by F. Charles Murdock
If you’d permit me, dear traveler, a short break from Beard’s journey into the Southern Isles, I’d like to speak of something that happened to the warrior before he stepped onto the bridge of that strange wyrmship, Satrian Falx, and into the role of its captain. I will be brief, aye, but I feel this little side-path is worth leading you down for the queer events that took place thereon have long-reaching effects. And it all started with the Black Door.
Now, I know I’ve bent your ears on this before, but I need you to understand the flow of time in realms other than the Physical. The rule be simple enough: time is anything but normal in the netherealms -- sometimes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes both, sometimes neither. In the instance of the Black Door, time is without merit. As Beard stands on the southern shore of that damned Isle of the Isenshrike, he is taken somewhere, his thoughts drawn, though his body be left standing there empty of its essence for but a moment (though, on this, his thoughts would argue otherwise, if you ken it). Such is the nature of the netherealms and the unseen paths that tether them together.
And I suppose the Black Door needs an explanation as well.
Now, just as there are unseen paths and trapdoors between realms, so too are there channels between minds. Most don’t believe they exist, of course, but only because such as they harbor fear of what such a connection might entail. Most guard their minds, jealous of the privacy their thoughts afford them; others are afraid of the ideas that come to them, cruel and disgusting as they may be, and are ashamed. But I tell you, traveler, and I tell true, that such a bond between two minds can indeed exist.
Long ago, the shamans of the Guahadine steppe tribes of the Northlands dubbed such a shared mental pathway a Black Door (though in Southron such had taken the name “Thought Void” because “Black Door” had come to mean something else entirely, namely the true gate at the center of Turin’s Black Wall). Whatever you choose to call it, it’s a powerful connection, much like the Lessers and Betweens that could long ago take a man intact to the realms of the old gods. Aye, it’s the same concept in many ways. To be true, some hierophants and Seers believe that all sentient beings, be they man or beast, have the capacity to tread these unseen paths. Some even believe there was a time when one could willingly establish these pathways with another, but that the knowledge of such has long since been lost to the ages. Thus such a purported skill has gained the classification as a “buried instinct.”
Well, enough blathering on my part. Just keep in mind what I’ve told you here and watch as a Black Door opens up in Beard’s own mind. See well who calls him forth and the consequences of such a bone-chilling shift of perspective and thought.
Aye, keep in well in mind.
Indeed, the Satrian Falx had said before a strange magnetism had begun to tug on Beard’s mind. The warrior had narrowed his eyes on the wide hull of the wyrmship, its transformation back into that coal-black warship by then completed. He’d had but a moment to wonder if the drawing of his thoughts had anything to do with the stench of durimic magick in his flaring nostrils or the eldritch runes on the sizable flank of the dark ship. Then the pique was gone along with the suspicion that had arisen with it. Gone, too, was the warrior’s mind.
He saw the sea, roiling and blue, as if its waves were tying themselves into impossible knots. He seemed to float there an ile above the water, disembodied but still physically conscious of his odd surroundings. His mind, perhaps, was imprinting upon this experience the innate feeling of gravity’s weight, though the warrior felt no connection to what his mind was seeing. He was unable to steer his point of view, only stare out through the unblinking eye of his stalwart mind into the blue expanse of angry waves and calm sky before it. He felt pangs of both fear and curiosity, but they were muted sensations, as though transmitted from a great distance away.
And then everything warped and pulled apart before his mind’s eye.
At once, the gentle seascape was a blinding barrage of streaks, first blue, then grey, then green. Beard knew he was traveling because, even at such headlong speeds, his keen eyes could still distinguish details of the world as it zoomed past him -- a wave here, a storm cloud there, a withered tree, and then...
Beard awoke as if from a dream or, rather, as if from one dream into another. He could sense neither his body nor his own thoughts, but he knew on some basic level that he existed and as himself. He was only his essence at the moment, a form only a sp’rite would understand. There were no emotions within him, no desire to breath, no heartbeat. He simply was and nothing more.
In this state, he floated aimlessly through an infinite expanse of darkness. He felt drawn forth by the void around him as if his very being were tethered to some dark thing that he could neither see nor sense but knew was there nonetheless in the absolute darkness before him. His instincts told him that time did not flow within the confines of this nothingplace, but his stubborn mind attempted to imprint upon it seconds, minutes, and hours anyway, perhaps in lieu of his body’s biological clock, the ticking of which he could no longer feel.
