Chasing Army by F. Charles Murdock
“Ah, yes, Turin’s Wall, yes. I’ve seen it, I have. Tasted its construction, y’see. Most peculiar it is, yes. No sustenance to be found in them stones, let me tell you. Black as they are. Yes, not t’all.” -Bisbane the Unstable
“Hai, warrior!” were the last words Beard had heard before his senses left him and the gradient of the cloudless sky began to sway overhead. He was stricken with darkness there, only paces from the boneyard of that ancient, nameless township. His memory splintered, coming in violent flashes as his wits were ripped away from his battle-weary mind. Cruce fon Brambell had seen the warrior drop, but some deep sense of self-preservation had stopped him from lunging to save Beard: truth be told, the broad body of the warrior would have crushed the scrawny Death-Dealer. So the warrior hit the ground, exhaustion finally ushering his body into a state of deep sleep. Beard fought this loss of consciousness with all his will, managing to pull himself back to the brink of awareness a few times before succumbing to it entirely. In flashes, he saw Cruce saying something at his side -- bloodless incantations, perhaps. Then he was being carried by the soulless undead that followed their shifty master. Then he saw the triangle of tombstones... then darkness. No dreams came to Beard during his hard slumber, no prophecies from his dead father either. Just darkness and the sound of the weakened thump of his heart.
When Beard awoke, Sol had retired to the unknown darkness below the far horizon, the stars above glimmering around a fat blood-moon. The warrior was quick to sit up, but a flare of pain stopped him from climbing to his feet. A fierce burn had overtaken his arms, sending bolts of fire through his chest when he moved. An anger rose in the warrior’s heart, burning far more intensely than the pain crawling beneath his flesh. He used this pain as fuel, slowly rising to his feet, his arms all the while licked by unseen flames.
“Oh grand, you’ve not perished,” Cruce said a few paces from where Beard now stood. “That news is well-appreciated: I didn’t much feel like setting a fourth tombstone this night.”
“Stifle your haughtiness, Death-Dealer,” Beard barked. “We both know well you’d have me for your damnable army before lifting even a shovelful of consecrated ground.”
“You underestimate how difficult it is to bring someone back from the dead,” Cruce said.
“And you underestimate how difficult it is to stop myself from punching a hole through your dog-face,” Beard retorted.
“Aye, aren’t we a feisty one this night,” Cruce said with a grin. “But ruining such an immaculate face will be made all the more difficult -- or nigh on impossible, I should say -- by the terrible pain that must be ravishing your arms at this very moment.”
“Of what do you speak?!” Beard roared. “What is this that pains me? Is this your devilish work? For if it is, by the gods, I will clean my nethers with your heart after I tear off your-”
“Calm yourself, o barbarous one,” Cruce said. “Again, you’re wont to trade jousts while I’ve taken steps to help you.”
“I need not the help of some accursed whelp born of the badlands, who deals in the black arts... who resurrects those who should be laid to rest.”
“Death is death,” Cruce said, his grin widening above his slender chin. “A very boring man once told me that. Now, warrior, what line of work might you be in? Sh’yvyn Wyrm feeding or thereabouts? Hm?”
“I kill with honor. The death I cause bears meaning and reason,” Beard said, crouching as another bolt of pain shot through him. “Because of the dark path you’ve chosen, your very life lacks both.”
“That’s rather philosophical for a brutish man-ape hell-bent on destroying those who offer him a hand of help,” Cruce said. “I need no help,” Beard said.
“Then shall I let you die?”
“It will take much more than pain to send me along the Last Path, Death-Dealer,” Beard scoffed.
“Aye,” Cruce said, “but what of the black toxins coursing through your blood?”
“You still wish to deny my help?” Cruce asked.
“Explain!” Beard yelled.
“Have you not seen your arms?”
Beard suppressed another retort, choosing instead to peer down at his forearms. Even in the darkness of night, he could see just how black they’d become. He narrowed his eyes to inspect the wounds, but the pain arrested him. What daemonry is this? he asked himself.
“Do you see now, warrior?” Cruce asked after Beard had returned his eyes to the death-dealer.
“What caused this poisoning?” Beard asked, his hands in fists, his arms trembling in pain.
“Is it not apparent?”
“Stop answering my questions with your own!” Beard yelled. “Remember this well, death-dealer...”
“Necromancer...” Cruce interrupted.
Beard growled. “Remember well that I can snap you in twain, dying arms or no,” he spat.
Cruce sighed, his little game with the warrior growing stale. He slunk a few paces from Beard, daring to turn his back on an enraged Thorgithen warrior. His response came quickly, however, after realizing the truth in Beard’s threat.
“You’ve contracted vinerash, dear warrior,” Cruce said, turning back to Beard. The undead seemed to shudder in unison at that word, releasing a chorus of howls as they shied away from the two men.
“Vinerash?” Beard asked.
“Aye,” Cruce said, taking a seat on the largest of the three granite headstones. “An affliction only found in the Eastwood, if I’m not mistaken. What happened there, warrior?”
“Need you ask? You saw what happened.”
“Nay, I heard what happened,” Cruce said. “There was a struggle, to be sure, but when I came upon you, the whole forest was looking to devour you.”
