by F. Charles Murdock
“Mother!” Beard screamed, his mind reclaiming its bearings after slipping away into a vision of his blood-mother falling into the pit Cōm-Labi. He’d watched in grim awe as she’d plummeted... her and his wolfkin, Ierremod, last living pup of Wuthweirgen. And then he’d seen their assailant, the man in the black robes.
Then the Dark One was indeed a man of his word...
Beard stood at the far edge of Demonholme, his dark blade before him, his heart behind. She’d been there in the strange city, perhaps a hundred paces from his wayward advance, his love above all things, Val’Naren, maiden of the dimrealm. But she had forced him away. Her words had been gentle, yes, but still they’d stung, for love had rebuked the warrior. In all the ways the world could betray him, he never dreamed his heart’s love would be among them. And yet he understood that she had pressed him on for a reason, though such still eluded his battle-frenzied mind.
So he’d fought his way through the outskirts of the demonic city, its spires ancient but pristine. He’d had little time to reflect upon its beauty, however, for its guardians had been quick to come, as swiftly as had that terrible vision. Wave after wave of the sentient weapons had risen up against the warrior, their attack coordinated, but flawed. Thus Beard had cut through their loose phalanx and headed east on the advice of his lost love, the demoness who’d sent him away.
Now Beard looked out upon a great machine at the east-most point of the isle, a floor of moving tiles that would bring him to some unknown city coupled with the one in his wake. It smelled of heat and passed jerkily as if about to give up the ghost. The warrior scanned the floor, ignoring its intricacies in favor of preparation for battle for surely there would be more guardians to meet him as he went. Aye, weren’t there always for warriors as deft as Beard?
So Beard turned his mind from its cruel vision and leapt onto the wide tram, feeling his orientation slip away as he adjusted to its strange pull. In the scant light beyond the gate to this machine, Beard could see just how massive the moving floor was, easily the width of eight steeds placed tail to crown. Its tiles were ash-gray and soft on the heel, though Beard could feel the thrum of tremulant metal beneath as they pulled him along. Its length and depth were still to be determined, but the warrior was satisfied with what his keen eyes had relayed to him thus far, that he would have enough space to deal his vengeance if he was called to it.
Far below the moving floor, Beard could hear the babble of waves crashing in the open sea. He could see no such water over the tram’s edge for the darkness was most obscuring, but his senses told him that this machinery was suspended above the very water he’d navigated to arrive at these strange isles.
So Beard trudged into the dimness before him, his body swiftly acclimating to the pull of the floor, his mind burning with the want of battle and the renewed need to return to his homeland to avenge the fallen, most of all his poor father, the betrayed King Bergrin, for such vengeance had a long-standing tradition in the cold lands of Thorgithe. So Beard left the demonic isle and entered a realm he never thought possible.
“So you’ve found the Forgotten Isle, little Beardling,” the robed man said from the catacombs beneath the Long Hall of Kgortel in what was once the grand seat of Thorgithe. This man, the Dark One, he who had unlocked the Black Door into Beard’s mind to send him the vision of his mother’s plummet, stood beneath a great black arch where not too long ago the Council Elders of Thorgithe sentenced their greatest warrior, Beard Weirheowdth, to exile. Now the Elders lay dead, slain by the Dark One’s own cruel hand, the same that put into motion the untimely death of the land’s king, Bergrin the Knowing and, thus, Beard’s exile.
The man who as once Brog smiled then beneath his black hood, his eyes scanning the strange structure around him.
“I grow impatient,” he said in a whisper that echoed through the vast catacombs beneath the heart of Thorgithe. “And look at this... it seems you aren’t alone on the island.”
The Dark One threw aside his robe then, his body covered in a tunic of strange design, tanned black with emblems of magicks most fell. He raised his hands to the arch as if in veneration and began chanting atonal words. In a flash, his opened hands were filled with cruel iron, a black blade borne of despair and ruin, called forth from the void inside the man where a soul once resided.