All was dark and nothingness for what seemed a very long time.
That forever-moment in absolute blackness was maddening, forcing Beard to wonder if his shade had slipped somehow into the dark depths of Hunerheim, what the steppe tribes of the North called “the Unplace.” As quickly as that thought came to him, though, another trailed it, telling him that this void defied all legends and descriptions of that cold, damnable place beneath the Inner World. Hadn’t Mal’forg the Banished harrowed his own soul from the underealm in that legend from beyond the Age of Elders? Had it not been described as a wasteland of black snow as hard as chipped bone with fields of frozen fires that whispered all of a man’s dishonorable deeds after death had set him on that damned path?
This void was not Hunerheim if the historians and hierophants could be trusted. But then why was the weight of hatred so pervasive herein? Why was this cold contempt the only sensation the warrior could feel when even his own thoughts seemed so distant and slow to be conjured? Were there perhaps worse places in all the realms of being and nonbeing than the frozen hell of Hunerheim?
The void answered Beard’s myriad questions with a piercing point of light which quickly expanded, racing to him through the timeless midnight plain. The light was a dirty smattering of smears and blurs, bloated with colors lacking both boundary and form. At once, the warrior was enveloped in this crude representation of sight, though he still lacked the emotions to express how such an experience felt to him just then: just as he’d been drawn to that nondescript stretch of ocean before the darkness had swallowed him, he was but an observer of the strange world set before him, disconnected from its physicality, but still there in a very real sense.
Then he saw movement within the surrounding light, the intensity of which seemed to diminish as lines and hues began to differentiate themselves. Wherever he had come to exist was beginning to focus into a reality. Beard knew faintly that he should have been feeling anticipation or some species of wonder, but only that muted detachment was there -- that feeling of not feeling, of being an empty vessel in an empty world. He wanted to hate such thoughtlessness, but had no such hatred to express. Besides, this crude place had enough contempt flowing through it already.
With that laggard realization, Beard watched as reality finally solidified before his unblinking eye. The process was slow, but natural... ordered... which seemed wrong given the nature of the nonplace that still slithered behind the forming tapestry of this bright new world. But even that wrongness seemed right -- not just right, but overbearing, as if such incongruity reigned supreme in this twisted place like a mad emperor in a court of naught but jesters.
And then the world was.
Though Beard still struggled to summon his thoughts from some faraway brain, he knew immediately the world that had come into focus. The dull black expanse before him was not only familiar to him, but unmistakable (as it would be for any who had lived on the vast continent of Krytherion since the end of the Turinic Wars). He was staring out with eyes that weren’t his own at a small portion of the Great Divider known the world over as Turin’s Black Wall. Even if he hadn’t recognized the ancient runes burned into the cursed rocks, bleeding forth with dark magicks, he would have known these black stones anywhere for there existed none others like them in the entirety of the Inner World. Even at such a close range to the Wall (five paces, he struggled to estimate), he couldn’t feel the inherent vibration the stones were known to diffuse or the way they seemed to infest a man’s body like a gnawing pestilence when he stepped too close. He was unaffected in this body that wasn’t his.
Before Beard could ponder such a biting question, two gloved hands shot up before him. He saw them clearly and in a queer first-person perspective, lending credence to his belief that he had come to reside in the body of another -- the body and only the body, for the real mind of whomever he had come to inhabit was closed off from him by some unseen shroud, perhaps by the void itself. Again, all Beard could do was watch helplessly through his host’s eyes as the unknown body around him took the warrior for a ride like an unbroken mare is wont to do when bent on killing he who would dare master it.
The gloves were of worn black leather, their palms eroded, flaking off around the knuckles and heels in a network of dry-cracked webbing. They jutted out of grey sleeves, the make of which Beard had never seen before because, as those hands began to make wide circles in the air, they flowed seamlessly along despite appearing so heavy. The arms reached forth, pausing in a series of strange formations as they went. Then the chanting started in a language that Beard knew only from ancient tomes and the only other person in his life who had spoken it aloud: his traitorous mentor, Brōg the Unknown.
