Therapy: A Session With Cormac
The long descent, deep down into the heart of the world it seemed would be endless. Ever sloping; ever downward, grating on his boots even with the heels dug in. Finally he reached the bottom; Cormac, bare-chested and with his bare hands held out before him. He passed by a great tower of stone that seemed to grow and twist up into the black ceiling of the caverns, he passed and descended deeper... deeper... deep into a purple haze, from within quiet barking - whimpering, whining... a whole litter of puppies maybe -- no, two litters -- three dozen puppies all rushing him from the reeky dank fog of the Underdark; yellow furred and grinning pup faces. All of them suddenly upon him. Cormac laughed and fell back, the warm fuzzy creatures swarming over him - nipping, licking, yapping merrily. His face contorted, full of joy and mirth and laughter like he hadn't laughed in so long. He played and wrestled with the little ones for so long that he didn't even notice the giant mother bumble up behind him. It's huge boofy head bowling him over; but he was so careful and agile so as to not harm the small ones. All of them barked at once, a mighty high-pitched yap - yap! Their big brown eyes and wagging tails amused the large man so, but this was a curious thing to him in this place. Yap - yap! The barking faltered and the dogs walked backwards into the mist -- or perhaps it rolled forward and consumed them.
"Come back!" he tried to call out. "Come back!" he wanted them so. But the words wouldn't come, couldn't come; was he breathing? They didn't come back. And the mist receded, and he was standing again. The rolling mist poured back to reveal faces before him; a legion of faces all worked into horrific shapes. Their eyes seemed to follow him and that made him shiver - his blood ran cold, so cold that he might die he thought in the dark. He faltered; he stepped back and bumped into another - more faces? But this one was fair, beautiful, singing -- Sebrienne? No... Isolde -- no, it was Hana the blacksmith or... Asha? Thau'lira? No - it was all of them in a semi-circle at his back; he laughed to himself because they were all singing in one voice. But the words were gibberish, or non-words. The chorus "camroC pu ekaw" was too fast for him to catch, and lilted as high as the sound of starlight it seemed. Buzzing, insectile. All of the voices together buzzed like a choir of angels, "camroC pu ekaw" and at the same time ushered him forward. Forward, towards a black wolf that lay in the dark. Gigantic and with his paws crossed before him. The wolf spoke in the words of a man, it said to Cormac thus: "Truly no one is outstanding without me, nor fortunate; I embrace all those whose hearts ask for me. He who goes without me goes about in the company of death; and he who bears me will remain lucky for ever. But I stand lower than earth and higher than heaven." Cormac froze - felt himself freeze - felt eternity pass by around him, his gaze set fixed forever and a day upon the face of the wolf who'd posed this impossible riddle that he could never answer. A thousand winters came and went it seemed before he felt warmth again, this forgotten thing. Asha stood there wearing little, perhaps nothing - he could not tell for her hair had grown wild, or was it Lady Firehair - Sune herself that caressed him so and thawed the blood in his veins. She kissed Cormac's ear, and he delighted in it, and the word seemed to slither into his ear canal in the trail from her wet kiss and belch out of his mouth, in her voice; "Humility" returned Cormac and the beast was gone.
The floating bodies of the choir swam around him in the dark, ever singing, their voices rising higher to a hum as they ascended. Cormac was left alone on the stony floor looking up at them, watching them drift and float away. He wished he could bring them back or ask them to wait. His heart was aching as darkness and cold surrounded him again; and again he faltered - again he was pushed back. Again a body pressed against him. A firm, flat chest; hairless but broad and strong, warm against his naked back. A man's voice tumbled out and it was not his own - he recognized it, Reemul, the horseman. The fighter's hands worked Cormac's shoulders, fingers sinking into his muscles as he spoke his comforting words - words that were thick and heavy with seduction. Cormac's jaw clenched and he was ashamed, aroused even, the man said "Leap"; and Cormac did as he was bade, and he plunged skyward into a pool of glowing green; and he kicked his legs and pumped, and almost drowned in the glowing pool as his singing companions all fell away from him. He felt alone in the pool. He swam upwards. Thau'liira's face in the dark water as singing and he passed her, she smiled and touched his body with her naked hand as he moved, gliding past her towards the surface; the sensation caused his heart to swell and suddenly he broke the surface; leapt from the surface, and stood upon the rippling reflective glassy pool. The singing of his companions was all around him again and their chorus was bring; "!camroC pu ekaw", "!camroC pu ekaw", and he bathed in the glory of it. His skin felt dry and warm, he stood naked before them all and laughed with their song.
He watched his friends like the stars and celestial bodies above him, wheeling and whirling, singing and guiding him. He sat in his canoe and pulled himself onward upon the rippling body of the lake. For miles and miles he paddled, he grew not weary nor did he seek rest all along his journey. He knew in his heart and mind, in his very soul that he was going to join those singing beauties above him. He sailed on.
The boat ran aground suddenly, and an endless typhoon raged. Rain whipped and lashed him from the side and up above, high on the mountain in the dark, he saw great trees growing. They swayed angrily in the ceaseless wind. But he needed shelter and his friends, all of them, grabbed him by the hands and sang into his face, their eyes wild and full of terror it seemed - and they dragged him farther and closer to those tall threatening trees. They creaked and cracked against the wind, and their small apple-sized fruits fell and crashed to the ground, crumbled half of his singing angles to dust as they pounded from the high boughs to the low earth. The broken hands that gripped him were brushed away by those that were still fresh, and he was wrestled through the rain and falling fruits out into a wide open space; black and barren save for the most tiniest pin-prick of light.
He turned back, back to the shadow - back to face those tall deadly trees in the dark; but he stood face to face with red lipped Isolde. She stood in a gown of silver silk so thin that all her womanly figure was outlined against the bleak murky shadows of the Underdark. He felt her hands caress his forearms, every individual hair brought to attention by her graceful touch, and her eyes like gemstones burning against his own gaze. He felt soft in her hands, and she spoke to him in a lovers' voice, ".og s'eL !mih nmaD .su raeh neve t'nac eh timmaD !DRATSAB DIPUTS UOY .dratsab diputs, htlif sih ni ereht mih evael - taorht sih tuc tsuj ,mih lliK". He looked into her eyes dreamily as she sang the nonsense words to him. And when she pressed hers silk-clad breasts against him and kissed his cheek, he felt electrified by the sudden thrust of force behind it. He let out a dreamy moan, and he was surprised when a similarly dressed George Longcloak came to him from the other side and laid a similarly electrifying kiss on his other cheek; he felt his face flush and redden as the purple beard brushed against his manful jawline. Cormac's chest heaved in a great sigh. The three danced together, closely as though they'd just been bound in marriage. Cormac's head swam but he laughed giddily, and felt a warmth between his legs.
It was while he was dancing and writhing with those two that Erilo descended from on high, twirling slowly and softly as a feather - his face drawing ever nearer to his from above like a spider on a string. He felt the Half-Orc's big wet lips press against his forehead, right between the eyes; his eyes fixed shut and he cried out in euphoria as the tusked teeth behind the green skinned lips nipped at the tip of his nose. His eyes met Erilo's, and through a kissing mouth the purple-hooded-mostly-nude Orcblood whispered "!ereh attuo m'I - ti htiw lleh ,flesmih dessip eh kniht I !kciS", and Cormac smiled, his eyes opened with heavy seducers' lids. But all were gone. And he again was lonely; though closer to the white light that shone through the opening in the dark.
He looked at it closely, and revealed to him were the soft lilly-white legs of Sebrienne, which he had never in his life seen but could well imagine apparently, her naked navel and body with her hands behind her head and her fingers thrust deep into her golden hair. Between her thighs the whitest beam of light; blinding to behold -- but Cormac stared, and within the light, there staring back at him, Cormac staring within the light and staring back at him, and Cormac was staring back at him, and back at him stared Cormac... until it maddened him and his head reeled and he spun about -- and saw Elves. All dressed in white and enshrouded with the white light that seemed to beam from all of his companions; all of whom were there too, all holding hands and slowly walking in a circle around him humming their song. The tallest Elf stood before him, beard long and white as snow. It stared into Cormac's eyes as it parted its beard whiskers and gave birth to yet another small Elf, which bore the face of Rey', and clung to Cormac's leg and called him 'mother' in its strange tongue he thought. He squirmed with joy and relief and joined in the circle dance with his wonderful singing friends; and they danced for the rest of eternity it seemed. The endless refrain of "camroC pu ekaw" sung in crystalline voices by his friends, and by the Elves.
The warrior became dizzy and fell forward, his guts fell out onto the floor and he vomited vigorously until a crimson lake of blood pooled out in front of him. Wild-eyed he looked around for something, some reason for this - but all had grown dark again; his stomach turned, and he threw up again. He felt lumps in his throat and he couldn't breathe, sweat rolled off him in beads as he gagged and heaved. A hand spilled forth out of his mouth, and then another; and he felt the fingernails tear and claw all the way from his spilled miles-long guts, crawling all the way up and out of his throat; and it burned and it stank. And in the black at the edge of his pool of blood, a lapping sound. Lapping all around, giggling and lapping. Porcelain faces on the edge of shadow staring back at him - all around him, lapping the blood and laughing at him. They skittered closer on too many legs - spiders - spiders with weird faces! He fell back, ass in the wet, and he tried to scurry away but he slipped. And they came upon him and laughed, still, and they stabbed him with their legs. And their laughter grew louder, and their faces all changed -- and those that were upon him were his friends; he wanted to scream! The terror burned him, fried his brains he thought.
And there he sat the back room of some dossers' shack in the back edge of town. His fist wrapped round his sack of mushrooms, sitting in his filth unmoving - his unblinking gray eyes staring with tears streaming down his cheeks; was he laughing to hard? Is he hurt? It's hard to ask, it's hard to say. From one minute to the other he wears a grin; a savage look, defiant and raw. The other forlorn and melancholy. Sometimes lesser men come and beat the unmoving hulk. Some speak of murdering him and taking his treasure. A couple of blows to the side of his head as he dreams of soft kisses. A bloodied nose from another. He's not even there, it seems, not really. The man weeps and laughs absent sanity as his brain tries to make sense of the horrors of the Underdark. Try to make sense of the man he is, or was, or has become...