“They didn’t stand a chance,” Beard said, his anger abating for the moment.
“And the legendary Thorgithen arrogance rears its head,” Cruce spat. “Need I remind you that I saved your hide in those damned woods?”
“I thought your little minions had done most of the saving,” Beard said with a smirk of his own.
“Semantics, warrior,” Cruce said. “Either way, you’d be beyond now if not for me.”
“Hear me well, death-dealer...” Beard said.
“Necromancer!” Cruce interrupted.
“You will be paid in kind,” Beard continued unfazed. “A heedless whelp like you will, no doubt, find himself at the threshold of the Great Beyond a great many times.”
Cruce said nothing, but gave the warrior a sideways glare. Beard chuckled at the belittled Necromancer, his laughter joining the haunting calls of the undead. Still chuckling, he raised his arms to the twilit sky to better view this “vinerash” about which Cruce had spoken so grimly.
Beard’s arms were indeed black, seeming to fester as the toxins made their way deeper into his body. He grimaced, bringing his right hand to his left forearm to get a feel for the wound. When he laid hands upon it, though, the pain flared, though this time, he was struck with horror so pervasive that the burn barely registered.
The warrior withdrew his hand, but with it came a long strip of fowl flesh, black and throbbing like some decaying colony of scabs strung together by long-congealed blood. Beard dropped it, watching it writhe on the dusty ground like a dry, dying serpent. He took a step away from the stench of rotting meat and set his eyes on Cruce.
“Worry not, warrior,” the Death-Dealer said. “That wasn’t yours.”
Beard remained silent, his glare hard and unyielding.
“It’s part of your therapy,” Cruce said.
“Therapy?” Beard scoffed. “The Thorgithen know not that craven word.”
“Of course not,” Cruce said with a sigh. “That flesh you removed belonged to one of them.” The death-dealer pointed to the drove of undead nearby. “Their flesh, though repugnant as all hells, has the ability to draw toxins from wounds. One of these bastards is half-skeletal now for your wounds required much mending on my part. You’re welcome.”
Disgusted, Beard ripped away the leather bindings that kept the decaying flesh coiled so tightly around his own. He peeled the skin away, groaning as it liquefied in his hands. Soon, the warrior’s bindings were a heap on the ground before him, their sour reek still prevalent above the much sweeter scent of the surrounding vegetation.
“This vinerash of which you speak,” Beard said as he surveyed his red, blistered forearms, “how did I come to contract it?” “From a vine, warrior,” Cruce groaned. “Gods, you truly are dense, aren’t you?”
With the speed of a thunderclap, Beard had his hands around the death-dealer’s neck. Both sets of eyes bulged, one pair in anger, the other in fright. Again the undead turned to the warrior, advancing on him to save their distressed master. The chokehold continued as Beard raised Cruce from his perch and slammed him on the hard ground at the epicenter of the headstones.
Cruce gasped in a daze, his groans now joining those of his muddled army.
“Such a sharp tongue for such a scrawny wretch,” Beard said. “Hear me well, death-dealer...”
“Nec... necro...” Cruce sputtered.
“One more insult and I’ll bury you,” Beard finished. “Now... harden up and tell me that which I desire to know or I’ll leave you half-skeletal.”
“The... Eastwood,” Cruce said, slowly regaining his composure. “During the... battle. You must... must’ve come in contact with... with one of their... poisonous vines.”
Beard remembered well the fight in the heart of the Eastwood, most of all when he’d been ensnared by a fell tree’s vines only to have used them as a weapon against its kin. Only now was it apparent that such a strategy had come at a grave cost. “That I did,” Beard thought aloud. “As did the beasts the Eastwood was offering me. I’d been sure those vines had choked the life out of them, but poison explains the rapid decay.”
“Beasts?!” Cruce blurted, sitting upright as suddenly as he’d been dumped between the tombstones. “Tell me, warrior, did you, perchance, seek slumber within the confines of the forest?”
“I did,” Beard said, seeming lost in thought.
“You idiot!” Cruce screamed, immediately regretting his choice of words as soon as he was met with Beard’s grimace. “What I mean to say is... the forest had poisoned you long before those vines took hold of you.”
“Explain,” Beard said, anger burning behind his eyes.
“The Eastwood thrives on its trespassers,” Cruce said. “It lures them in and feeds on their souls. And it will do so by any means necessary.”
“Then as I slept...?”
“A man is at his most vulnerable when he’s at his least alert, of this I’m sure you know,” Cruce said.
“While you slept, then, the forest put its spell upon your head,” Cruce said.
“And the nature of this spell?” Beard asked.
“Answer me this,” Cruce said. “Did you see any beasts in the forest before joining the Dream Realm?”
“No,” the warrior answered, “naught but grubs.”
“Those were no beasts you saw back there, warrior,” Cruce said grimly. “Those were the soulless husks of men tempted by the forest made to look like beasts through cursed eyes.”
“But they were many,” Beard whispered to himself. “Innumerable.”
“By any means necessary...” Cruce said.
“You know much of the Eastwood,” Beard said, gazing into the twilight above, the once persistent army of the undead now milling around their master. “Tell me, how did you come by this knowledge?”