Beard was straining to hear those lost words and the dark voice that crooned them in a low creak like old bones, but along with the incantation came an odd buzzing that trumped all other ambient sounds. The low hum settled around the warrior as had the light when this new world had exploded into existence. He could feel the vibration as a serpent hears the pounding of distant wardrums along its accursed belly, but this he ignored in favor of the smoky black wisps growing between the moving hands.
The tendrils blossomed like a bouquet of shadows and forced themselves outward until they obscured the even blacker stones of Turin’s Wall. Strange blue lightning skipped and slithered among them, warping what the warrior was seeing. Then at the zenith of the act, the network of tendrils, now a thick cloud of rolling darkness, receded and the gloves dropped out of sight, both replaced by something far graver.
The warrior’s view was shifted downward so that he was afforded a view of the craggy ground at the foot of the Black Wall. There among the bramble and toxin ground was a familiar and terrible sight -- or half of one, to tell true. The top half of the former Overlord of Slumber, Släfgeit, was slumped against the cruel architecture of the Wall, its eyes still, its fanged maw agape as if locked in a silent scream. Beard stared deeply into the glassy crimson eyes set in the dark skull of the daemon, remembering how they had held such glee when the children of Kōstof had been drawn both to and by them in the darkest hour of night so many moons ago. Now they were devoid of all but dim anguish, their twin pupils unmoving and small.
Beard managed to place his attention elsewhere, the manner of the daemon’s deathwound calling to him by its sheer precision. A perfectly straight line ran from the creature’s left shoulder to the top of its right leg where the Isenshrike’s ultrafine blade had split it in twain. Beard remembered suddenly (but with great difficulty) how the God-killer had torn a hole straight into the Dream Realm with its terrible blade, rending Släfgeit in the process. The warrior couldn’t recall much of what had happened before or after that moment, but of that haunting instant, he was sure.
The cut was so fine that even the daemon’s innards had been carved along that fell line. The remains of dark organs hadn’t yet spilled from their husk, but a thick chowder of dark blood had poured forth, staining the bottom shelf of rocks at the Black Wall’s base with an odd polished quality. As Beard followed the deathwound (not with his eyes, mind you, but his sense of vision), he spied the other half of the daemon’s body not two paces to its right. The warrior peered down upon this lower half, staring at its satyric legs, its flesh smooth and unblemished, hard like an insect’s exoskeleton. The ground beneath them seemed to boil with dark blood. Then a worn boot appeared at the bottom of Beard’s line of sight and he watched with interest as his host delivered a nonchalant kick to one of the creature’s cloven feet.
“Hmph,” came the voice that had offered the incantation only a moment before. Again the gloves came into view and again ancient and powerful words were spoken. In a flash of preternatural light, the daemon was made whole, its eyes at once aglow with the cruel nightmares churning behind them. Släfgeit’s mouth clicked in the language of furious cicadas and then it stood, its dull flesh once again shrouded by a slithering apron of shadows.
The daemon cackled a death-rattle, but fell silent when it realized who stood before it.
“You...?” Släfgeit whispered, its tone both fearful and perplexed.
“Being that you were in two pieces when I conjured you,” the dark voice whispered with unsettling calmness, “I take it you were unsuccessful in ridding the world of our little barbarian.”
“I...” Släfgeit began, its black tongue flicking between its fangs like a dying eel. “I nearly had him, you see, but the God-killer intervened.., I would’ve had Beard’s head if not for...”
“All those long cycles in the form of a daemon and you still blubber like a child.”
“No, no... he was mine, I swear it... one more moment and I would’ve surely torn his head from...”
“You gave me your word,” the dark voice said more intently, “and I was foolish enough to believe it was good.”
Släfgeit looked into the speaker’s eyes and thus the unblinking eye of Beard. Despite the daemon’s ghastly shape, the speaker had been correct in saying that it was as a child: that hurt expression scrawled upon what passed as its face was proof of that. But then a look of perplexity replaced it for but a moment before Släfgeit lowered its fiery eyes like a scolded whelp. Had the daemon sensed something? Did it perhaps know that Beard had come to possess this body (or, rather, had come to be possessed by this body)?
“And so we arrive at this moment,” the dark voice said, its tone now of cruel pity.
Släfgeit raised its horned head again, a look of grotesque wonder creasing its worn face.