A soft voice asked, "But how did you know?"
The far away voice compelled, "But I didn't."
A crumbling deep sound from within the darkness.
"You couldn't have known she'd be there, that you'd be murdered in this high, cold place." the soft voice continued.
The far away voice insisted yet further, "I didn't know."
The rumbling of ice upon ice from deep within the bleak, frozen dark.
The yellow eyed wolf looks up at Cormac from his side, the ravens wings that challenge the blackest night lie flat against its back. It suggests yet further. "But you came here to die?"
The man whose raven black hair had sprouted a thread or two of brilliant white, stark enough to challenge the stars and the moon in the sky answered thus, "Something awaited me here. Perhaps its name is Death."
The wolf stared and pondered. After an eternity it wrapped its cunning mind around some words in its own riddle. "Yet you live. Between places, you are neither living nor dead. Tell me Cormac Randolph; if Death waits, are you not rude to keep him waiting?"
The frozen corpse offered no response. And so the raven-winged-wolf resumed.
"And if you came to find an answer that you might live on, have you not also failed to do that? Perhaps not. In the eternal in-between you elude death and forsake damnation. Aoth might smile upon the bones of you for that. If the mad-woman had not injured you so, you would have died here. Do you realize that she saved your life?"
A dull creak from the rimeclad barbarian upon his frozen throne. Hoary shards of ice tremble and splinter off. The valravn's yellow wolfs' eyes narrow and its black lips curl at the corners.
"You won't let me die. You won't let me live. What do you want from me, beast?" A thought from another realm cries out. Dark clouds seem to roll over the mountaintop as a new blizzard sets in. The few mountain-dwelling ravens that had tried their luck at pecking the glassy ice that covered the man-corpse's face were startled into flight, and soon their raspy cries were ghosts in the fog.
The wolfbeast offered no answer.
The frozen man continued his psychic monologue -- or dialogue with this eldrich deity; "Give me peace. Let my sword mark the grave of some fool. Let my guns lie silent. Should my axe be raised again in war let the wielder be cursed. Let me 'die', beast. Give me peace."
The yellow eyes of the wolf raise once more to meet Cormac's golden gaze, frozen and unblinking. "You know as well as I, Cormac Randolph, that none of this is my doing. This is not the end I wished for you. You have rolled over and accepted a fate that is unfit, unworthy. You have disappointed me and, I think, yourself. Is it not so?"
A thin, hairline crack begins to split the icy coffin that houses Cormac's frozen flesh; only a slight thing at his cheek. A pulse of gold illuminates the glassy ice and hoarfrost exterior, it pulses like a beacon as his golden eyes light up. The offense of what the valravn says runs too deep even in his frozen heart to be ignored by the relentless spirit of the man within.
The crack ceases; the pulse dies. Eternity resumes as the spirit of the man and the wolf set aside their bitter argument.
He'd stood facing the doorway to room A7 in the halls of the Bardic College for a while, he was sure he could hear someone in the room on the other side of the door but hadn't quite plucked up the courage, or really found the words yet that he'd wanted to say. Once or twice he'd reached for the door handle - apparently intent on bursting through the door and baring all he had to the mercy of his intended recipient. At the last he resigned to rest his forehead against the cold wood planked door and to speak softly.
"...this isn't the first time I've made a mistake. Only, I think this time it's different and I don't think I can come back from it. Shay was right -- they've all turned away from me -- and here I am at your door. Will you open up and talk to me? Do you think I could see you just this one last time..?"
The last few words came out choked and to his own ears uncomfortably desperate. The seconds that passed in silence seemed like eternity - he was about to turn and leave when he heard a fumbling at the handle, the hard 'click' of an opening lock. Elation washed over him as the door slowly creaked open and dim candlelight spilled out from the growing gap.
"...Isolde I --"
His words were cut short when the point of a stiletto dagger was thrust aimlessly up towards his face. A shrill woman's voice demanded of him.
"Who the hell are you and what do you want at this hour?!"
Cormac stepped back from the doorway, he stiffened and his breath caught and stilled. His nostrils flared and he stood up straight and squared his shoulders, he drew in a breath and began in his dark robust voice.
"...My name - is C--"
He was cut off suddenly again by another shrill outburst from the dark haired Half-Elven girl, and that seemed somehow more immediately dangerous than the dagger from earlier.
"Nobody CARES who you are, you old creep!!"
These words were followed by the sharp echoing clap of the door being slammed shut. There was a finality to that sound. The big man swallowed hard, he wondered if he should apologize - the thought passed quickly, and he vacated the Theatre building just as swiftly. He didn't think on it again until much later, but he guessed that would probably be the last time he crossed that threshold on way or another.
"Nobody cares who I am".
This thought on the other hand hounded him through the last course of his journey. He didn't try to guess at how long it had been since he'd seen anyone else. He'd watched lush green turn to muddy brown and stunted growth, and from there the landscape turned to dull grey and frost, and from there to near constant snowfall. He tried to not rest for too long on his stops as he couldn't help wondering when he turned into an 'old creep'. Once on the long road a wolf had howled in the dark, it had been a lonely sound and no other wolves had responded. Cormac hadn't used his voice at all since the woman in the college had interrupted him; he almost wolf-cried back out into the dark himself but for the awkward feeling that comes from such bitter loneliness. The barely audible sound came out muffled, and strangled itself to a weary sigh before it could fairly start let alone articulate. There were shadows in the dim embers of his campfire, the light refused to dance in his eyes.
He thought little about Rafni, the child he'd sired with Raazi. The words he'd said so many times before had become truth to him. Just another one of my little bastards who'll never know their father's name, or his face. Maybe for a while he'd fooled himself into believing this time was different. Hadn't he been there to see her born? Hadn't he named this one? Held her? She'd cried for him when she missed him. He'd fallen in love with the little crease of a dimple on his little girl's cheek when she smiled too. And -- he'd come to find that those kinds of thoughts were getting hard to put away as he drew closer to his destination, and that they made his heart hurt. He didn't hate Raazi for it. He missed her, too, he understood.
His next campfire hardly burned at all, a low flame that sparked and spat angrily against the frozen mountain wind. The coals of it tried to blaze their bright red but their forlorn glow was pitiful in the frigid night. Wind whistled over the top of the blanket of white snow that seemed to be tucked into every nook and craggy cranny on the rough mountainside. There was little shelter and Cormac's back and shoulders quickly became snow covered and he became just another lumpy outcrop. He stayed that way hunched over the dying embers all night. The falling snow did not relent with the coming dawn.
The world flattened, he was drawing closer to the mountaintop. The throne at the peak would be within reach today. His shallow breaths lingered before him, hot puffs that had started coming out ragged and irregular. He'd left much of his equipment behind, he'd figured after all, that he'd have little use for a cumbersome axe or his blackened chainmail, or even his big roundshield where he was heading. Cormac Randolph who bragged that he could smell a trap had made another mistake.
For in the winding rocky crags where the wind is slowed to a mere eye-watering, a step down from the flesh biting or skin ripping, in the hollow places where a fire might be lit and stay lit and a tent might be pitched and stay pitched, the wild mountain folk would often migrate through. Cormac would be lucky enough to encounter a handful on his way to the top.
He had left his axe and his shield behind but only a fool would travel anywhere unarmed. His longsword rasped from its scabbard as one howling figure sped towards him more than half obscured in the blizzarding snow. The wide arcing swing of his foe's greataxe might've ended Cormac's trip right there if he'd been just a little slower, or if his enemy had been a touch quicker. He caught the next swing early with his sword and forced the scruffy bearded man back a step. Cormac was already out of breath and knew the fight must end soon, no fancy sword-work today. The mountain man recovered rapidly and brought his axe up overhead; he meant to bear down with all his might and cleave Cormac from crown to sternum, or to split him clean in two like a dry log perhaps. It would not be so. An almost lethargic step forward and an impaling thrust of the black bladed longsword saw the fur-clad vagrant drop his big axe behind his back and cartoonishly clutch the small portion of blade before falling back into a snowdrift, the man died quickly and snow had already started to cover his body and his face by the time Cormac had caught his breath and leaned over to recover the sword.
Before his hand could grasp the handle, before he could so much as tug the blade free, a shrieking woman had jumped onto his back. He felt her drive her fist into his side a few times; all the while screaming inarticulate bloody murder. He was caught off guard, numb with cold - startled with the ceaseless yelling. Cormac reached back over his head and grasped at whatever he could lay his hands on and still the woman drove her fist into side, his ribs, his back. One of his fists became tangled in her wild hair under her hood, his other hand found purchase under her arm, and in an instant he'd thrown her clean over his head and into the snow where her presumed companion lay dead. The woman scrambled to her feet roaring shrilly like a startled mountain-lion. The witch-demon, shrieking banshee bitch had a pair of crimson bladed daggers in her hands and she rose bow-legged and ready to pounce again. By the time she'd thought about taking a half-step towards him though, Cormac had already slung the sawn-off Lantanese rifle out from under his cloak and fired true. A red lake and ribbons of guts met the snowbank behind her a few seconds before the woman, blasted backwards, had hit the wall herself. Still she screamed. Her wild echoing rage wasn't quite the 'boom' of his big gun's report, but the devil was in this sound. She hissed and scurried, she crawled through the snow on her belly leaving a bloody trail. There was no sense to her movements, the woman herself didn't seem to know or care where she was going - the sound in her awful cries made it seem that she didn't know whether she was fleeing or attacking either. Cormac drew his pistol and fired another ball through her back. The crack of gunshot echoed all over the mountain - the woman no longer moved, her frantic cries had ceased almost immediately.
Cormac stood with his pistol pointing at the dead woman a while longer, his black painted lips tipped down at the corners. It wasn't too much longer before he felt his legs threatening to give out. The numb cold of the mountain blizzard was giving way to wet heat that made his pants leg stick to his thigh and all the way down to his knee. He could see spots of blood on top of the new snow. The snow would quickly cover it up, and then more drops - an endless battle that he was sure to lose.
He never did recover the longsword.