“Perhaps we should see how far you’ve really come, Beard,” he said after the incantations had died away and his blade was brought to his side. “Perhaps it is time to test fate and prophecy.”
Beard walked along the moving tram, growing impatient with the machinery beneath his heavy boots. His eyes had adjusted quickly to the hazy blue glow of electricity that surged along the ceiling inside long tubes of glass. The warrior had heard of such magicks in his youth, had even seen such bottled lightning within the throne room of Aguras in Agrahime, the Red City of Kgoreth in the TottenMarsh. As if sharing in his memory, his blade, the Tattered Edge, gleamed suddenly in the dimness, its black light soon lost in the dancing shadows that hung about the tram.
“What deviltry is this?” Beard muttered, his attention caught between the machinery below and the electricity above. His instincts were primed, his senses as sharp as his blade, for his blood had thickened in anticipation of meeting the lurking darkness. And at that Beard felt a presence, familiar and terrible. He set his teeth and narrowed his eyes, his knuckles white against the hilt of his cursed blade.
“I feel you there, daemon,” Beard shouted. “Make no mistake... my blade will find thee.”
Beard stopped his advance, the tram carrying him along as he knelt, his muscles lax and ready for action. He took the Tattered Edge in both hands and bated his breath. But before he could call into the darkness a second time, a voice came to him and he knew his instincts had been true.
“Why couldn’t you have just died on the island of the Stag, manling?” the voice said from within the dimness. Beard narrowed his eyes to filter out the electric glow around him, though his sight ultimately failed him at such a distance. Beyond the hum of the tram he could hear a death rattle and grinned... yonder fiend sounded near death already.
“Death isn’t wont to befriend me, daemon,” Beard said. “Now show ye to your destroyer.”
“Ralmos decreed you be killed on that isle as a warning to the Stag Skøgrevid and the other pathetic gods that still bind him,” the voice continued. Then the voice devolved, dropping two whole octaves so that the very darkness seemed to be speaking. “’The son of prophecy must be made an example,’ he decreed after you slayed the voidling, it of the lidless eye, it that is scrolled atop your wretched heart, lock undone, realm unbound. ‘Ralmos alone is beyond all prophecy and greater than the will of even destiny and fate. All that has been pretold will fail before the coming of the Crystalline Eye.’”
Beard spat upon the tram before his boots.
The darkness replied with a warbling growl that made the warrior’s skin prickle.
“Cease your endless chattering,” the warrior said. “Come and die unwell.”
Then the warrior saw his adversary and thought it impossible for he’d seen the thing struck down on that very isle of the Stag not so long ago. He’d seen it writhe and die, had heard its deathsong as the damned Isenshrike had entered the fray once more. A “Yisk” the raven-god’s errand boy, Samhaim, had called it. But now...
The black mist of the unthing, the fleshswap, roiled in the center of the tram before Beard, its form ever-changing beneath the glow of the artificial lights. It moved not, but allowed the warrior to be carried toward it by the machinery beneath.
“Ah, you are curious about my continued existence,” the skinshyft said.
“Never mind curiosity,” Beard replied, “for it is overwrought by my desire to see your death twice in my lifetime.”
“Still so arrogant, manling,” the unthing said with a cackle. “But you must know that I am not the creature you battled before.”
Beard raised his blade at the spectre.
“Yes, son of prophecy,” it continued, “take up your blade against this shade of the slain for I am no longer of your realm. The Yisk that was is dead and forgotten, true. But I am its hatred incarnate, its faceless wrath. You are helpless against me.”
“So many words for such little to say,” the warrior said before leaping at the unthing, sword angled for the promised deathblow.
The hum of the moving floor was overtaken then by the cackle of the formless shade. Beard set his teeth against the deep chirping as his body cut through the air in the wake of his blade. Then the Tattered Edge was stabbed down into the unthing and all became dark and silent.