The daemon’s maw slumped upon hearing this name, all the terror and hatred leaving its ruby eyes. Its breath had quickened, the sound like dry wood being hacked at with a dull hatchet. Släfgeit stood frozen in silent wonder, but that fanged maw which tried to repeat the name only sputtered useless syllables and words that didn’t exist.
“That was your name before the gods of old turned you inside out, was it not?” the dark voice said. “Before all the hatred inside you was heaped upon your face.”
“My... my name?” Släfgeit asked in a daze. “D’Malek...?”
“Yes,” the voice said, “and do you know where we are, little D’Malek?”
“I...” the daemon sputtered and then was silent, the look of wonder leaving its forlorn eyes as they scanned the world around them. Again the creature’s breath quickened as it took in its surroundings, its fell mind making associations that displeased its master greatly.
“The Black Wall...” Släfgeit hissed. “Why have you brought me here?”
“Very good, D’Malek,” the dark voice said. “After all these cycles, you are still able to recall Turin’s Wall.”
The daemon was silent, its eyes full of mistrust.
“More specifically, however,” the voice continued, “we are a little more than three iles west of the Black Gate on the Southron side.”
More silence, more mistrust.
“Do you not recall what transpired here?”
“Enough riddles!” the daemon shrieked.
“Yes, D’Malek,” the dark voice said, its tone warm but ominous. “Enough is enough. Your parents met their fate at this very spot. Here their bones lie before the Wall they helped erect, their names forgotten, their graves unmarked. But do you not feel them down there? Hm?”
“Do you not hear them calling your name, little D’Malek?”
“I... I don’t...”
“And though you failed me in a most spectacular manner,” the voice crooned, “I have reunited you with them for I am merciful.”
Anguish was now flushing the black face of the daemon. It wanted to scream or, perhaps, burst into milky tears, but it seemed paralyzed and helpless against the dark words it had received. Its maw slowly collapsed and, for the first time, Beard saw just how childlike the creature looked, as though the old gods weren’t powerful enough to drain away every single mote of human youth during the boy, D’Malek’s, transmogrification. The warrior felt no sympathy, of course, for the daemon had carved its own path through the wilds of life, turning that hatred inside of it into a weapon to brandish upon innocent children, both in their dreams and in their hearts.
Nay, this creature deserved neither sympathy nor sanctuary.
“Momma and Poppa... are here?” Släfgeit asked with a whisper.
“Three feet below where you stand.”
“I... Can I...?”
“Hmmm... but you did fail me, D’Malek,” the dark voice said. “Such deeds cannot go unpunished in the new kingdom I’m creating.”
“I’m sorry,” Släfgeit said, hanging its daemon’s head, its voice choked with hurt.
“I’m sure you are.”
“If you’d only grant me one more chance, I could...”
“I’m afraid not, D’Malek, for as I told you before, I am not a man of patience,” the speaker said with mock concern.
“Please, sai, I beg you...”
“Ugh, beg not, little D’Malek; it’s unbecoming even for such as you,” the voice continued. “Besides, I’ve already decided your fate.”
“What do you mean to do to me?”
Again a gloved hand entered Beard’s field of vision, its palm pointed straight at the cowering daemon. Beard saw well how Släfgeit blubbered, a line of stringy opal tears running from each of its sunken eyes. All hate had left the creature in that terrible moment; its lifeblood of nightmares had run dry. Now there was naught but fear churning within the emaciated mesothorax of the daemon. Oh, how it cried for mercy.
“And so Släfgeit must die,” the dark voice said. Then there were more incantations, these words gruffer. All the while the speaker’s hands made strange movements before the crestfallen face of the daemon. The actions were punctuated by the creature’s shrieking like a devilboar impaled on an angled stake. There were more dark flashes of shadows and more liquid lightning and in a sudden clap of explosive thunder, the daemon Släfgeit was no more.
When the worn glove dropped from sight once more, Beard spied something most peculiar where the daemon had been cowering: a boy of perhaps three or four cycles was standing in its place. The child was pale and thin, completely nude, his hair black and disheveled. His eyes, though, were what drew Beard’s attention for they were bright crimson, though they held naught but fear. Then the boy spoke, his voice cracking with the fear he held in his strange eyes.
“What... what have you done to me?”