He staggered the rest of his way up the last steep stretch of hill. The places where the woman's knives had punctured had started to ache so much that he wished the numbness of the cold would come back. Nevermind. His uneven breathing had become rasping loud moans before the frost covered throne had ever come into sight. Black spots drifted before his eyes and more and more he felt it might be terribly wise to rest. Just a few minutes and then he'd go on, he thought. Just enough time to gather his strength. He hadn't felt drowsy since he'd slain Shay. All the rest he'd needed he'd had on his bleak throne. Now he could barely keep his eyes open. Short puffs of breath hung in the air before him as he made his way onward.
By the time he reached the seat he was all clapped out. He'd started coughing a while back and by now he couldn't catch a breath, the cold irritated his throat; his mouth was full of cotton, so it felt. Almost like he was getting whisky drunk. The dribbles of blood that forced their way out of his mouth had frozen and formed pink icicles that hung from his beard. Another puff of breath, this time barely a shallow ghost. His chin dipped and another breath gurgled its way up and moaned its way out of his throat.
He rasped the word, or maybe the question, as the feet of strangers stood in the snow before him. He managed to look up and to see the ones who stood there. A wizard in blue robes stood watching him. Another man dressed in blood-spattered full plate stood resting on a downturned greatsword, to this man's left another light haired man dressed in purple chainmail stood. And in the middle standing a full head and shoulders taller than them stood a great warrior with sullen yellow wolf's eyes, a reflection of himself. The four shadows stood and watched for a time. The puffs of breath had ceased and a thin layer of frost had started to take over the figure that sat on the throne. Slowly the four sank away into their shadows. The yellow eyed one hesitated half a heartbeat, but soon there would be nothing at the peak of the mountain but the moaning wind and whipping snow.
Sure there might've been rumors afterwards. A shadowy figure coming between some maiden and the loss of her virtue at the hand of some dirty bastard. And maybe the occasional hushed tale of some would be villain found with a small hole in his chest. The ghost of vengeance who'd engulf lesser boogy-men in shadows and bear them straight down to hell, himself. And were there not nights where a long shadow would spill out over the commons; and didn't that shadow have horns, so they'd say? Maybe they never did. Maybe it's as plain as it is written. Maybe he's simply gone.
The sharp edge of a silver knife made of shadow cuts through the twine with a satisfying, musical 'ping'. Cormac looks down at the stitched up chest wound of Kyrie who lays dead upon a raised slab before him. The needle is set aside and in the same motion Cormac picks up a comb that, in the dark, looks like it might be carved from ebony. In truth the teeth and spine have upon them and impart the fruity musky smell of sandalwood; the thing having long ago been fashioned from a cut of the expensive wood. With it he combs Kyrie's hair with the tenderness of close family, dearest friend, or most sincere lover. His golden eyes take in the shape of the dead man's face.
"...it wasn't meant to be this way Kyrie. Stabbed in the back like some common bandit -- I know. 'I' suffer knowing that you were robbed of your victory. You deserved better is all I'm saying..."
He eyes the dead man's neat hair and perhaps decides it's 'too' neat, for he strokes the bangs to tussle them and give them a little 'volume'. He sets the comb aside and brings up a bottle of scented oil which he generously applies to the naked body before him, careful to anoint the sallow hollows, his underarms and rubs, his chest and legs, the man's hands and his face. He even applies some behind Kyrie's ears. Cormac's golden eyes give Kyrie's corpse a soft look, and tuts at the unshaven face that can't do aught but stare back up at him. The shadowy knife materializes in his hand and Cormac hunches over The Swordmaster. He rakes the razer edge of the knife down the man's cheeks - though with all the care of a trained barber, and shears the messy stubble away. He shaves the dead man's neck and the bristles that threaten to become whiskers from under his nose, too. He leaves a short goatee on the man's chin and a trimmed and shapely soul-patch just under his bottom lip.
He might've looked satisfied with his work, proud even; though as he admires the clean shave he begins to stumble - first going weak at the knees and then dropping the blade which vanishes before it hits the shadow-engulfed ground. He braces himself on the slab with his free hand, his golden eyes swimming and drifting as he begins to fade and black out. He catches himself and gruffs, wheezing and panting doggedly as he slinks wraithlike back to the cracked throne into which he slumps. An immediate gasp of relief is sighed out. He sits there for a long time without moving or saying a word, his golden eyes exploring the collapsing shadowy chasm of his once glorious plane. He feels under his cuirass and winces when his fingertips reach the cold wet spot where his beating heart ought to be, and when they brightly sting the open wound they've found. He slowly brings his hand out from under his leather breastplate and stares at his quivering fingers. No blood, bone dry... and yet he 'had' felt the injury.
His golden eyes survey the fracturing void that had been his home. Black ooze pouring down unseen walls, black ooze tinged with an inner red. Black, bloody ooze that spills into pools that disappear. His gaze turns skyward where once upon a when there had been stars, entire constellations that he had put there; born of his love for a woman, he'd pricked the darkness and brought forth stunning little lights. All gone. A swirling vortex dominates the entire sky like an upside down drain that at any moment will suck the entire plane up and out of existence. The thought chilled him to his bones and yet somehow, upon this cracked seat, he manages to take his rest. His body slowly becoming more and more invigorated as the soulless void of his body takes energy and sustenance from the shadows that make up his little world. Or what's left of it.
His eyes see more clearly from here the bright lines where Kyrie's swords had cut him and stabbed him, deep slashes in the black. Gouges that deeply wound the surrounding shadows, the places that hurt most and bleed their weird black ooze. He finds his jaw clenched, for how long now he couldn't possibly know. His bottom lip quivering like a child whose toys have been trod upon and broken, verging on pitiful tears.
"...I don't know what you've done to me. I don't even know if I can fix it. You really got me good Kyrie, I think you've cut me deep. Is this the mutual destruction you spoke of? Will my body soon lay upon such a slab?.."
The dry 'tsk' he utters echoes in the chamber of void and he rubs his eyes with his fists to fight back the tears that surely must come, surely they must.
"...no, I don't think there's a slab for me. I don't think anyone will lay me out and tend me when my time finally comes. I had such 'plans' for you, Swordmaster. I though I might turn you into some twisted thing -- a weapon, or a shield maybe. I thought it'd be fitting but -- but I don't feel like it now. Of all the injuries you've inflicted upon me I think your piss-poor death has been the most grievous. Do you understand? You've broken my heart Kyrie..."
He sniffs aloud and pushes himself up from the throne. Hours, maybe days had since passed. Maybe only hours or minutes. The body still gleamed from the oil and hadn't began to decay; though in this place of all places, would it ever? The knife that hadn't been in his hand materializes from shadow as he lifts Kyrie's by the wrist. He carefully and meticulously begins to trim the corpse's fingernails. He trims carefully in small etching cuts almost as though he'd regret hurting the dead man further. He cuts the nails down short though on all ten fingers and all ten of his toes, too. While he cuts he offers;
"...when I was a boy, the Seeress told me that when a dead man's nails went untrimmed before he was buried, that his fingernails and toenails would be taken by trolls back to the real of the Jotun, where they'd use the untrimmed nails to build upon the hull of their great ship of war. That the funerary rites were important; else the endtimes would come..."
The body lying upon the slab with his fatal wounds stitched shut, his body oiled, his beard and fingernails trimmed, and his hair combed is at rest and naked before Cormac. When he's certain there's nothing more he can do for Kyrie's outward appearance, he begins to dress the dead man. Rough brown woolen pants, a stiff off-white linen tunic cinched at the waist with a new belt. Sturdy leather boots of a quality that most common men might own but one pair in a lifetime, and gloves both supple and tough befitting of a swordmaster. The dead man's shins are furnished with metal plates and his body is dressed in a chain tunic not quite as long as the linen undershirt he'd been put in. A sword belt is tightened around the waist over the mail with a scabbard that houses a fine longsword. Sturdy, decorated pauldrons are fitted to the corpse's shoulders to hold the big red cloak in place. Strapped to his guard-arm is a broad roundshield which is laid over the body of the dead man. And a helmet plated with shining bronze and gold inlays is finally placed on the man's head.
He places his hands on the chest of Kyrie and he starts to force the body out of his realm and back to the material plane, a location he knows well in mind. At his back, although they daren't step into his crumbling plane that might cease to exist at any moment, he can feel the eyes of his three 'Brothers' upon him. He can feel their collective wonder, and something more than indifference -- perhaps 'malice' at this mortal's decision to break their laws, to 'take' from Death instead of relinquishing.
Cormac steps out of a doorway made of shadows which closes soundlessly behind him and winks out of existence. In his muscled arms the limp body of Kyrie, the gold-plated Mithril chainmail glittering brilliantly in the light of the dawn, the shadows of the pillars and the great statue of Tempus in his austere shrine just outside the City of Peltarch stretching far as the sun begins to rise.
The body, furnished with sword and shield, armor and helmet, cloak and boots is laid out at the feet of Tempus - this man's Lord - with a bleak and pragmatic grimness that only Cormac's sullen face could convey without words. The barbarian fusses over the body, straightening the cloak at first, and then throwing the material over one side of the body for dramatic flare. He rests one of Kyrie's hands on the pommel of the longsword worn at his hip. All of the man's own battle furnishings having crumbled to ruins and dust upon his defeat. The swordmaster that Cormac had called a 'knight' looks indeed knightly in his death-splendor. Something in the scene reaches Cormac's romantic nature and he stands a while, looking between the finely dressed body under the stern gaze of Tempus.
"...I don't pray. I never had -- I've been accused of being a poet but I've no words for this kind of thing. This man laid out before you stood against many. He did not flee though he could have. He is my enemy, and one of the closest things I've had to a friend for a long time..."
He rubs his eyes with his knuckles, and his shoulders slump - maybe it's shame or something else that squeezes his big, heavy heart.
"...I think my seat in your golden hall will be empty overlong, o' Lord of Battles. I yield my place to Kyrie, the Swordmaster. If he has no kin there let him find mine; let him sit shoulder to shoulder with them, pray he tells them that Cormac Randolph too was no coward, tell them that I didn't flee either. Tell them -- something..."