“I’ve seen my fair share of that damned place, let me tell you,” Cruce said, his tone somber and pensive.
“Yes, now you tell me something, warrior,” Cruce said, getting to his feet. “Who is this Brōg fellow?”
“Brōg?” Beard asked, his gaze set on the Death-Dealer’s waiting eyes. “For what reason do you ask?”
“You were screaming his name in your sleep just now.”
“My sleep was dreamless,” Beard said.
“Then it seems Släfgeit has played you for a fool,” Cruce said.
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Beard muttered.
“What was that, warrior?”
“I said still your wagging tongue lest I rip it from your mouth!” Beard yelled. “You need not know of that coward Brōg!”
“It seems I don’t,” Cruce said, dejected.
Both men fell into a tense silence, joining that of the vast plains around them. Only the undead were stirring now along with an occasional gust of wind that carried their putrid stench to the ends of the landscape. No other life was present, avian or beast. The uncomfortable silence recalled the depths of the Eastwood and the doom that had nearly befallen the warrior therein. “‘Here Lies Link,’” Cruce said suddenly. “That’s queer. I could’ve sworn it read ‘Here Lies Erdrick’ last time I saw.”
“What are you on about, death-dealer?”
“Necromancer...” Cruce corrected. “This headstone... I’m sure it said something else before.”
“You’ve been through these lands prior this night?” Beard asked.
“A number of times.”
“How old are you, death-dealer?” Beard inquired.
“Necro! Mancer!” Cruce screamed, flailing his arms in rage, seeming to have become part of his dimwitted entourage.
Beard chuckled. “Yes, yes. How many cycles then?”
“If you must know,” Cruce said, his face flushed in anger. “I will have been nineteen cycles next moon.”
“Will have been?”
Cruce paused, turning his eyes from the warrior before him. He sighed deeply and licked his thin lips.
“I left my prior life behind me,” he said. “I’ve no use for man’s measure of time.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, and what about you, warrior?” Cruce asked, turning back to Beard. “How many cycles?”
“I cannot tell you how old I am,” Beard said after a moment, “for my time has been tainted by other worlds.”
“How quaint,” Cruce scoffed.
“Yes, and speaking of time,” Beard said, “we should be gaining ground on Turin’s Wall. Assemble your crew, death-dealer.”
“We leave at once,” Beard said as he began to trudge southward.
“Wait!” Cruce yelled. “Hail! Warrior!”
“What is it?” Beard asked without breaking stride.
“Do you not see the moon, warrior?” Cruce asked. “It’s nigh on middle-night. Can we not take pause ’til Solrise?”
Beard craned his neck skyward, his eyes locked on the swollen moon above. He smelled the air, trying to filter out the stench of the undead permeating the plain. The warrior exhaled slowly and turned back to the Death-Dealer.
“We make rest ’til first light then,” Beard said. “Mayhap your... therapy... will have worked by then.”
“Yes,” Cruce spat, lying against a headstone to find respite in sleep, “mayhap it well.”
Beard, born of a less fastidious ilk, found his bed there on the ground beneath his feet. Sleep came quickly to the warrior, though no dreams were to be remembered again that night.
“Rise!” a voice split the darkness. “Warrior! Awake! We must flee and at once!”
It was Cruce, his voice high and panicked.
Beard was to his feet before the death-dealer received any indication the warrior had even been awakened. Stunned, Cruce gawked at the battle-ready warrior, wondering if Beard had ever really been asleep at all. Then the panic returned to the death-dealer’s heart and he was at once moved to repeat his command.
“Fly, warrior!” Cruce shouted, sprinting past Beard down the moonlit plain to their south.
“What lunacy is this?” Beard turned and yelled at the retreating necromancer.
“Fly, I say!” Cruce yelled over his shoulder, his hood bouncing about his shoulders with every bounding stride. “A Thorgithen warrior doesn’t run in fear,” Beard retorted.
“Then walk!” Cruce continued, his voice now just a frail howl. “I care not what means you employ, warrior, but by the gods old and new, fly, you fool!”
Beard sighed, but followed suit, launching himself into a sprint of his own. Like all great warriors of Thorgithen origin, Beard had been trained to run as soon as he could walk, so when Cruce turned to shout another command, his mouth was stilled as the warrior passed him. Cruce’s commands quickly changed to timid pleas.
“Lo, warrior!” Cruce yelled. “Wait! My leg, it’s been stricken stiff.”
“Fly, death-dealer!” Beard laughed as he raced over the plain. “I care not what means you employ, but by the stench of your ilk, move that pathetic vessel!”
“Your comedy... warms... my heart,” Cruce sputtered, grabbing at his cramping leg. “But... my body... has betrayed me... this night.”
Beard groaned. The Thorgithen warrior leapt into the air, pivoting his body so the trailing Death-Dealer was in his sights again. He landed in a crouch, immediately kicking off into a sprint as a Devilboar is wont to do before a charge. And so Beard went back for Cruce, his disdain for the necromancer momentarily suspended in light of the sense of danger that’d been ushered into his heart.