“I killed Släfgeit,” the dark voice said. “You are now as you were before.”
The boy looked down at his body, his thin legs and hands, his plump child’s belly, the dangling organ between his thighs. He peered down at all of these in wonder, tears rolling down his cheeks, a smile blossoming across his soft face. There was disbelief in his eyes and a lingering sheen of fear, but that smile was jovial nonetheless, turning his blood-red eyes into upturned crescents of a rusty moonlight. His thin lips trembled and behind them shown forth a full set of baby teeth that were once jagged fangs.
“I’m... a boy again?” the boy, D’Malek, asked in a tone as upturned as his eyes. “A real boy?”
“I have given you this so that you may know my time of reign is fast approaching.”
“Yes,” the dark voice said. “Do you believe in prophecy?”
“I think so.”
“Good. And do you believe in me?”
“Yes,” the boy said brightly.
“Even better,” the voice said. “Then know that all is as it should be, that everything is in its right place.”
D’Malek smiled at the speaker, the crimson of his tiny eyes dancing jovially like a newborn blaze. He smiled wider, his thin lips punctuated by smooth dimples -- the sign of a life of good luck, it is said. The boy began tearing up, giving dimension and depth to the licking flames of his irises, his joy so great that his breath hitched in the canal of his throat. All the daemonic qualities that had afflicted the boy in his previous form seemed washed away and long-forgotten, the long ago work of cruel gods undone by an enchanter’s words.
The worn glove of the speaker’s right hand came back into view as it went to the top of D’Malek’s head. There it tousled the boy’s thick, black hair as a grandfather would do to a happy-go-lucky grandboy. D’Malek looked up at the speaker lovingly, his tears now overflowing the dark lashes of his eyes -- not stringy, opal tears, but the hot teardrops of a human child. He sniffled, but his stern smile seemed unaffected... until that gloved hand closed on the boy’s hair, jolting his head skyward.
D’Malek yelped, his face collapsing into a grimace of pained surprise. The boy tried to speak, perhaps to beg and blubber, but was rendered mute by the speaker leaning into his left ear. There the dark voice whispered a dark secret. Beard could see the fright-sweat erupting onto the boy’s neck as the speaker’s lips pricked his ears with a haunting voice; the warrior could almost smell it, to tell true, but that dark utterance had claimed the full of the warrior’s attention.
“Nothing can change what the heart contains,” the dark voice whispering in a serpent’s hiss. The boy screamed, his sobbing a gallop. Then the speaker stood erect once again, his hand still gripping the greasy locks of the boy’s hair.
“No!” D’Malek screeched in the tone of a terror-stricken babe. “Please, no!”
The pleading was cut off as the speaker pulled the boy off his bare feet by his hair, the sound of his scalp being torn from his tiny skull replacing his terrified words. The speaker and Beard looked down upon the writhing boy, moments ago a daemon thing of untold cycles, and the void around the warrior filled once again with that heavy sense of hatred. Before the boy’s scalp was rent from his head, the dark voice uttered a final, breathless enchantment. Then the speaker watched in silence as the boy’s body exploded in a flash of bloody meat and shattered bone... all but the head, which the speaker still held with a greedy hand. The face was slumped forward, half its fleshy crown torn away, its eyes still crimson but with blood flushed from empty eye sockets. The face twitched once, twice, and then fell motionless and dead.
The speaker’s bemused laughter was grating, a hoarse screeching like a smithy sharpening a rusty blade. Though Beard felt no pity for the boy who was once the menace known as Släfgeit, he could still feel a faraway pang of anger as the owner of the dark voice, the warrior’s inexplicable host, unceremoniously dashed the head against the black stones of Turin’s Wall. The head burst open with a dull thud (reminding Beard of the sound of piking the severed head of the daemon lord, Bafal, son of Bahafut), leaving naught but a runny mound of blood and gray matter on the side of the rune-carved wall.
The boy, D’Malek, was no more.
Beard was forced to watch the hot stew of brain and blood roll down the wall as the dark voice continued its cackle. Eventually it stopped, the silence afterward seeming heavy, overbearing. It was short-lived however.
“A wise man or a fool once said that you can never go home, but I think you prove the exception, young D’Malek,” the dark voice said. “And what a family reunion this is. I’m sorry to say, though, that I don’t have time to bury the little of you that remains. Perhaps fate will send you a Death-Dealer so that your parents might rise up and collect you. Have hope, little one. Never despair.