His thoughts turn to Ysgard, to Gladsheim -- he thinks on whether he'll see such things before his end. He has no idea that the answers will all too soon be revealed, how right - and how wrong he is in his musings. For now he simply slips away back into the shadows, back to Discordia and Ruin where death and madness dwell. He takes to his throne ... and there Death Rests...
Cormac's attention is drawn to the other side of the road, some ways out up along the ridge where some birds have been disturbed and are taking flight. As his line of sight climbs with the flock he feels a sudden hot pain in his neck. A half second or so later the sound of the shot that had just hit him. He can only think on how surreal that passing moment is before his legs give out, and he falls at first to his knees and then stumbles down over the ledge with all the grace of a bag of bricks. His blood that had spurted out in tremendous arcs now slowly pumps out the severe neck wound. It's said a man's life will flash before his eyes in such moments as these; all Cormac can see are feet stomping around in his pooling blood along with the coming darkness. Dawn had just come, sure. But by the look of it, it must be sundown already. His heart slows further, his lips are numb and his cold body shakes. A ripple of gooseflesh rolls up his arms and causes the hairs to bristle, still conscious...
The healing spell brought him back from the brink of death. He rose to his feet, and spat he iron ball that had been lodged in his throat out in to the grass. It hadn't occurred to him that such a thing might never occur again. Nor did it seem to matter, everyone had gathered around him with their shields held up. A protective circle of bodies all protecting poor immortal Cormac. He'd grown tired of explaining that he'd just get up if he were killed, and let the others have their fun.
Kyrie wasn't hiding when they discovered his location. He stood atop a hill aiming the barrel of his Lantanese long hackbut down at the tight array of shields and bodies. If he wanted someone dead or wounded he wouldn't have had to aim. But he acted as Cormac had said he would, he acted like he didn't want to hurt anyone but the 'shadow monster', the great 'evil' that he was hunting. This would be a good time for dialogue, maybe he'd finally learn something about the Swordmaster - this was good. Better yet perhaps Kyrie would give something up about the soul-drinking weapon or weapons that had been draining Cormac of everything that made him truly 'him'. How to fix it, how to get it all back and feel normal again. Maybe -- but no. One person swung their weapon, then the next - the Kyrie drew his sword.
The Swordmaster's title was well earned. It was no quick thing as such assaults are when five or six pile up against one. He defended and struck, parried and answered in kind. Without his bracers it's said he'd been weakened, and maybe that was so. Hard to tell since he still fought like a cornered tiger. His first sword shattered, then a second, a third, and when all seven of his blades were broken he fought still; driving the blunt handle of his final sword into Cormac's ribs to try and smash through and bludgeon him to death. Cormac had thrown his own sword at Kyrie's feet and bade him pick it up; Kyrie had refused to arm himself. Or maybe it was just that he'd rather die than accept aid from his sworn enemy. Whatever his reason he died with the broad blade of a halberd in his back and the curved razer edge of Cormac's great axe sunk in his chest. His ruined armor crumbled, along with his helmet. The face beneath - like Preacher - was just a man. No demon, no gods-sent being of light and justice, no hellspawned devil of wrath or ruin. Just a man.
"Versh Ner Mak Akahel. Am Shan Ekal Etros"
"Versh Ner Mak Akahel. Am Shan Ekal Etros"
They're all watching me...
"Versh Ner Mak Akahel. Am Shan Ekal Etros"
And they were all watching him. Questions on their lips that wouldn't spill out at first. Uneasy shufflings... and as Cormac approached the body of the man, disgust? Horror -- fear. The open terror in Sebrienne's eyes, the hostile disappointment in Isolde's. Raazi biting her lip with excitement.
"Versh Ner Mak Akahel. Am Shan Ekal Etros"
It must be done... it must be done.
You're evil! That's what he thought he heard Perom cry out as he and Kyrie were sinking into blood and shadow. Maybe he said it out loud, but he thought Perom might be right. The voices of the other shadows encouraged the thought. Celebrated his victory, even mocked his methods.
"Versh Ner Mak Akahel. Am Shan Ekal Etros"
Kyrie would have to await his final judgement. The cracks were starting to show in Cormac's realm. Fractures and splinters of darkness within darkness, grinding crystalline shards of it; oozing, puddling messes of it. Frozen lightning patterns the colour of hellish disease had been raked across his blackened sky. Boiling clouds of near-black blood obstructed the stars he'd painted in his sky. Deep, horrific gashes lined walls that had never really been there and pulsed with hot infection. The Swordmaster's work, the pieces of him - scarred remains and fractured 'bits', and a lonely dark throne to which Cormac was now truly bound because of these events...
It didn't occur to him then either that he now looked exactly like the man in the painting that the yellow eyed Shay had gifted him.
He sits in his ceremonial robe, the skull mask he wears hides any sense of emotion or inclination that a feeling, living human being sits upon the high backed throne before Preacher. Cormac's golden eyes pulse in the dark hollows of the skull mask, the quiet baby on his knee also staring in wide-eyed wonder at the pale faced man that kneels before her father's shadow-cloaked seat. Too young to make sense of it.
"...I don't understand why you chose to target us. I know how you came here and I know the 'who', the one who summoned you. But I don't understand the 'why', and that irks me...", there's a small pause as Cormac draws in an inaudible breath, the weight of his mockery as oppressive as the darkness that surrounds his bleak realm. "...you brought terror, death, and destruction to many. You told me this; and - I believe that in killing you, I have brought peace to the unavenged..."
Preacher doesn't speak. The wide eyed baby begins to coo and reach for the dead man, her unknowing stare immediately turning to that childish look of love, and immediate desire for anything that is bright or shiny, or fluffy, or 'dangerous'. Cormac's own thin smile is hidden behind the grim skull face. A delicate, silvery clashing sound rings out in front of his seat. Where the knight had knelt just moments before there sits an armored monkey, driving itself around and around on mechanical little legs, bashing its little cymbals ceaselessly as a clockwork key unwinds on its back.
"...you told me this and I took it to heart. In life you were no holy man, that you were not acting on behalf of the gods and -- I understood that. I think we are both in our own way those fools that live outside of their reach, beyond their sight. And I'll tell you this for free, Preacher; they were never on our side. Here is your eternity. You who left your wake of fear and fire; you will be an amusement, you will bring forth joy and delight. You will be no more than a toy - and when she is too old to delight in you, you'll be discarded, thrown in a box and forgotten. This is your legacy of torment. This is the final word of Death..."
His voice growing increasingly frustrated with the man-turned-toy, the dead-eyed cymbal clashing thing never stopping in its tracks. Perhaps if one were to listen just beyond the ringing, clashing noise one might hear the hellacious screams of the man trapped within. Cormac delights in this, is ecstatic with the thing that he has done. And the almost lyrical, sudden and appropriate response of Rafni projectile vomiting onto the breast of his ceremonial robes is not lost on him.
He looks down at the chunky white spit-up that has pulled him back from his vileness, it'll probably stain he thinks...
Cormac's golden eyes narrow upon the knight that stands a few feet away, at the knight's feet the body of a Seafarer with blood pooling around his head. There's little blood on the hammer in the knight's hand but it's clear what has happened. Cormac opens his mouth to speak but Preacher speaks first. "The child", he demands, "...and the woman". Cormac asks his questions, the long-winded answers he receives aren't what he'd hoped or expected. The knight makes it clear that he's no paladin, no holy man - that his mission is beyond all that. That he and his companions have slain women and children - that they've burned entire villages to the ground in their pursuit to eliminate 'evil'. Zealotry.
The man with burning yellow eyes rests his hand on the butt of the pistol he'd been gifted. "...I suppose that makes what comes next a little easier...", he manages to say before Preacher finally attacks him, not with his hammer - but with a magic blast that makes the ground tremble and crack, the paving stones split and fire bubbles up between the cracks. As is his way, Cormac doesn't move to evade the first strike - he clenches his jaw and bears the brunt of it, and is thrown back against an old wooden post, the back of his head rattling off the solid beam. He stood slowly, his eyes swimming, a half dozen or so knights drifting in and out from each side until they finally all converge into one -- Preacher, it seemed would be the proof of that old saying -- aim for the one in the middle.
Preacher by now had walked closer. Dark voices whispering in his head, nay-saying, cursing him to fail, to miss. Telling him that he'd miss and he'd die, that his death would mean the end for Raazi and for Rafni, that if anyone remembered him it'd be as a failure who sold his soul to the darkness - as a man who'd have lost everything if he'd ever had it to begin. This is the end.
Preacher took one or two more long steps, a couple of feet at least, and he'd closed in by the time Cormac had finally mustered his courage and pulled the pistol from his belt. As soon as his fist wrapped around the handle the whispers shifted. No whispers but 'singing', the sound of triumph - a sound that he'd only ever be able to describe as 'good'; along with the convergence of voices that he didn't know came the voices of some that he did. A pleading voice that swore "I love you", another woman who said it in desperation; exasperation. The word came from many places, softly and roughly. Through borne teeth and hot breaths of passion, lust, and rage. The sweet voice of Asha almost broke his heart all over again; Raazi sobbing the words, her voice choked with tears. He knew all of them, and he knew they all meant it. Almost surely they all still did. The singing voices of those restless unavenged; the ones Preacher and his warband had put to the torch, their voices rose with the rising of the pistol's barrel. His heart that should've been beating like a kettledrum beat with the slow rhythm of a man at rest. Fate, it seemed, would take over from here; there was comfort in that. Irony. A dry, old voice came to him from nowhere. "Shoot", and he shot.
A sharp snap followed by a thunderous crack, then silence. Cormac stood behind a shroud of reeking black smoke, his blackened lips pulled back in a pained grin baring his white teeth through clenched jaws. His nostrils flared against the gunsmoke. His bright yellow eyes blazing with hellfire. The little ball had streaked through the air and found a space in Preacher's visor; a small black hole between his dead eyes. The knight's head lolled forward and a torrent of blood spilled out, and then he fell backwards into the wet mud. A small drift of grey smoke puffed up out of the dark hole in his dead face.