Awareness found Beard in the faint realm that had first come to him aboard the ghostship of Deft Finnigan. He was perched upon a sprawling mirror, his eyes on the blade that had sought to end the unthing’s miserable existence for a second time. He could see the roiling black atmosphere to this strange place for it was illuminated, though the warrior could neither see nor sense a source of light. The fleshswap, in the guise of Val’Naren, had told Beard that such a place was the warrior’s soul after he’d been ambushed on that ghostship, Gunguniro, where he’d dealt a death most unjust. And how it pained him still.
How dare the unthing return him to this wretched plain.
“Then this be the place you’ve chosen to die at last?” Beard asked, pulling the edge of his blade from the surface of the mirror. He ignored his reflection, choosing instead to scan the dark horizon to sate the bloodlust in his heart.
The unthing appeared in the distance, its form yet nondescript, its shape wavering between existence and the nothingness that had spawned it. The warrior locked his eyes on the black wisps and gripped the hilt of his blade, ready once again to make good on his threat.
“You come to die in your true form, I see,” Beard said.
“As I’ve lost my body, so too have I lost my ability to manipulate perception,” the unthing said, “but such does not matter, warrior, for I will destroy you nonetheless and on the very surface of your tainted soul.”
Beard chuckled at such lunacy, his laughter dying away into the churning blackness overhead. Silence came then as it does before all great battles and storms in history’s long annals. Beard’s attention was drawn downward into the wide reflection beneath, though the reflection be not a true mimic. A bolt of wonder shot through the warrior as his eyes scanned the reality below him, a mirrored representation of a dream from long ago, one set in the Long Hall of Kgortel where he was forced to watch a strange version of the gruesome murder of his father, King Bergrin, by the hands of the blood-traitor Brog. Twice this vision had come to him, now thrice. The thick soles of his boots rested upon those of his reflection, though the latter looked younger, less quest-worn. Below the unthing swayed his pale, naked father and beyond rose the grand walls that had once held aloft the fortress of Kgortel himself. Beard knew well how this terrible vision ended...
“For Ralmos!” the wretched unthing screeched and flitted forward before jerking to a sudden halt a few paces from where Beard was preparing a swift parry. A long blade erupted through the heart of the unthing and it screamed, its smoky form folding in on itself as a humanoid body stepped through it like a waning portal. At the same time, the reflected dream world showed Brōg’s blade skewering the writhing body of King Bergrin. Then the shade that was once a Yisk, those keepers of the songs of life, dissipated around the form of the robed man from Beard’s deathful vision.
Beard split his attention between the murder of his father in the mirrored world below and the presence of the strange man now sharing the surface of the endless mirror. As Bergrin’s dissected corpse dropped to the floor of his great-grandfather and Brog, that perfidious bastard, stepped over his body, Beard watched as the robed man raised his black blade past the hood obscuring his face and stabbed it into the mirror beneath.
Brog spoke to the warrior’s reflection below. “One day... it will be... clear... to you.”
There was a blinding flash then and a great quake as the mirror began to break away, the two worlds – real and dream – melting into one.
Beard felt his foot connect with a solid body as he delivered a kick through the blinding light. The Long Hall of Kgortel faded into existence around the warrior, not reflection but reality. He could smell the age of the place, felt its chill, the taste of the North refreshing but acrid. The Brog of previous visions skidded backwards to the buried sword, the Unnamed, that which had murdered Bergrin in these strange visions. Then the traitor took up the blade, his eyes brimming with mad hatred.
Beard took the offensive, feeling as though fate had already decided his movements, that this battle had been fought before. And hadn’t it just? But nay, something deep within the warrior told him that this battle was different somehow, more real, an experience of true substance. So blade denied blade, sending both warriors reeling time and again, both setting and recoiling with each brutal blow. Brog pivoted his weight to his weaker side after the third of these fruitless exchanges, hoping to lure the Tattered Edge astray. But Beard knew well this trick.
Not this time, old man, the warrior thought to himself. Beard feigned a blind advance, but when he struck at the core of his old mentor, he did so with nimble hands. Brog evaded this attack, sure he’d outsmarted his former pupil, only to find the warrior’s blade buried in his innards. So the master had been mastered. Brog dropped the Unnamed then and wrapped the warrior in a powerful bearhug, driving the Tattered Edge ever deeper into his own gut.