More dark laughter unnervingly close to the cackle that oft filled the maw of Släfgeit.
Still laughing, the speaker stepped forward, the sound of crunching bone echoing off Turin’s Wall two or three paces away. Then Beard watched in contemplative silence as the owner of that dark voice and terrible laughter passed into the Wall as easily as mist rolling through forest bramble. There existed a strange, modulating pressure within the Wall and, for a moment, Beard’s vision was shrouded in darkness as though the void had swallowed reality once again. Then, as quickly as the world had blinked out, it reappeared: the speaker had passed into the Northlands, the accursed Black Wall left undisturbed behind.
Beard’s host scanned the plains of the middle North, stopping to stare at a steed-drawn cart carrying a woman and a baby through not Buildar’s Gate safely within the city, but to that treacherous passage that was the Traitor’s Weir. The mother was a well-toned woman, a Thorgithen to be sure, who held her child close, trusting her horse to carry her home through the Great Winter still raging to all corners of the Northlands. Even at such a distance, Beard could see the symbol of Malthorith scribed in ash upon the baby’s forehead, an indication that the baby was male and meant to undergo the ritual that all males must go through in Thorgithe, the very same rite Beard had passed at the teat of Wuthwiergen, his Motherwolf.
Beard silently wished the boy luck, and even more to his mother who would need to slip past the army of the Eastwood to pay homage to Kgortel and the traditions decreed by the Great Elders of ages long past; such was the importance of tradition and honor to the Thorgithen, who would surely and gladly die to uphold them. Beard felt his heart warmed a thousand iles away.
And didn’t that woman look familiar?
Suddenly the world seemed to spin away from Beard, his vision of reality rolling away to darkness just as the moon so obediently fulfills its rotation each of the thirteen months. There was a complete eclipse of sight for a moment before the warrior was surrounded by a million dark eyes, their irises and pupils the same hazy black of a death-widow spider’s belly. They all stared at Beard -- through him, to tell true -- and then the warrior was bombarded with the devilish cackle that was the last thing the boy, D’Malek, ever heard in his strange life.
“I see you in there, little warrior,” the eyes said with that dark voice. “You see, I called you into me so that we may finally meet.”
Who are you? Beard wanted to say, but couldn’t manage.
“You’ll have to speak up, Beard, if we are to palaver.”
Beard said nothing, knowing he wouldn’t be able to even if he tried, knowing well that he was being mocked by the eyes and their collective voice. The eyes laughed, a hateful clicking that rattled Beard’s perspective.
“That’s quite fine,” the voice said. “I prefer if I did the talking and you the listening anyway.”
Beard felt that buzz of hatred coming over him again.
“Drawing you through the Black Door wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected, Beard. You must learn to guard your mind from outsiders lest they pilfer your secrets and most intimate memories. Such as...”
Beard felt a strange electric weight settling into him, the sensation a body feels when bleeding out.
“Ah, so you’ve met the demoness, have you? I suspected as much. It seems you don’t understand her importance, however. Good, good. But, is that... love... I sense? Ha-ha! How grand, little Beardling. But none of that matters for I still... oh, I see you more than just met the demonwhore. Yes, you shared quite the intimate moment, didn’t you? I’d venture to say that our Black Door isn’t the first you’ve been through then. Hardly surprising.”
A bolt of pain crawled through Beard, though the distance from his body blunted it.
“What’s this? Hm, I see someone has been building a little fortress in your thoughts. Her, most likely, or that little sword of yours. Regardless, it won’t help you for I’ll get what I need out of you one way or another.”
Now Beard’s own hatred seemed to flood the void against the tide of the hate he felt pouring from the countless eyes like toxic tears.
“I wanted to show you something, Beard, so that you might understand the reality of the Inner World.”
The eyes began to blink out one by one like dying stars, the black void sloshing through as each disappeared.
“I have come to Krytherion as a great terror -- the Dark One, they call me, though I go by many names. I have come to devour this world, do you understand? I have come to destroy you, Beard, and you don’t even know why, do you? Well, I suppose certain riddles must live on until we meet face to face, though I tell you now that you must hurry for I’m not a man of patience. Surely you know where I’ll be found; I’m making my way there now.