Cormac stood, staring, watching all of this -- and when the dead weight of the armored corpse crashed down to the ground he cocked the pistol and dry fired at it, and once again like the dead thing could not be dead enough. His hand that had been still as if it had been carved from stone began to tremble, and he lowered the barrel and approached the dead body.
He stood over the body of Preacher looking down. No blood was pooling out, the shot hadn't penetrated the back of the helmet. He supposed the ball had just rattled around in the poor bastard's skull and made spaghetti sauce of whatever was between his ears. His awful grin faded and his blackened lips first thinned, then tugged down at the corners. A bell sounded in the distance. While this didn't quite amuse him... the romanticism wasn't lost on him. The sound of many feet coming to investigate stole him from his poetic moment.
His golden eyes drifted to the dead guard, and the dead knight. This wouldn't look good for a man like him; not even Prince Kasimir could pull those kinds of strings. He'd hide the body... take it to his dark place. All would be well if no-one knew... 'if'...
Cormac sits at the head of a great banquet table. Cloth has been rolled taut, a shimmering black velvet runner atop a rich blood red broad tablecloth. Many goblets and silver jugs that never seem to reflect any light at all sit upon it; and a dozen or so chairs line each side. His guest of honor sits at the bottom of the table staring back at him.
Dishes of fresh fruit, common and exotic dress the table and surround larger dishes of sweets and pastries; enticing puddings quake besides towering cakes. A golden bowl filled with jellied confectionaries that have been dusted with powdered sugar, each generous square a different color and flavored with sweet flower perfume. Roasted birds lay on great platters, a small pig with obligatory apple in its mouth - roasted to perfection. Cuts of lamb and beef, and baked fish have all been arrayed artfully around the centerpiece. The carcass of a great 'beast' sits in the middle of it all.
A few thick slices have been carved from the rump and rest steaming on Cormac's silver plate. Sweet gravy, and a little blood pools from these cutlets. His grinning skull face is ever the fair and dutiful host, attentive to all of those who sit at his great feast of the dead.
The plates of all of his guests are empty, save for the one at the foot of the table. The twenty some other guests sit in silence; all staring hungrily, all eyes on the beast. Cormac stabs his shadowy knife into one of his cuts of meat and casts it out into the surrounding shadow with a mere flick. An invisible claw reaching for it, snatching it, raking it back into the shadows from whence it had come signals the dinner bell. Within moments of this gesture all of the shadowy hands lunge and lurch, rip and tear like savages at the centerpiece. Bones crack and flesh rips away revealing meat so rare and bloody that if one were to listen closely, one might surely hear the screams of whatever they were tearing into.
There's no chatter, there's no song in the halls of the dead. The rampant maddening noise of smacking lips and loud, open-mouthed chewing does not seem to disturb the Lord of this place at all. His skull clad face sits in silence, observing perhaps not the feast at all but watching the face of his favored guest.
From his side, a woman pours wine from a shadowy carafe into his silvered horn. He flicks a second piece of meat out into the jaws of the hungry beast, and drinks deeply from his dull cup. He hadn't eaten, but this was the fourth or fifth cup of wine he'd drank during the meal. No light from the chandelier that hung above the table was reflected in his eyes, nor did it seem to offer any illumination upon the food at all. It could even be surmised that the only reason the wet gravy and the blood that ran from the meat glistened at all is because 'he' wanted it to. Or maybe anyone -- anything -- that witnessed such, was merely imagining it. Run mad one could say as they looked upon the face of Death.
The slurps begin to die down, the sound of bones being cracked and the sucking of marrow fades in time too. Cormac drinks again and speaks to the one who'd been brought to join his meal.
"I am aware that it comforts you little. But I get no pleasure from this at all Victor. I told you; did I not, on the day that you died, that I would be seeing you 'later'."
The skull that had been nailed to the back of the chair at the foot of the table stares out at what little remains of the body it had once belonged to. In this nightmare place where Cormac is King he had been brought back - never in life - but in spirit, to endure this evening ritual time and again, and likely would from here on out. Cormac had come to know a great deal about nightmares and he would do this until one god or another came to claim the wretched soul. He had meant at least what he said. None of this brought him any pleasure or gain. In his mind - it was justice. A poetic ritual that saw the Butcher torn apart each evening. He himself never ate of the meat, or any of the food at the table for that matter.
When the meal was through he would make it all vanish like it had never existed. The woman, he would allow to eat as much of whatever she liked - but hunger didn't come to him in this place. He drank of his wine, but no food passed his lips. The shadow, he supposed, was well enough fed. The hungry yellow eyes that watched from the darkest corners of his realm certainly seemed to offer no complaint...
A few candles illuminate a dull room, shades and curtains have been drawn so that not even the slightest wink of outside light can get in. The room he rents often has fresh towels though the majority of these have been hung over and stuffed under one door, while his clothing has been set about the other. No sound or light from the hallway, no fresh air has gotten in for days even. The water in his bath was cold when he arrived that night and hasn't been warm since. Most of the candles have burned down to the mere memory of light, the eerie orange glow from their hollow stalks sputtering and threatening to die at any moment. Some candle carcasses litter the room, they'd burnt out hours ago. Some, days ago. Cormac's unblinking eyes stare through the hollow eyes of a skull mask he'd picked up sometime long ago; he didn't quite remember well. Besides this he sits completely naked and cross legged on the floor at the foot of the big bed that he often found full of crumbs these days. He had been sitting there - he hadn't thought about the length of time that might've passed - he sat, and he sat, and he never slept - refused to sleep - for with sleep there would surely come nightmares again.
He wore a ragged bandage around each hand, both were clenched into fists. His left was inexplicably bloodied in the palm, the bandages on his right were moist with the pink mess from his hands regeneration. It was mostly hard and strange dust would flake from the linen when his fingers twitched. He was aware of an intermittent tremble in each, and a far away thought believed that this would be trouble for him.
Upon the stone steps that lead up to the bathtub a few seashells littered the way, one had been fractured and lay within an unintentionally ritualistic pattern of since dried blood droplets, one raggedly sharp edge had turned crimson when he'd used it to scratch a deep and persistent itch that wouldn't go away, which had seemed to be 'under' the fresh scar tissue that had made his left hand ugly. His pupils reflected no light even though they were as shaky black dinnerplates in the dark, eyeballs of cut obsidian behind the grim grinning skull mask. Impossible to see how bloodshot the whites had been come from his ceaseless staring. The little white capped mushrooms he'd been eating had held him in his deep trance state.
He hadn't seen Raazi since the start of it, since he'd lashed out and broke her face with such a tremendous blow. Maybe that was good but the overwhelming feeling of abandonment was unshakeable. He'd mutter conversationally to people who probably weren't there. Would knock the side of his head with his aching fists when the laughing skull-face became too much to bear; had screamed his throat raw by next morning. By this particular evening, he would go through phases of laughing along hoarsely into the golden eyeballs that drifted pendulum-like in front of his face, and whimpered mutterings. When his eyes regained focus now and then, they'd narrow and squint into the dark corners whose shadows were ever growing as each candle burned itself all the way down, guttural growling and some slightly inhuman ragged wheezing would chase his bitter, lonely (or preferably lonely) thoughts away, and he'd consume another pinch of white capped mushrooms until his mind went blank again.
By three in the morning on the third day the last candle flickered out. His room had grown biting cold, he imagined ice forming on the top of the cold water of his bath. Thought for sure he could see his breath hanging in the air. He shook constantly, wearing nothing but darkness and his strange skull mask. His state of mind invited spirits and demons, repelled light and love. All of the hooks of madness were sinking slowly into his brain and like a halo that ran around and around his fragile head the words streamed in breathy laughter from where he imagined his own reflected skull face might be in the black of this witching hour. "...she loves you, she loves you not...", for days it had haunted him along with endless threats and promises; "...but I will love you, Cormac - I will have your heart, I will have your mind - I will have 'you'. If only you will 'give in'. And you will give in..."
Cormac didn't remember falling asleep. He could recall no dreams. Did he rest for hours or for days, finally? He didn't know. He didn't feel hungry but he drained two full pitchers of water, felt like his guts had split, and vomited once. There was silence when he left his room though he felt eyes on him as he walked out of the Maid. He looked sick, his bandaged hands looked sick. The daylight burned his already stinging, now purple ringed eyes and his numb shaking fingers couldn't feel the thick stubble of his unshaven face. He was unsurprised to find no-one waiting for him.
So much, he thought, for broken curses.
A bell sounds, the hour is noon. There's little sun in the overcast sky, and Cormac sits on a bench across the street from the rebuilt court house. It's hard to say exactly when he started drinking, but the bright red bottle's contents are more than half gone by now. His blank eyes offer no reflection of the thoughts that run through his mind. His mind thinks back to the day that very building was blown to ruins - he hadn't seen nor heard anything about the people he'd saved that day, nor could he recall ever receiving so much as a 'thank you'. He didn't think that's exactly what had put him in a bad mood, but this would be the start of it anyway.
His blackened lips tug unhappily at the corners of his mouth, a dry soundless snarl becomes his expression as he pushes himself up from the bench. He takes his time striding through the streets, and makes his way slowly towards the docks. He stops and sways, and he surveys the dull streets through narrowed eyes. He doesn't seem to mind the rain today or the mud that his booted feet sink into with each step, he recalls vividly however that men died 'here', right 'here'. Another swig of the cinnamon whiskey and he strides over the spot where he'd buried his axe into the skull of a bandit mercenary-man who'd been on his knees. A few staggered steps take him to the street between an apartment building and The Lucky Ferret. He stops there for a few breaths and another drink, and for a brief few seconds he finds himself laughing through a painful grin. Was it right here that he stood on another man's back until he'd drowned in the mud? He was quite sure that this was the spot. There was no sign of the struggle anymore - just wet mud, and bitter memories.
A glance further out towards the water, and he was off again. He walked with a wide gait so that he'd walk steady; and he probably looked a sight, too. He muttered angry curses to himself as he passed the ghosts of all the men that had died that day. He stumbled but once - and spat into the wind with his arms outstretched; he laughed and span himself around without much dexterity, recalling how a full broadside's worth of cannon-fire had completely missed him here. Drunk or no, gooseflesh rose on his arms at the thought of how 'close' he must've been to being obliterated. The thought - it seemed - amused him.