The warrior scooped up the ailing death-dealer, hoisting him over his shoulder like a hysterical damsel. Then Beard was off again, putting several iles behind him before slowing to a stop. At what he felt was a safe distance from whatever had spooked Cruce, he dumped the death-dealer on the ground and knelt by his side.
“From what do we flee?” Beard asked him, his face grim, his eyes piercing.
“I know not what,” Cruce replied, beginning to rub the tingling pain from his thigh. “Big and scary, though.”
“Such cowardice, running from something without knowledge of what it is,” Beard said. “You’d be a bundle of bones in the long belly of Com-Labi if you were of Thorgithen ilk.”
“Hear this, warrior! I barely got away from that thing!” Cruce yelped. “If not for my party to distract it, I would’ve been in that thing’s belly.”
“You disgust me,” Beard said, turning to see if they were being pursued by Cruce’s big and scary thing. The blood-moon above was full and casting ample light upon the plain, but still the warrior couldn’t see anything stirring between where they’d stopped and the far horizon. He tipped his ear to the night sky, but heard nothing beyond the occasional sound of wind soughing through faraway branches.
“Can we keep moving?” Cruce asked.
“I know not,” Beard spat. “Can you?”
“I’ll manage,” Cruce said, climbing to his feet, his balance like that of a newborn fawn. Beard steadied the weary death-dealer with a mighty clap on the shoulder. Cruce yelped at the sudden pain that shot down his arm, but Beard took no notice for his eyes had spied movement to their south.
“Come,” the warrior said, heading toward the queer movement slithering amongst the shadows of the far horizon. Beard knew right away that what he’d spied a couple iles away was a channel of water, though he knew not its width or depth. How fortunate, Beard thought. I’ve not taken drink in an age. He rapped his knuckles on the empty waterskin at his side.
The water seemed to cut through the plain from west to east, flowing in the direction of the accursed Eastwood. At this prospect, the warrior began to reconsider his luck. After all, the Eastwood was a deadly realm, its very earth swelling with poisons. Had its influence spread into this vain of water?
“Ah, the Eastflow,” Cruce said as they approached the stream. “I crossed it not a half-moon ago.”
“Tell me, to where do you wander, death-dealer?” Beard asked, crouching at the water’s edge for a better look.
“Well,” Cruce said, kneeling beside Beard, “as a NECROMANCER, I’m wont to travel the land to redeem the bodies of the fallen.”
“You count yourself a redeemer?” Beard scoffed.
“Aye,” Cruce said, dipping his cupped hand into the stream, ignoring the disdain in the warrior’s tone. He brought a handful of water to his lips, but before he could drink of it, the world spun around him and he hit the ground hard. The water he’d been holding spilled to the outcropping of brush that served as the stream’s bank.
“Are you mad, warrior?!” Cruce screamed, his eyes daggers of fast hatred. “How I tire of being dropped on my head!” The question was left unanswered as Beard once again stooped by the water. This time, his was the hand that broke the water’s surface. He brought a handful to his mouth and poured it in, pausing as the runoff glistened on the tuft of his beard. “What barbarism is this?” Cruce continued in his high wail. “There’s an entire stream here to take drink from and to do so concurrently. You needn’t be so brutish. Damn your savagery, warrior!”
Beard stood in silence, his eyes narrowed on those of the death-dealer.
“And now you mock me with silence?” Cruce asked, hopping to his feet, his long robe a wave of shadows as he made the leap. Before the robe had a chance to settle, Beard grabbed Cruce around the collar and pulled him close. There the death-dealer met a grimace that told him the silence would be mutual, though Cruce was too far gone in his anger to heed this warning.
“Unhand me!” Cruce yelled. “Release me and grant me a drink!”
Still the warrior remained silent, his expression as unwavering as those of the man-gods’ hewn into the terrible monoliths at the heart of the Eastwood. This only served to anger the necromancer further.
“This brutality will not be tolerated, warrior!” Cruce yelled, his voice fraying with strain. “Unhand me now or...”
Beard spewed the water he’d been holding on his tongue into Cruce’s face, the death-dealer’s words halted by the spray. “Wha...?”
“The water is safe to drink,” Beard said, releasing Cruce as he did so. “Take your fill.”
“Safe to... drink?” Cruce asked, his shock dulling his tone.
“And you claim yourself a wanderer?”
“I fail... to... gather... your mean... ing,” Cruce said, his speech interrupted by heavy draughts from the stream.
“You possess vast knowledge of the toxicity of the Eastwood,” Beard said, submerging his waterskin to fill it, “yet you blindly drink from a fountain directly connected to it? How is it you’ve survived this long?”
Cruce offered a reply, but his words were drowned out by a series of slurps and belches.
“Hear this well lest your body be consumed by the Eastwood’s treachery,” Beard said. “A sample of foreign water on the tongue for sixty heartbeats will reveal to you much of its nature.”
“As in how refreshing it be, aye?” Cruce asked.
“You should be long dead by now,” Beard said with a grunt.
“I think I took too much fill,” Cruce said, rubbing his stomach with his slender fingers.
“I truly cannot believe you’ve managed...” Beard said before something drew his attention downstream.
“Yes, yes, warrior,” Cruce said with a final, satisfying belch, “your words are well understood. I should be dead by now what with all of my vile ignorance and penchant for...”
