "You... control a seastorm with this ship?" "Well, yes, a particularly violent one, to be honest," Alan replied. "But it needs to be so or we'd be here forever." "You!" Beard barked. "You're the Stormcoming?! You're the ones who've interrupted life in the Inner-World? You're the bastards who barred my passage back to Krytherion?" "What? I was... we were just..." "Enough jawshit," Beard said through set teeth. He brought the Tattered Edge down on the corner of the metal desk with one fell swoop, the severed chunk falling off with a loud CLANG!" "Please..." "You think cowering will garner mercy?" "No, I just... I don't want to die. I have a family! Kids! I have lots of kids. And... and I hate this damn job! I told them it was a stupid idea to interfere with you savages... uh... you people." Beard leapt onto the desk, his blade poised once more to deal death. "No, please, don't kill me!" Alan pleaded. "I can... I can take you to the Continent! Yes! I can take you there! No problem!" "Then do it," Beard said, his ice-rimmed eyes locked on the trembling man. The soldier broke his gaze from the towering man and sat at the desk, his hands quickly working the many consoles around him.
A span of time that passed as the Aquario's course was redirected toward Krytherion seemed long to both the warrior and the soldier. Neither said a word in that time, barely moved save for Alan's hands, which made the necessary changes in the CPU's programming to allow for the detour. Beard had only once taken his eyes from the man to peek at the many screens overhead, those which showed different parts of the ship, including one with Grant, who was yet unconscious. Then Alan looked up at the warrior and nodded, pointing to a screen at the far end of the bank. Beard looked past the man and saw Krytherion for the first time in moons and his heart ached for home. Then he jumped off the desk, though his hand remained faithful in its positioning of the blade. "There... the Continent," Alan said. "Yar," Beard said. "Then... you'll be leaving?" the soldier said timidly. Beard gave the man a hard look. But before any other words could be exchanged, the doors slid open behind them and Grant charged into the room. "Stop, savage!" Grant screamed. "Surrender or face our..." Then he saw the blade pointed at Alan's neck and relented. "Grant," Alan said. "It's okay. I agreed to take him to the Continent in exchange for, y'know, not being murdered." "I never agreed to such an exchange," Beard said. Grant and Alan turned their eyes to the warrior, both pairs widening in terror. "But fate shows you favor for I must hurry to the mainland to deal death elsewhere." The soldiers looked at one another, relief filling their widened eyes. "Yes, yes," said one. "Good, good," said the other. "But..." the warrior continued, reclaiming their attention, "as I am leaving, so too must you." "Whoa, whoa," Alan said. "We can't." "Yeah, people back home are depending on this water." The Tattered Edge sliced through the air a dozen times before the shaken warriors were aware that Beard was launching an attack. Then the warrior was finished and all was calm save the black sparks that remained after the blade had been stilled. The soldiers had but a moment to crumple their faces in puzzlement before the many machines at the heart of the Aquario began to fall apart. The sound of raining metal and freed electricity deafened the soldiers, but not before a loud alarm began to blare overhead. "WARNING!" a monotone voice broke in through the whine. "EXTENSIVE DAMAGE DEALT TO THE CENTRAL PROCESSING UNIT AND SEVERAL LINKED SYSTEMS AND MODULES. STATUS: IRREPARABLE. MODE OF ACTION SUGGESTED: ABORT VESSEL, DESTRUCTION IMMINENT. REPEAT: ABORT VESSEL, DESTRUCTION IMMINENT." "Why the blue hell did you do that?!" Grant screamed from behind the warrior. "Do you realize you just killed thousands, you goddamned savage?!" Alan screamed with renewed bravado. "Thanks for the ride," Beard said without satisfaction. Then the warrior turned from the soldiers and tossed the Tattered Edge into the air beyond the command center. He leapt into the air after it, no longer hearing the protests, only concentrating on the test of strength before him. He caught the hilt of the sword and redirected its momentum into a cleaving blow that punched a wide hole into the steel wall with a shower of dark embers. This hole opened on a new corridor that ran perpendicular to the length of the command center. But Beard was no longer interested in affixed passageways for he was wont to carve his own path. And carve it he did. Thrice more Beard peeled back the steel walls before him with his accursed blade, the protests of the soldiers and the blare of the alarms distant to his ears. The Aquario had begun to quake by then, but Beard's balance stayed true. And then that final wall fell away and the warrior saw Krytherion proper just beyond an ile of inky sea. He spared the screaming soldiers a final hard glance and jumped from the gaping hole his cruel weapon had made in the side of the vessel, that which had spawned the tempest that had kept the warrior from Thorgithe for so long. And as he fell, he watched as Aquario, a great steel dragon of enormous girth, fall to pieces behind him, explosions tearing it apart as it sat perched on the violent waves of the sea beneath it, the whole of it barely visible inside its cocoon of windswept mist.
See well the great machine that had claimed the Southern Sea, barring all passage save for one particular shewolf with the ability to navigate the winds. See how it crumples in on itself, how flames overtake the steel flesh of this false dragon. And do you see the rains beginning to abate, that the legendary Stormcoming has at long last ceased? And so the great beast of metal dies in a final earth-shaking explosion, its shattered mechanisms like falling stars raining down upon earth and sea for iles.
"Grant!" Alan yelled from the floating chunk of metal he'd managed to swim to a few minutes after the explosion had sent him hurtling into the sea. He was shaken, bruised and battered, but alive. But his partner? "Grant? Answer me!"
As fragments of the ruined vessel Aquario rained down around him, pockmarking the black waves of the Southern Sea, Alan felt in the breastpocket of his tunic for another device. He sighed in relief as it came free, smiled when it powered up, and actually began to laugh when it successfully connected to the main communication system. He did one last sweep of the vicinity with his eyes and, seeing naught but flaming debris, pushed the CALL button and spoke. "Central!" he said, his tone sharp over the nearby waves. "Aquario has been destroyed. Repeat: Aquario has been destroyed by a hostile native. Project Bluehook has failed. Request immediate retrieval at my coordinates." There was a moment of silence that pained the solder's heart before he heard a crackle and then the voice of one of his commanders. "Understood," came to response. "Request accepted. Search drone 'Angel' en route to SP-199. You will file a full report immediately upon returning to the colony." "Understood, sir." Alan replied. "And Grant? I haven't been able to locate him after the..." "Time is short," the voice said through the communicator. "We've time to save one of you. Who will it be?" Alan didn't need long to decide. And a few moments later, the drone was overhead, lowering a ladder to the former captain of the Aquario, he who would return to his colony empty-handed to answer to the thousands who were to die because of his cowardice.
After the soldier had been retrieved and the waters had calmed in the wake of their upheaval, a mighty hand shot out of the sea and gripped the shore of Krytherion. The hand was followed by another and then a head with a glorious, black beard. The rest of the brawn followed until Beard Weirheowdth was standing upon the shore of the mainland once more. The warrior summoned his sword and buried its blade in the sand, its hilt supporting his heft as he gained his bearings. He looked not behind him but ever ahead. And before him was a vast desert of shifting sands, a place he knew of only from legend. He had come upon the western coast, to a land of mystery severed from both Southron and the Northlands by strange magicks.
But Beard looked past the mystery, past the magicks and the Black Wall, and saw Thorgithe. He saw the war there and the man who'd brought it, the Dark One. The warrior would have his revenge, oh yes. For he had returned and the time had come to fulfill promise and prophecy once and for all.