It didn't take long before he walked out along the dock and found himself leaning over the barrier and staring down into the deep water. It was here he lost his now mostly empty bottle; it fell over the edge as he'd left it tottering on one of the posts that kept the barrier secure. He'd been too slow by miles to ever have a chance of catching it; still, he swore and hung there with his arm dangling outstretched toward the black abyss, the red of the bottle catching only a little light and fading out of sight rapidly until it was completely gone. He cursed again, and found himself staring into the black water with only his thoughts and no more drink for company.
His numb fingers reached un-nimbly through his pack until he found what he was looking for. A fistful of half dead roses were pulled out, some petals and jagged green leaves spilling about him and falling stupidly down into the mud. He looked at the sorry bunch and began reciting the old rhyming words that he supposed all children know and speak when they reach that certain age where boys and girls begin to notice each other; maybe even before that, he supposed with a clarity that should've been drowned in whiskey by now. "...she loves me..." he grumbled, followed by "...she loves me not...", each refrain saw another petal fall into the dark water, eerily calm now that the wind and rain had passed. And as he spoke the words his mind wandered to the many girls and women who'd come to this spot in the past, some who'd taken him by the hand to steal away from the prying eyes of busier streets. How they'd always ask the same question like there was nothing more important on their minds or in their hearts. "Do you love her"? It was uncanny how many times he'd been asked that in this place. Twice would've been curious. But it had been three? Five times by now? The thought sent a cold shiver down his spine.
He let a bald stem fall from his fingers and watched it pierce the surface of the water with a light 'plop', and he watched it bob back up and then settle. The next rose saw him continue his floral augury. "...she loves me not...", and "...she loves me...", not childlike but in gruff - near beastlike tones. He stopped plucking, and stopped speaking as his mouth filled with warm saliva as he thought back to a kiss that had been shared on these docks. That one didn't care whether he did or didn't. A deep dimple hollowed his cheek as a bold grin came to his black lips. The last petal fell into the water and he laughed "...'she' loves me...", another stem fell into the water. He started plucking another rose but he'd stopped saying the words. He stood there in perfect silence dropping petals and stems into the water. He wondered if Sune herself might be watching his stupid desperate non-gestures. His lips quirked into a wry smirk as he considered that it was perhaps Beshaba, a thought inspired by how Raazi made him forget all of these thoughts sometimes. He considered with mathematical pragmatism that if he didn't have bad luck, that he'd have no luck at all - this, too, amused him.
His thoughts drifted and he wondered if Hoar, The Doombringer wasn't responsible. Perhaps all of his pain was simply comeuppance, his dues finally to be paid; wrath upon his spirit and his heart more than his body. That was a chilling thought. Did he deserve to feel this way? He thought that he did, and as if a final mark of punctuation on the thought he dropped the final stem into the water. He watched the petals dash upon the rocks and the wall below like ships in a storm. His blackened lips turned down at the corners, disgusted by the image in his mind of giants that snapped his boat like a toy at sea. He looked around as twilight overtook the afternoon and he could think only of blood and tears...
But that, he supposed, would be another story.
He'd hired space in a wagon that would convey him from the mountains back down into the city, now that travelers were once again welcome and trade was no longer stagnant. The going was slow, slower than normal with the cold setting in and the extra precautions that were inevitable now that the Fire Giants had been denied the sum that they'd demanded. Cormac sat with his elbow propped up on the window, with his cheek resting in the warm palm of his big hand. His eyes, the grey colour of a raging sea, stared out at the passing landmarks and at the shorn and cut walls of the merchants' passage. No-one rode with him and he had no-one to talk to, and truth be told he was bored - plain and simple. Bored into the deep parts of his mind.
And his mind wandered.
He thought back long and long ago, back to the bloodied shores where he'd killed a man - killed him, it seemed now, occurring to him like a thought out of nowhere, just because he'd wanted to. His lateral and reasonable mind told him to this day that he didn't 'need' to go to the beach, that he could've done as he'd told and the result would've been the same. The invader would've been pushed back and he would've lived his merry life just as surely as -- the wagon hit a bump in the road, he thought he heard the driver more than utter curse -- but they rolled on. He came in from the window and set his feet up along the length of the bench with his back propped up against the inside of the coach. He couldn't imagine being less comfortable, he wondered inwardly if they could possibly manufacture a smaller coach. Soon, behind his frown and in his head he went back to the beach. Things had washed up, occasionally the bones of a man would glisten in the stony sand. He found a helmet there and bore it away, hid it under his bed - that thought brought the hint of a smile to his lips.
He'd saved and he'd stolen, and he'd sold and he'd traded for a full season, and by the height of spring the next year he'd scraped enough together to buy a brigandine coat. By that summer it nearly fit him, too. It was retired from the jarl's armory he later learned. Unfit for purpose - and it was clear why, there were ragged patches that looked like mice had torn shreds off the cloth to build their nests. Other parts that might make a man wonder if the mice were yet nesting 'in' the coat. Leather patches had fallen away in other parts and the belt that would cinch around his waist had a broken buckle. But he was a skinny boy and a knot at the waist would suffice. The cloth, he remembered, was perhaps at one time white - but by the time it had made its long journey through time to reach his hands, had become the dim yellow of underwear that might've been worn a few days too many. Thankfully he could not remember if it smelled like that, too.
At any rate; furnished in armour with his (dented and rust-pocked) helmet that he'd pulled from the sand, and his axe - Biter - that he'd stolen from the hands of a dead man, he felt that he was ten feet tall and that he'd live forever. Back then he supposed he'd meant to.
The wagon rolled on, the sound of the metal wheels grinding on frost and stone, and dirt and the shit of every pack animal that was driven ahead of them - had been driven ahead of them... it was a noisy journey. He'd by now turned again to put his back against the thinly padded back-rest, his legs stretched out over the hollow between benches, with his heels planted on the seats in front of him where other passengers might've been staring back at him had there been other passengers. His arms were spread out crucifix-like along the back of the seats, his legs crossed at the ankles. Though his chin almost rested on his chest he was not sleeping. Simply bored, and lost in his thoughts still.
He thought on the words that the woman had spoken to him, he wondered what it was exactly that she had said to him but couldn't quite recall. The tone though. He remembered the tone of her voice, the way it sounded like something worse than disappointment. The disappointment of 'knowing', but also of 'hoping'. She did not try to stop him, nor did she wish him well from what he could remember. He groped for the memory, he thought the words might be important but those were lost now to time. It didn't matter.
He remembered well enough what came after, how two dozen men, and two dozen more had filled the ships that had been left behind just a few short years ago. He had hair on his cheeks now, the older men teased him and called it duck feathers but he felt it made him look like a man. It wasn't thin, and had no shiny red look about it like most of the other men on the boat. His facial hair had come through black and already the wispy shadow of a fine moustache was growing under his nose. He basked even in the teasing words of his mates, in his young mind it was a fine thing just to be noticed. The wind, he recalled, did most of the work. When they took to oar it really only seemed to him to be when they were pulling out off the beach, or driving themselves up onto another.
It was dawn when they arrived and a slash of sunlight threatened to break over the horizon behind them. It was a symbolic contrast from the night raid that had come to their land. The tide was ebbing out, it wouldn't come back in for half a day he thought. Six hours at least, probably. The ship he was in made its way eerily up the beach, riding on a mere spit of wave it seemed, and was left grounded so high above the mark of the outward tide that it would not be kissed by the sea again until late afternoon. That was good. As far as options went the option of retreat could rob a man of his spine, the boy that he once was might've thought foolishly. Grandly. All the same it was good. The men he'd stand with spilled out of their boats, their roles reversed now as they faced off against the paltry defense that the offending village could muster -- the thought never occurred to him before that this village might have had nothing at all to do with the attempted raid in the past -- and they moved up the slope of the beach to meet those men and they found themselves fighting on uneven ground. Cormac struggled with his party to keep ground, not to lose an inch of beach, but it was for them an upward struggle. The defenders only had to stand and thrust their spears it seemed. They would not be moved. Shield battered shield, spear shafts rattled upon spear shaft. Men's voices blurted out wordless curses and gave voice to vile threats. The first real injury was dealt and it was no on his side's favor, and when another man closed in to fill the gap the sharp tip of a spear was thrust into him, too - Cormac had not looked away in time to not see an ocean of blood and what must've been the man's guts spill out and hit the sand a few seconds before the dead man himself.
There was one dreadful moment where their battle standard first dipped, seemed to shudder at an angle, and then fell away and hit the ground. There was a loud cheer, he recalled, from the grim sweat-streaked faces of the men that were trying to kill him, him and all the rest of the men that had come here. His side faltered, they were pushed back. Goosepimples flushed over his arms and the hair on the back of his neck bristled; the panic that rolled over them could be felt as surely as the sun beat upon their backs. This would be the end. He looked back at the meagre boats that had borne them all to this doom. Only two, what foolish, prideful thought had brought them here in just two boats. All would be lost, and he remembered thinking that maybe someone would pull his axe, Biter, from his hands - that maybe someone would watch the sea cover his face and pull him away into the black nothingness where the old maps said things like 'Here There Be Serpents'.
A voice rang out and called him a bastard, he thought that's what he heard anyway. But he hadn't run far - just back and out of the lines, back enough that he could run along the beach at the backs of these forty or so men that stood shoulder to shoulder with their great roundshields that were all held together like a great wall - a shield wall it was called - all the way to where the top end of their banner was. He fell on his backside, saliva wetting his lips and his chin with resolute excitement almost deification as he pulled the banner up at first by the decorated material and then in sweeping fist-over-fist pulls on the wooden shaft. As he rose to his feet it rose too, and so too the sun rose finally just enough so that the faces of the men who were by now so close to winning were bathed in the bright white light of morning, and the men who were by now so close to moving could take advantage of this single glorious moment -- and they did. A mad and reckless idea with the odds stacked against him had played out in his favor. There in the shadow of this deed was another hint of the man he'd become.