“Silence!” Beard hissed.
“What is it?” Cruce asked after a brief pause. The seriousness scrawled on Beard’s face had forced the death-dealer to his feet. He peered into the eastern darkness, wondering what had caught the warrior’s keen eye.
“Have you taken enough drink?” Beard asked, his eyes still on the shadows downstream.
“Aye, too much as I’ve said.”
“Then we’ll away from the water for we’re not the only ones with thirst here,” Beard said, stooping to drink a few more handfuls of water.
“What did you see out yonder?” Cruce asked.
“I saw nothing,” Beard replied, “but sensed something there, watching us as it has been for hours. It is patient -- a mark of a good predator.”
“So, we’re being pursued then?” Cruce asked, scanning the east as Beard finished with the stream.
“‘Hunted’ would be far more accurate, I feel,” Beard said grimly.
Without another word, Beard rose and crossed the stream, its current sweeping away the wide ripples around the warrior’s boots. Cruce’s words were arrested in turn as he followed. As they went, both scanned the shadows to their east, a chill coming over them as they went.
Sol was at middle-day before Beard and Cruce stopped for another drink, passing the warrior’s filled waterskin between them. Though their pace had been slow and cautious, they’d managed to put more than a dozen iles behind them since crossing the Eastflow. This was all a warrior’s estimation, of course, as the scenery hadn’t changed enough to determine an actual distance. The wear on their bodies was enough of an indication that the distance had been great, however.
Beard crouched after they’d taken their fill, placing an ear to the ground and raising a hand to silence Cruce, who’d taken to some inane topic the warrior had little interest in discussing. The vibrations he heard therein were too faint to indicate danger, but Beard was more than familiar with the nature of hunters being one himself: if the men were being stalked by something, it was doing so with great stealth.
“What provisions have you?” Beard asked after withdrawing his ear from the edge of the hill. Cruce slid his hand into his robe and withdrew a small leather satchel. After unknotting the twine around its neck, he dumped its contents into his hand and presented them to the warrior.
“Two half-eaten loaves of everberry bread and a chunk of cheese from the southlands,” Cruce said. “Take what you will, warrior. I offer it freely unto you, though the bread appears quite stale.”
“I’ll take half as payment for escorting you through this plain,” Beard said, snapping up a loaf of bread and half the cheese with his hands. “This will not last us long, however.”
Beard eyed the food in his hands, wondering which to devour first. Realizing that either would be far more satisfying than the grubs of the Eastwood, he took a bite out of both and stored the rest in a satchel of his own that hung beside his half-drained waterskin. The bread was hard going down and the cheese had melted to a thick cream before he could swallow it, but another draught of water set his stomach.
“Why haven’t you eaten?” Beard asked Cruce as the Death-Dealer returned his ration to his satchel, tied it off, and placed it in the folds of his robe. Cruce shot Beard a glance to which the warrior narrowed his eyes. The death-dealer hadn’t been so silent since Beard had sensed they were being watched.
“I’ve no appetite,” Cruce replied.
“As much as I’d revel in seeing you suffer as your innards slowly devoured themselves,” Beard said, “such a death would be wasted on such a hapless fool.”
“I’m not hungry, warrior,” Cruce said with greater heft.
Beard looked down on the skinny man, thinking that just a few hours before, he’d appeared somewhat healthier. Now, though, “sickly” was the word that came to the forefront of the warrior’s mind. He possessed little concern for the death-dealer, but as always, a corpse makes for a poor companion on the trail. Still, Beard thought, if the bastard has no desire to eat, I’ll not coddle him as his mother did so far past his whelpling cycles. Gods, what a pathetic jackal.
“So be it,” Beard said with a grunt. “Are you ready to press on?”
“Aye,” Cruce said. “Let’s away from this damn... ...seventeenth day of the eighth moon.”
“What was that?” Beard asked as they began to trudge southward again.
“Not a thing, warrior,” Cruce said. “...now let’s away.”
Dusk was siphoning away the day’s light when the warrior and the death-dealer next took pause. The conversation between the two men had been sparse and, even then, most of it had consisted of Cruce’s mumblings. Beard was content to let the death-dealer continue his nonsensical rambling until he caught a horrific sight an ile south. That’s when the warrior had stuck an arm out, barring the death-dealer’s passage.
“Huh? Have we met Turin’s Wall?” Cruce asked drowsily.
“No,” Beard said. “There lies something in our path.”
The death-dealer shot a glance south where Beard had set his own eyes. There in the failing light of day was a dark blotch on the otherwise pristine landscape before them. Both sets of eyes narrowed on the mound, the minds behind them striving to make sense of it.
“What manner of creature... is it?” Cruce asked between sputters.
“I know not,” Beard said, “but we best find out.”
Beard launched himself into a sprint with Cruce trailing him, the death-dealer choosing a more reserved approach over the warrior’s haughty expense of energy. Beard, of course, was cursing how slothful the death-dealer was being: there would be no carrying the bastard this time.
In a matter of moments, Beard was at the mound, but even though he saw well the make of it, his mind was still slow to comprehend what he was seeing. The warrior was too stunned to think clearly. He loomed over that imperfection on the horizon until Cruce finally caught up, his breathing rapid and hoarse.