Brog leaned in, his lips against the cup of Beard’s ear as if to share a secret, and spoke in a rattling whisper.
“The dream is over, boy,” he said, “for I have come to give it credence.”
Another flash exploded before Beard, this one thick and dark, and the warrior felt the man’s heft leave the edge of his blade. Over Brog’s nude chest appeared a strange tunic and then flowing black robe and a hood that obscured his face. The traitor jumped away and planted his sword in the stone floor before his light boots, his hands held outward in invitation, his hood thrown back as sinister laughter filled the Long Hall of Kgortel.
At long last Beard had come to know a great hidden truth, that his two mortal adversaries were but one, that Brog was the Dark One, that he alone was the black scourge upon the whole of the Inner World.
“So we meet again, Beardling,” the Dark One said.
“Nay, not really... for Brog is dead,” the robed man said with a low smile. “I ate his soul long ago.”
“You’ll pay for killing my claim,” Beard said, the Tattered Edge now resting upon his shoulder, its dark aura made all the more haunting by the torchlight beyond the ovate table of this faraway throne room. “But for killing my father-king, you will suffer.”
“That I doubt,” the traitor said with chuckle.
Beard rolled his head, feeling each vertebra in his neck release a satisfying pop, and motioned for the robed man to come at him with his free hand.
“Ah, and how did you like seeing your mother die, warriorling?” the Dark One said in lieu of the obligation to attack.
Beard said naught, but set his blade before him.
“You still haven’t learned to shield your mind from intrusion,” the robed man continued, “which is odd considering just how thick your skull is.”
“Enough words,” Beard said and then leapt into the air just as he had at the vanquished creature of the unreal but moments ago.
The Tattered Edge split naught but air as the Dark One rolled aside, the hood of his robe trailing him like a flap of loose flesh. Beard pulled his sword around in a wide arch near the height of his chest, but again the Dark One evaded. The hhhuuu-hhhuuu of the blade slicing through the air seemed deafening in the silence around them, but was quickly drowned out by the Dark One’s cackle.
“Such a long journey and yet you’ve learned so little of battle,” the traitor goaded, dodging another swing of the warrior’s blade. “By the way, Beard, you’re welcome.”
“You welcome your death!” Beard roared, pulling his blade inside his body in favor of his great fists. He brought his hands together like a club and rushed the robed man, but still was unable to land a blow.
“That Yiskshade would’ve torn you apart from the inside out if not for me,” the Dark One said with grim satisfaction. “You lack a blade of any importance.”
Beard roared again and threw himself at his old adversary, though he tackled naught but shadows.
“A true wraithblade is what you truly seek,” the man said. “Or, shall I say, is what seeks you.”
Beard threw a heavy fist toward the voice, but it was stopped by an equally heavy and gloved hand.
“Come avenge all who’ve fallen, Beard,” the Dark One said in a tone of stark seriousness. “For if you don’t, I will destroy everything and everyone you hold dear. Do you understand?”
The man’s grip was impossibly strong.
Beard trembled against this strength, his rage filling him like black blood. Then he was thrown away from those cruel hands as a new presence cut through the strange reality around him.
Satrian Falx, the last of the great wyrmships from an age long past, tore through the throne room and vaulted the Dark One into the air, its teeth poised to tear the robed man to pieces.
“Satrian!” Beard screamed, rising to his feet to aid his faithful ship in battle. The warrior vaulted himself off the ovate table and into the air once more, his thick arms raised to pummel the traitorous bastard overhead. But in a flash of black light, the Dark One was below both of them, his hand unsheathing his terrible blade from the pockmarked stone floor of Kgortel’s hall. As the blade slid free, the world seemed to melt away to darkness in both sight and sound.