“Shall I kill every last of your countrymen while I wait for you?
“Shall I bleed your mother, field fashion, slumped over a stone like a devilboar choking on the blood of her own entrails?
“Shall I gut the wolf and feast on her innards?
“I suggest you hurry, little Beardling, for there is much to be done.”
Beard felt his hatred growing, felt its weight, murky and debilitating, but didn’t care. He would slay this Dark One and toss what remained of his body into Cōm-Labi, bit by bloody bit. That the fiend would die in the land of Kgortel would make the slaying all the sweeter. This wasn’t about revenge or heroism, but something far more primal: this fiend -- as powerful as he may be -- had challenged Beard and the warrior would center his being around this challenge until his enemy met an end at his hands. Such was the unwritten, unspoken law of a warrior from the barbaric lands of Thorgithe.
“Allow me a metaphor, Beard, if you will,” the last two remaining eyes said, the void and its reality beyond the Black Wall of Turin flooding back into Beard’s sight. “Yonder travelers, a mother with a child, are of your blood, yes? And the child there is to undergo one of your many idiotic rituals? Then may he be all of Thorgithe and its people in this little demonstration. Watch how easily fate can change the course of both man and nation alike, all at the flick of a wrist.”
No! Beard wanted to scream, but had no mouth to do so.
The glove returned to the warrior’s field of vision, palm outward, fingers splayed, the dark hand eclipsing the mother and her child. Beard heard incomprehensible mutterings all around him as if a chorus of a thousand voices were rising up to whisper a mad deathsong. The warrior watched helplessly as the worn glove snapped into a hard fist around the faraway Thorgithen travelers, its sound a crypt door’s creak. Then the hand fell away and Beard saw the full effect of the Dark One’s terrible magick: the boy shuddered against his mother’s bosom as if a chill had gripped him and then fell limp.
The mother screamed a long howl of shock and anguish and Beard knew at once who she was for the warrior had once heard that same scream beneath Buildar’s Gate at the Black Wall, in the lair of a fell creature named “the Slaverer.” Beard had saved her at the behest of her mother, an old croon from Thorgithe named Bruith Craigborn, who had helped the warrior gain passage to Southron through the gate and its city.
Then she had been with child when the Slaverer had abducted her, Beard thought in a distant mind. He wished he could kill the bastard all over again upon this revelation, just as he desired to kill his host a million times over for stopping the heart of that little boy.
Hate was all Beard knew in that dire moment -- hate, rage, and bloodlust. A thousand iles away, his eyes had opened, his teeth bared in a death-bringer’s grimace. Then he began to slip away, but not before the Dark One cackled and spoke one last time.
“Do you see how easily ruin is dealt by a power such as mine?” the dark voice mused. “Don’t pity the child nor mourn his death, Beard, for you can be assured that he died with more honor than you ever will.” More cackling. “So come avenge him, Beard. Scurry to me before my wrath consumes this vile wasteland you once called home. Come and fulfill the ancient prophecy that runs in both our veins. But for now the Black Door must be closed. Farewell, Beard. I do hope you hurry.”
Then the voice and its cackles were lost in the streaks of light that filled the void around him. He was moving backward, across the Inner World, across time, until he could feel his body once again. Then he awoke as if from a nightmare, his mouth agape, his eyes wide and wondering and full of hate.
“Warrior?” Beard heard a voice say before him. He expected to see a million dark eyes waiting for him when he scanned his surroundings, but there was only the Isle of the Isenshrike and the wyrmship, Satrian Falx. Then a chill ran through the warrior, conjuring images of the dead boy and Bruith Craigborn’s poor daughter.
“Warrior, what ails you?”
“Nothing,” Beard said gruffly.
“You seem not yourself. I’m having my doubts that you can captain this ship.”
“Then see well how wrong you are to have them,” Beard said and stepped onto the bridge of the black ship.”
“Then come to me, (come and fulfill ancient prophecy) warrior, and we shall travel south to...”
“What?” the wyrmship asked, perplexed.
“But the Stormcoming... surely you must know that...”
“North!” Beard yelled, pointing both his eyes and his heart northward. “We head north.”
“So be it,” the Satrian Falx said grimly and set sail to the destruction raging in the sea to their north.