“Is that... a wolf?” Cruce asked after a moment. “What in the nine hells... is a dead wolf doing... out here?”
Beard remained silent as he knelt by the carcass of the mangled pup. He laid a palm on its exposed skull, gathering the runoff of blood that stained its snout. The warrior stared at that smear of blood on his hand for a long while until the death-dealer broke the silence with another question.
“Why do you... take pause as so?” he asked, his voice harsh and worn.
“This blood is yet warm,” Beard said. “This kill is recent.”
“By what means?”
“I know not whether by blade or fang,” Beard replied.
“The offender cannot be far then if... this kill is new.”
Beard scanned the horizon, his eyes narrowed, his face stern.
“This is no normal wolf, nay, he is naught more than a pup for his breed. His is a noble and ancient line.”
He could see nothing in the coming night, but some inexplicable sense told him the dangers of lingering there. After all, the wolf pup was no stranger to the warrior.
Before Beard could turn his attention back to the carcass, a memory poured over his thoughts. Even now he could see clearly the bloody tears that Wuthweirgen, the Mother Wolf, had shed as Beard had been dragged through the Long Hall of Kgortel. They were as real to him then as the warm blood on his palm. Those tears had been an omen given freely by one of the last Gods of Old. And now the world was short one more: the dead wolf pup before him was Ceolas, one of the she-wolf’s two sons.
“What... would kill so wantonly as to... to do so without taking meat or flesh?” Cruce asked, drawing Beard back to reality. “I know not that either,” Beard replied. This was a lie, of course. The warrior had seen full-well the insignia carved into the pup’s skull as he’d wiped away the blood. He’d seen that emblem only once before, in an old tome of archaic knowledge Brōg had been adamant he read. Even now he could see it, the jagged sign emblazoned in the darkness between his eyes.
“There is little to record here concerning the being known as the Isenshrike. Legends have been written of its abilities, though all who claim testimony to its feats have long since passed. Thus facts are scarce. All that is known about the Isenshrike, the God-Killer, is that it slays methodically and masterfully. To be true, as it stands, we know little else than it stalks unwaveringly and without mercy. And that you will know it only by the trail of dead.” -Lore from the Age of Elders, pages 1014-1015 Grimsdor, Thorgithe Council of Preservation
Beard had heard the legends of the Isenshrike as had most the youth in Thorgithe and, perhaps, all of Krytherion. It was a monster who killed with neither conscience nor sympathy. Countless nightmares had featured its brutality, though none knew its appearance. It was death incarnate, content with infesting the sacred with the profane. So went the legends of the Isenshrike.
And Beard knew well that all legends had some truth to them.
“Seven... teenth day... eighth moon.” Cruce had taken to his rambling again, but Beard had long since learned to ignore it. While the Death-Dealer blathered on, the warrior began to dig into the dirt beside the dead pup. The digging was easy as the roots of the grass had loosened the topsoil and, soon, there was a rather large hole, the fourth grave he’d seen that day. Beard lifted the pup, holding it close to his chest as a mother would a helpless child and howled. His mournful cry rose into the air as it had the day his father had fallen prey to that traitor, Brōg. The howl silenced Cruce, who turned to watch the warrior with wide eyes. Then the cry died away and all was silent once more.
It took but a moment to cover the pup with dirt and only a moment more to give it the Rite of Sending. Beard was no hierophant, but knew the words well enough. When the warrior was finished, he patted the mound of dirt one last time and stood.
“What just happened, warrior?” Cruce asked. “What was that you were chanting?”
“That pup was dear to me,” Beard said. “Ceolas the Cold was his name, though I couldn’t sense his essence.”
“What strange customs the Thorgithen have,” Cruce muttered to himself.
“They are all that matter in this life,” Beard said. Cruce inspected the warrior’s stern expression and then, after a moment, raised another question.
“Do you know what pursues us?” the death-dealer asked. “Tell me if so.”
“I know not.” Another lie. That the mangled body of Ceolas, brother-wolf to Beard, had been laid in the warrior’s path, the mark of the Isenshrike set upon its skull, was much more than coincidence in the warrior’s mind. If the Isenshrike had targeted them, there was little to do, Beard knew this well.
“Why am I not privy to what you’re thinking, war-”
“Give me the dagger you hide beneath your robe,” Beard interjected.
“Dagger?” Cruce asked. “What dagger?”
“The blade you try to hide at your waist,” Beard said. “The one with the hilt that bulges at your hip. Give me the blade now.” Cruce stared into Beard’s eyes and knew he had little choice but to relent. Worry rose within the death-dealer’s heart as he slipped the dirk out of his robe and passed it to the warrior. Then that worry became panic as Beard took the blade by its tip and let it fly at Cruce’s head.
The whirr of the spinning blade splitting the air by Cruce’s ear told just how close it’d come to ending him. Relief and anger replaced the panic, but sudden confusion denied him from acting on them. He shot a look over his shoulder just in time to see a small creature fall dead in the distance. Without a word, Beard passed him by, heading toward his kill. Still befuddled, the death-dealer followed Beard, watching in awe as the warrior pulled the dirk from the heart of the dead beast. Cruce, like most people, had heard tales of the North’s prowess with weaponry, but this had been the first time he’d played witness to it. How accurate the toss had been, how deadly. Cruce joined the warrior at his kill, his lips stilled by wonder.