The banner waved over them and moved forward in the fist of young Cormac. No-one made a path, at least to his memory no-one had stepped aside or thrown down a red carpet for him. But he made his way to the fore, past sweat-stinking raiders and through the faltering spear-tips of the men who'd tried in vain to defend their beach, and their homes, from the invaders that had landed there. They followed him in stride. The defenders were pushed back and they began to trip and slip on ragged rolling dunes and slippery rocks. Spears and sword tips made short work of them, often before they'd realized they were falling. The massacre was a brief and noisy thing, and he thought to himself on the other side when no more men stood between them and the village, that on this day he had killed vengeance. That he had personally smothered any chance of rebuttal, any notion of revenge lay bleeding or had bled out upon the sand. He felt good about it too.
As the wagon rolled on he became aware that his eyes were cast down. His mouth was filled with cotton and he could not swallow the feeling. There it was, he supposed, the bitter truth of the bastard he'd become. The trundling wheels were barely a whisper over the sound of the bells that rang out over the one stone-walled structure in the village, a temple or shrine that was large enough to accommodate every soul in the village and have room left over. There was no cheer in those bells he recalled distantly. The sound was filled with alarm and it dulled everything else, must've been heard from miles around - it was awful, the memory was unsettling. More unsettling still was how he'd remembered vividly his weak attempt to not do the thing that would come next - must - come next. The part that would cause him pain for the rest of his days. He'd been alarmed and his voice had cracked when he grabbed the big man's arm before it could throw the lit torch onto the thatch roof of the great building.
"Won't you burn the treasure?" is all he'd asked. In his eyes, in the rolling wagon, the lights of every other torch that was thrown while the big man stared down at him blazed in his eyes. He knew the answer before the man could speak, he didn't speak, he shrugged Cormac off and threw his burning stick up onto the roof to meet the others.
He watched the thatch smolder and in places there were small, cool flames. The smoke was black in the midday light, black and evil. The building was not consumed in fire but smoke creeped out under the great ironwood doors, and people smashed out the stained glass windows from inside and begged to be let out. Their voices were drowned it seemed to him by the dirty smoke that seemed to ooze out of the windows. A cold shiver rolled down his spine and his arms he found were folded tightly against his body as the coach rolled on, and his mind was stolen away by the sound of what first started as beating on the doors from the inside, to soft thudding, and at the end - the part that made him feel cold inside - the scratching on the door. Feeble though it was it was there. The bells had stopped by then. He'd known as well as the big man and all the other men who'd thrown their torches had known, they'd be killed by the smoke before they'd ever feel the heat of the fire. There'd be plenty of treasure; and there was. Silver, and furs, and offerings that had been left at the altar. He watched a man cut the finger off a girl to take the silver ring she'd worn. A few survivors that were not at the shrine were lead back to the boats to be kept as slaves. One girl, he tried to remember and concluded that she must've been half-elven, was so beautiful that he'd flushed red with shame when she looked at him. He never saw her again after that day.
His part in the story, he recalled, was not told. The gods had summoned the sun, pushed it out of the water and blinded their foes. They raised tankards and horns and sang of how Erling Øystæinsson had held onto their screaming raven banner even in death, and how he held it still on the beach in his stone-like fist. How he'd forever hold the standard with the few others who'd been slain there - a draugr who'd never let another boat leave 'that' beach, not to come to their lands again, no way. And no-one spoke of how they'd killed a village by letting them run to the safety of the only building many of them had ever seen that had stone walls, how men and women and children and little babies all lay in heaps, and probably their bones still lay there, because these forty-some men wanted silver and treasure, and slaves.
Cormac learned a lot in those early days. He suspected that all men were false in their hearts, and this supposition would not leave him even after long years. And yet, these would not be his only adventures. Indeed the story of his name, the legends that would be denied would stir something inside him; a growing beast that would hunger for and devour his stories until it would become insatiable. A growling black beast that would start off as a mere murmur in the shadows, but would one day look into his eyes and feast upon his heart.
He could see it clearly before him. Night had fallen and the coaches cab was black, and in the black the eyes of the beast were staring at him from the passengers' bench opposite him. The golden wreathed eyes like burning suns, orange and gold -- blood red, black orbs. And just as it lunged forward at him he started awake. The driver was thumping on the door of the cab and calling for him to get out, telling him they'd arrived -- and they had. What little sleep he'd had didn't feel like nearly enough, and he lumbered his way through the city streets thinking no more of it.
At a pass in the mountains where the trickle of perpetually thawing snow has cut its ancient gash into the landscape sits Cormac, his legs crossed and his ass settled on the edge of the old wooden bridge that connects the one side to the other. More than a dusting of snow has collected on his shoulders, and stands out in his thick black hair. There's a deep spot that runs slow and deep, and unimaginably cold. Chunks of ice bob and turn serenely on the surface almost as though they're too tired to follow the flow of the river yet further. He holds a plain pole in his hands with a string attached to the tip, the of the end of the string has long since sank and disappeared into the chilly black deep of the pool.
"...they think I, as a boy, was cutting the heads off of dragons. That's what they saw and -- why would they question it? Hmph. That's what I saw too but I know better. Still, maybe it's better to let them think that. That what they saw is what it was, they've all seen my war harness, they all know it's black dragonhide. Why shouldn't I let the shadow of my legend grow long and dark? Tsk... dishonest? You really think so?.."
He casts his eyes aside to his companion, and gives his fishing pole a quick jerk, an attempt perhaps to tempt fish into biting the bait. He gets no response, yet Cormac snorts a harsh not-laugh out his nose anyway. His breath hangs in the air and lingers in a puff before dissipating into nothing.
"...the scaled ones they saw, dragonmen, that wasn't far wrong. But they had hair on their faces and Hell was in their eyes. I don't recall, but... I think they came from another island. Or maybe from further north on mine, another village over the hills maybe. I was not to go to the beach. But that's where the men were and it felt wrong that I should be anywhere else. All boys dream of glory I think, I'd heard other boys bragging of how they'd die well - how there was dignity in such a thing..."
He stared at the faint ripple on the surface of the water where his line disappeared. The pool seemed black and still. To his mind, the eye of a dead doe. Still glossy from the life that had passed from the rest of its body. He didn't understand the grimness of his mind while he was at perfect peace; but there it was. The pool was to him the black eye of death, and he was fishing in it. 'How's that' - he might've thought.
"...it rained that day. All day. The beach was a blanket of ... grey mist, like dirty wool. When the carved heads of their ships came gliding through -- I think that's where the dragons came from -- rrhhhh.... I wasn't even there when that happened but the stories, gods - the stories! I didn't hear for myself how, but I heard it enough times after how those ships must've slid up onto the beach. The grinding sand and shell, more stones than sand in our bay. I didn't even see them disembark and come up onto the sand, and by then I suppose the battle had started. Javelins and arrows, axes thrown, men shouting and men dying..."
He let out an irritated breath in a huff, at the thought and rolled his shoulders. The snow pile that was forever growing on each falling down his back like an avalanche. The weary frown on his brow seemed to soften as he drew in a cold breath.
"...Dragonmen. Pfah! Just men. Just 'boats'. They saw me drive the edge of my axe 'MY' axe into the throat of the beast. I am flattered. Events played out different in reality and the man was no great, black dragon, no... he was just a starving man past his prime who, like all Northmen of the time, took to raiding. I wasn't the youngest boy down there and I wasn't the fiercest. I'd grabbed the rust-worn axe that I used often for no more than -- tsk -- making kindling, or for hammering the posts back down for our goat pen after hard winds. I had no shield or armour, I had no helmet. I don't remember what colour my tunic was but... I remember I wasn't wearing shoes. The water was cold and by the time I reached the beach the tide was coming in -- that, I think, is why I'm sitting here telling it how it is. You see? These 'dragonmen', this great victory. All it was really was damn bad timing on their part. At least he wasn't fleeing. None of them were yet but every man in the shieldwall sensed it I think. 'I' sensed it, and I was just a boy. But I don't think he saw me and I'm sure he was surprised when I carved a ragged wound in his thigh..."
He glanced sidelong again and as he did so, more snow fell from his head and drifted onto his shoulders, and from his shoulders to the ground as he reached over to dust the piling snow from the top of his companion's head. His eyes narrowed and he gave his pole another light jerk to one side. He recalled absently the moment between blows, from when the man had fell with more of a crash than a splash into the rising waters of the incoming tide. A far thought that may not have come to the fore of his mind is how his lips had tugged down at the corners in that moment between moments. How that look would stay with him and foreshadow the grave man that he'd become someday.
"...I remember thinking that I'd never seen a man bleed so much, and I'd be lying if I said that I don't yet hear his scream sometimes. Tsk... anyway he bled and bled. Before I could strike him a second time his face had already turned pale. Pale like old ashes. And I remember my white toes and legs turning pink as the waves rolled over them. I thought he alone could've turned the entire sea red. I think only a few seconds had passed between the first blow and the last. I expected there to be noise when the square blade of my rusty hatchet bit into the helmet but no, it was dull and dry as an old stump. That was my dragon. He sat on his knees for a while, dead, and I took his axe from his hands. I think he was too suddenly killed to think about loosening his grip. I remember when he'd been relieved of his weapon how his body was caught in the rolling waves and taken. I remember how he sank in the red tide..."
And he did remember it, all of it, mostly he remembered the smell of the place and how he'd stood there dumbly after taking the mans' life. The axe he'd taken had a small blade, maybe no more than eight inches from top point to bottom, it was remarkably thin and light, and was mounted on a shaft almost as tall as he was. His blackened lips thinned and his frown faded for a moment as his thoughts dwelled on it. How the word 'Biter' had been burned as a rune-word into the neck of the weapon. This wasn't the half-blunted, rusty iron tool he'd come to the beach with - no - the thing he left with was a 'weapon'. Biter was its name. His stormy grey eyes glistened before a cold wind stole the memory away and forced him to huddle down.
"...in the end it didn't make a difference. Of the handful of ships that had come, most left, and many of the men who'd disembarked were bloody but had been fit enough to board and take flight. The ships that did not sail away were the ones that I would become familiar with that summer. I had been told not to, and when I came back my shadow had grown hair upon its face, and my legend had gone before me..."