Beard found awareness once again on the strange moving floor, its hum jarring after the heavy silence he’d just endured. He set his eyes before him and saw not the unthing from before, but the Dark One and the wyrmship locked in battle. Beard tried to join the fray, but found himself unable for only his mind had been freed of the netherealm.
“Come and challenge prophecy,” he heard the Dark One say. And then he saw the flash of a dark sword and a wide X form on the underbelly of Satrian Falx. The wyrm screeched and crumpled to the ground and then was silent and motionless.
The Dark One turned to Beard once more and sheathed his long sword, a grin splitting his haggard face. “And still... one day it will be clear to you.”
And then the traitor was gone in a final dark flash.
As soon as he was able, Beard ran to his wyrmship’s side. The dragon lay belly over back, a gaping wound spilling blood as dark and thick as pitch. The warrior saw well the X carved in the wyrm’s abdomen and thought but one word: Dethorith, the Thorgithen means of execution for those deemed dishonorable. Such a terrible way to die.
Beard knelt beside the great draconian head of the wyrmship and bated his breath to listen for that of Satrian. A low wheeze came from the wyrm’s mighty throat, but the warrior had heard enough death rattles in his life to know what was to come.
“So I’ve... come to my... end,” the wyrmship sputtered.
“Satrian...” Beard began, his heart heavy. “I will avenge you, I swear it.”
“Honor thy words, warrior,” Satrian said. “But I worry...”
Beard’s eyes beckoned the wyrm to continue.
“Who will save you from your own folly... now that I am slain?” Satrian finished with a chuckle.
“I will not forget your deeds,” Beard said, his heart alight with new vengeance.
The wyrmship said nothing, only rolled its great eyes to the electric glow above as the floor shifted ever on beneath.
“You will carry on,” Beard said, rising to his feet, “for I will carry you on myself.”
Satrian closed its narrow eyes, the many scales along its jaw relaxing around the ancient fangs therein.
Beard watched in agony as the wyrmship fell away from the physical plain, but before the Great Beyond had claimed it, the warrior placed a mighty hand over the heart of Satrian Falx and closed his eyes.
“I will not howl for you yet,” Beard muttered before clearing his mind.
Beneath his hand, the wyrm began to tremble. Beard felt the warm scales beneath his palm grow cold as the black blood of the dragon flowed down its eviscerated belly. Then the warrior opened wide that Black Door within his thoughts and drew upon the wyrm with his mind. Bolts of pain stiffened his body, his arms pulled taut as fire raced through his thickened blood. He roared against the pain, but kept true to the drawing, his body numbed to its own senses, all but the renewed warmth beneath his hand and the pain entombing him.
His mind was filled with a terrible buzzing, his heart pounding like a war drum, his muscles injected with hot lead. He called to the wyrmship through the darkness of his mind, reaching out to it through the black fog that clouded the mirror of his mortal soul. He reached through the violet slivers of the Tattered Edge lurking within. He reached through the mark of Turin’s Wall and the burn of the Lidless Eye. He trained his very being upon the waning light of the Satrian Falx that was and drew it forth, through flesh and marrow, heart and soul.
Thus the wyrmship was borne anew inside its last captain, their bond preserved against even the call of the Last Path and the Bone Gate at its end. So the shifting body of Satrian Falx was pulled within Beard’s own, the black scar of its death placed in a wide X upon his own torso beneath the mark of the Lidless Eye. In this way, the last of the wyrmships, it that had defied death even at the hands of Turin the Great so long ago, found sanctuary from death’s covetous embrace.
Only then did Beard howl, though the pain be great. He stood and bellowed in the way of the Motherwolf for death had come to him once more by the cruel hands of the traitor. And because death had goaded the warrior yet again for as Satrian Falx perished beneath the mighty hand of the warrior, Beard was reminded that he was to forever be denied a glorious death in battle, that the old ways of the warrior were to go unhonored.
Then the warrior’s howl died away and there was naught but the dimness around him and the heaviness in his heart as the gate to the new city appeared in the distance before him. He stood and faced it, his face grim, his eyes blazing. So came he to a relic from an age long forgotten.