“Billycoon,” Beard said, cleaning the blade with the fir of his kill. “A man is hard-pressed to find one in the Northlands. I’ve not seen one since I was a boy. Legends tell of billycoons that could once speak the common tongue.” “That shot... was impossible,” Cruce said, eyeing the gaping wound in the animal’s chest. “I gather you’ve never seen a Northman hunt,” Beard said fondly, returning the dirk to the death-dealer. “A mere child of my tribe could have made that shot and that’s after being full-up on ironbrew and half-tired from field work.” Cruce examined the blade and then spoke, ignoring the arrogance flowing from the warrior’s mouth. “How did you know I concealed a blade?”
“Your gait is wide on your even footfalls and, as I said, the small bulge at your hip betrays you.”
“Having known this, I would think such as you would’ve long ago stolen my blade lest I attacked you,” Cruce said, slipping the dirk back into his robe.
“Your hands are free of calluses,” Beard said. “You’ve not done a day’s work in battle or the field, have you, death-dealer?”
“For the last time, warrior, I go by...”
“Necromancer?” Beard said.
“Yes...” Cruce said. “Yes, that’s right.”
Beard withdrew himself from the conversation, having since grown tired of the death-dealer’s repining. He busied himself with the animal carcass as Cruce continued in his contemptuous tone. The warrior inserted his hands in the death-wound of the billycoon and, in a single motion, stripped the flesh from its body.
“With this, we’ve doubled our stock,” Beard said, stripping meat from bone. He made quick work of this until nothing but a mound of bones and gristle was left.
“...eighth... moon...,” Cruce said, back in his strange daze.
“We’ll away from the dead here lest something comes for them, though there be little scent left of either to follow,” Beard said. “Down yonder a few iles, we’ll make fire and eat. We’ll sleep in shifts.”
The death-dealer nodded, pulling his hood over his lolling head. He followed the warrior as he went, whispering his mad lines below sputtering breaths.
As night fell upon the land, Beard stopped his southward march and began digging a small hole for a fire pit. In it, he placed a layer of dry prairie grass and some of the lard taken from the billycoon. He once again demanded the dirk from the Death-Dealer and, with it, started a fire by striking the blade against the unseen ring on his finger. He hadn’t liked the decision to use the ring in this manner, but the situation was dire and, as it so happened, it sparked like a flint.
The fire made, he stuck the billycoon meat on the thin blade and began to roast it, offering the first of it to Cruce, who sat across from him. Again, the death-dealer was wont to go hungry, so Beard ate both shares. He’s grown skeletal, Beard remarked to himself, his eyes taking in the frail figure beneath the robes. He’ll be dead by middle-day tomorrow. Why does he not take food?
“Seventeenth of the eighth,” Cruce whispered. This time, Beard listened intently to the death-dealer’s muttering, swallowing the last of his meal to quiet his stomach. “Seventeenth... of eighth...”
“Tomorrow,” Beard said. The Death-Dealer lifted his head, the shadows within the hood obscuring the skeletal face therein.
“Tomorrow is the seventeenth day of the eighth moon, yes?” Beard asked.
“Aye,” Cruce said.
“Does this date hold special meaning for you?” Beard asked.
“Is that why you’ve been fasting as such?”
“You’re an idiot,” Beard said, stomping out the fire lest their position be known to any who stalked the plain.
“Aye,” the death-dealer responded.
There were no more words between the men for Beard soon found himself in Släfgeit’s twisted domain. No dreams that night... not even much sleep to be true because a few hours later, he was awakened by a terrible noise from above.
“They’ve found us!” Cruce yelled into the night. Beard was on his feet as soon as that first word had passed the death-dealer’s lips. The warrior’s mouth, set in determination, stayed silent for it was his brawn that would be doing the speaking for him.
Their assailants were many, made even more so by the darkness of middle-night. Beard struck at whatever moved, catching several of his attackers as they swarmed around him. Their stench was horrid, their screeching even worse. But then the death-dealer’s whine rose above it all.
“Stop, warrior!” Cruce screamed. “Stop! These are my minions! They mean us no harm!”
Beard landed one last blow, hoping it was the death-dealer who’d been struck, to no avail. The warrior ceased his attack, though his body stood poised to resume lest something go awry. Then he saw them, the undead milling about, their manner as aimless as their thoughts.
“Then they failed as a distraction for what follows,” Beard said.
“Well...” Cruce said.
Beard narrowed his eyes at the Death-Dealer.
“That is to say...” Cruce said.
“Out with it!” Beard growled.
“I’d grown tired of them, you see,” Cruce said, backing away from the warrior and pulling a few of the undead in front of him to shield his body lest the warrior’s temper flare up. “I don’t want them anymore. I’m done with these... things.”
“We’ve been fleeing your little army this whole time?” Beard asked, his face growing hot.
“Uhhh... well...” Cruce said. “I honestly didn’t think they’d find us again, you see. And...”
Beard threw the three revenant guards out of the way, coming to their master, his teeth bared, his eyes portholes to a world of rage. His breaths came fast and Cruce could smell the billycoon meat on them, though he didn’t dare move for fear of annihilation. But Beard simply stomped away.
“Tomorrow is your precious seventeenth day of the eighth moon,” Beard said as he laid his body upon the ground again to rejoin the Dream Realm. “When I awaken, I will give you a choice. We will either part ways or I’ll rip your head off. You have the remainder of this night to make your decision. Choose wisely, death-dealer, for you have tried me for the last time.” Silence.
When Beard awoke next, it was still night. He’d been awakened by his baser instincts and a soft whirr approaching his face. His hand had caught the blade that sought his skull, bending it with the strength of the arm behind it. Then the warrior had pitched upward and was now on top of his would-be assassin.
“So, Cruce,” Beard said, holding the scrawny, skeletal man by his neck, “you finally make your strike, hm?” “Seven... teen... th... of... eight... th....”
As suddenly as Beard had turned the tables on the dazed death-dealer, Cruce’s minions were there to defend him. A dozen lifeless hands latched onto the warrior, prying him off the necromancer’s writhing body. They delivered blows of their own until the warrior returned the favor. See well how the plain became littered with the bodies of countless undead that night, and how the warrior called Beard Weirheowdth unleashed his fury upon that horde with no mercy in his heart. When he was done with that vile undead army, he returned to their leader, lifting him from the ground with healed arms so that they were again face-to-face.
“S... sev... seventeenth...”
“Of the eighth, I heard you!” Beard yelled. He rapped Cruce on the head and pulled his hood back. The sight therein almost forced him to drop the death-dealer, but he held him still, his fists hungry for destruction. Cruce had the appearance of an old man now, his hair withering from his head, his eyes sunken and vacant: his cycles were unwinding before the warrior’s very eyes.
“I’m... sorry...” Cruce said.
“No,” Beard said, “but you will be.”
“You were to be my last, you see,” Cruce said.
“Explain your words.”
“The Eastwood...” Cruce said.
“I fell victim to the Eastwood not a cycle ago,” Cruce said, his tone of the defeated sort. “They took my spirit and left my body. But then a deal was made. I would gather fifty bodies and they would restore me.”
“Fifty bodies?” the warrior inquired.
“The trees are raising an army.”
“For what purpose?”
“War,” Cruce said.
“Then I was to be a part of this army if you were to slay me this night?” Beard asked.
“Aye,” Cruce said. “The last as I’ve said. Fiftieth of fifty. And this day was my last to gather bodies this lunar cycle. A body every full moon or I lose mine.”
“If you meant to kill me, why did you heal my vinerash?” Beard asked.
“What isn’t healed in life cannot be healed in death,” Cruce replied. “I needed you strong. I had to take my chances.”
“Survival necessitates risk,” Beard said, “I understand this well, death-dealer.”
“Do you mean to return the favor?” Cruce asked.
“Then be done with it,” Cruce said. “But I beg you, make it quick.”
“As you wish,” Beard said.
The warrior slammed the death-dealer to the ground and placed a boot across his scrawny neck. He held it there for a while, taking in the sight of the emaciated man who’d accompanied him across the great plain between the Northlands and Turin’s Wall. Then he removed his boot and began his trek south again.
“What?” Cruce said. “What is this, warrior?”
“I’m returning the favor,” Beard said over his shoulder. “You saved my life in the Eastwood and so I spare yours now.”
“Do you not understand, warrior?” Cruce said. “I only saved you so I could claim you before I lost the chance to the Eastwood’s trees”
“Death may be death,” Beard said, “but life is life.”
Cruce said nothing as the warrior left him in his wake.
“Make no mistake, death-dealer,” Beard yelled. “If you follow me, you will be witness to how merciless I can be. Hear this well and leave me be.”
“Aye,” Cruce said under his breath. “I hear you.”
Then the warrior was a dot on the horizon, though this blotch didn’t at all seem like an imperfection to the death-dealer’s tired eyes.
By the end of the next day, the Black Wall of Turin was finally visible over the rolling hills of the vast plain. Beard paused for a moment to take in the sight of it, his mind going back to the Mother Wolf’s bloody tears and the mangled remains of her eldest pup. The mark on its skull was what drew his thoughts now, though, because the feeling of being pursued hadn’t left him.
Was the Isenshrike really trailing him? Had Cruce perhaps chosen to challenge the warrior’s threat? What lay beyond the bastion of Turin’s Wall?
These questions and many more flooded Beard’s mind, but that damn insignia still demanded his attention. The warrior took a deep breath and continued his march south, those unanswerable questions biting at his every thought.
Thus Beard sought to leave the Northlands he’d known all his life, his kingdom kingless and doom following in his wake. Something called him on, but Beard knew not what or who. So he walked blindly toward the strange lands of Southron, the secret entrance in the Eastwood no longer open to him.
Then where and how? Beard asked himself as he went. The main passage called Buildar’s Gate is guarded by men, but the wall by fowl magicks. The warrior knew not how he would pass, only knew that he must.
And by any means.