He then struck the rod sharply and the line grew taut, he lifted the tip and turned the pole in his hands so the line would wrap and wrap, and draw in and pull his catch up out of the water. And after a few more turns of the pole it finally broke the glassy surface of the pool - the neck of a bottle with his string tied around it. He set the bottle aside and gathered up the polished skull that had been keeping him company. He wiped the snow from the top of its boney crown and... for a moment, from within the hollow darks of its eye sockets... he thought maybe he might've seen a burning eye staring back at him; some psychic remnant peering out from where the mind of this dead man had long since rotted out. He'd recoiled, almost dropped the skull into the lake, caught it, and when he dared look into the eyes again the image of the burning eye was gone. All the same Cormac stuffed the skull deep into his pack, and covered it with a blanket as though to further bury the evil thing.
He walked back to High Hold with the chilled bottle in his hand, swigging, thinking, drinking and pondering. The fishing pole sitting in a tangled ruin on the bridge, soon to be hidden under a blanket of snow along with any sign that he'd sat there. The echo of his story absorbed and heard only by the spirits of the cold stones and deep waters of the place. Like he himself, he reflected in weary consideration, would soon remain not even as a memory.
He didn't sleep well that night. He dreamed of a place he'd never been, and of a thing he'd never seen - but 'had' heard of. He stood at the prow of one of those dragon ships he'd thought on earlier, his magnificent screaming raven standard embroidered on the gigantic square sail as the ship skipped along the top of the waves like a hawk might drift upon the thermals. The spray that blew out from either side of the knifelike head of the ship, he dreamed, made its own mist to conceal the oars or shields that dressed the sides of his fine boat. The entire thing was painted red and he thought how much like a battle-proven blade, or spearhead it must look to those who'd watch it come up onto the shore out of the sea. Like the knife of some ancient god of the sea. Even in his sleep his chest swelled with enormous pride, and in his head it really was all his.
The boat skimmed up onto the beach of the place that he'd traveled to. He did not recognize this island but there was little sand. His bootless feet sank into the cold stones with the crunching sound of mixing cement, and when he looked back to his red ship there was no crew to come out with him. He was alone in this strange place. The mists that his boat had kicked up lingered and had spread along the beach, rolling like white smoke from a clean fire. A pathway was cut before him. Old vitrified stones lined the way, his feet welcomed the glasslike dark surfaces and they too responded with soft, smooth sounds as he walked upon them. They lead up and off the beach, and up further like steps into a hoary dune, and further still to a clearing of white powdery bone-meal like sand. Giant whale bones jutted out of the sand and edged the great ring that made this clearing, and many of the ribs had been strung with cascading ropes that had smaller bones looped into them. A deer skull twisted lazily in the breeze as it hung from one of these.
His eyes though, all of his attention were drawn to the great tree at the center of this place - this clearly sacred place - an ash tree, ancient and with a trunk as wide easily as the breadth of his ship and taller than it standing straight up on one end. He had seen taller trees than this but the thing was an ancient marvel. In places the bark had been peeled away and names were written there, the names of heroes. The words flashed as he read them; names like Reemul and Reyhenna, names like Maya and Rika, he thought Bjonk's name might be in there and Sonja's, too. Nuwairah, heroes all. These were but a few that he himself recognized for there were many. Names he'd known and forgotten from years ago, names of friends who'd lived and died by his side - yes - all of them, he thought were there, carved into the trunk of what he now understood was the sapling of Yggdrasil.
His heart was bursting with excitement and he found his knife in his hand which had not been there before, he stabbed the tree with all his strength and he tore out great swirling chunks; the sticky red sap gushed out over his blade, his fist, his knuckles were crimson - red all the way to his elbow as he carved his name into the body of the tree. He stabbed and stabbed, and dug out chunks of wood to form the letters and they were carved perfectly. Red sap splashed onto his naked chest and onto his face. It was warm, it smelled like... it smelled like spun copper. From within the tree a faint moaning, he realized, had started just before the tip of his knife had even touched the meat of the tree, and it had grown, and in his excitement he hadn't paid attention when the moaning had turned into scream, or when the screams had became sobbing. Still sobbing. He watched the pale wood bubble and warp, twist, and spill out of the main trunk. The naked upper half of a woman whose hands were still sunk into the trunk of the tree.
The woman opened her eyes and they were blue, not unremarkable blue but the perfect gemstone eyes of Isolde. Across her chest his name was carved and she wept and asked him why - how he could do such a thing. The blood poured from the wounds he'd made on the tree that were now in the woman's perfect skin and rolled down over the white bone-meal sand, and washed over his naked feet. Limbs began to crack from the enormous tree and it shuddered, parts fell from it - ruined pieces were drying as all the blood in the world tree's sapling spilled forth from the woman's wounded chest. He watched as the tree died, as she died, and he saw the death of the world in her fading eyes.
He turned to flee but slid in the slick crimson mud and fell face first into it, it swallowed him like a pool of quicksand and he was in frigid darkness for too long he felt; could hear the whispers of his ruin in the blind, suffocating darkness. He pushed himself up and clawed his way out of the haunted blood-pool, and when he looked up to the sky he could see -- not for the first time in his life -- the 'eye'. It looked to him amused though the thought was insane - as insane as the thing that was looking down upon him. The glowing sunset-red eye wreathed in flames. Were they flames? Are they serpents -- worms? Tendrils maybe. Tendrils of malicious energy he finally landed on -- and he awoke with a scream on his lips that came out as little more than breathless sigh.
He discovered after a few moments that he was gripping his blanket, like a child seeking comfort in whatever is closeby. His ragged breaths and wild-eyed expression slowly passed.
He rose early that day, the world outside was still dark and snow-dusted. Nothing else stirred. All was sterile and kissed with moonbathed frost.
He felt the wound up feeling in his gut uncoil and he was calm again.
The weather is bitter in High Hold, the alpine wind cuts like a frozen scythe. Cormac finds himself in the underground hotsprings boiling himself to the marrow. He had sunk into the water most of the way, the faintly rippling waters breaking on his top lip just beneath his nose. His hair refused to sink all the way in the mineral water and instead flowed about from the nape of his neck. Every other part of him had been totally submerged. He enjoyed the loneliness of it, the echoing droplets that rose as steam and dripped down like rain from the ceiling. He wondered at what rich gifts the stones and the earth fed into this place from above much more than he considered what might bubble up from below for a long time.
He was content in his bath. The giant spring, the great moist hollow cavern - dimly lit and so 'warm' was, he decided, his environment. Were he a dragon - he imagined - this would be his sanctuary. His 'place'. And he was amused as he considered the treasures that adventurers might pluck from his trove. Would they marvel, he wondered, at his fine weapons? His hoard of coins, mostly gold though with much platinum now. He mused on these things to keep his mind from the unsettling, curious 'want' in his head. Soon; he told himself.
He indulged in the spring a while longer. He closed his eyes and bobbed in the waters, all the kohl as well as much of his bad mood washing away together almost symbolically. His breath caught and hung in the misty air, the chill from outside making the air in this place sticky, and everything glistened with the wet of condensation. In places it hung like glass beads but Cormac was not surprised to see that in deep cavernous cracks along the walls in some places, it ran and flowed down like pitiful, end of life waterfalls. Or maybe this was the day they had been birthed? He thought not, judging the etched places where the waters trickled.
He's not here to marvel at the nature of the place, though. He's here because it's quiet and comfortable, and almost the perfect environment for what he feels he must do. The drug, is a powder, or rather - a dust. Compact and evil looking in its innocent enough ceramic pot. Too much was a killer, and too much was too easy and death or madness was ever a possibility -- but get it 'just right' and the body and mind would relax. He cared little by now, a killing might do him just as good as relaxing he mused bleakly, wordlessly in his head, though the unpleasant grin on his wet face told the bitter tale well enough. He was careful at least, suggesting there was a line yet to be crossed with whatever ailed him, and he scooped barely enough to cover half his thumbnail - and sprinkled it all gingerly into the steaming waters of the spring. The poison mixed with the rising steam and the effect was immediate. His pupils grew like dinnerplates and his head swam, not uncomfortably, but with a pillowy softness.
The dripping sounds became far away but perfectly clear. The lazy bubbles breaking the surface of the spring were percussive pops that made the most exquisite music, the dripping and popping along with the singing of the cascading waterfalls that poured (though in reality, barely trickled) down the walls of the cavern. Everything was sensationally wonderful and his own breathing was comfort and joy. His bones were rubber and he floated emptily on the surface of the springwater. The water itself was a blanket of warmth that threatened to pull him under; and he welcomed the thought. The first stage of the effects stole his senses and dazed him to inaction. After a short while the secondary stage of the drug washed over him; and brought with it - visions. And he knew not whether his eyes were open or shut when they came, such was the nature of this mind altering steam that found its way into his lungs even now, burning holes in his mind and replacing the fissures with hazy, dreamlike fact.
The shape of a person drew in from far closer than he expected anyone could get to him before he'd notice, his honed senses and talent for sniffing out danger rarely failed him. But there it stood - wreathed in that clinging thick steam, a mist that clung like wet grey wool to every shape in the cavern. He could hear the shapes legs wade through the pool and before long he realized it was the shape of a woman; he could almost make out the true length of her hair, and the shape of her apparently naked chest, a mere wisp of air dug the hollow of her navel, and he was not embarrassed to find that his eyes fell lower still to her hips and to her thighs, and all else that threatened exposure just below the surface. And he felt the burning steam hands of the shade that came to him, put her hands upon him. A curtain of wetness washed over his body, his face and his chest, he could feel the weight of it clamber onto him. Cormac inhaled her, breathed deeply and almost drowned on this demon in the mist. His fingers plunged into empty mist - though he 'felt' as though he was touching the hair of a woman who wasn't there. Couldn't be there. There was no invitation and she had come unbidden, but there was no door, nor light or shadow to hide the act they shared in the steaming pool to where he'd come for warmth and solitude.
The passage of time was slow in his state of mind and he did not feel any sensation when this creature of air and steam had abandoned him. He was completely aware to the pulsing of his own blood as it coursed through his veins, boiled thin in the heat of the spring. The thudding, pounding in his chest and the tightness in his belly. The misty figment had left him worn out. Whatever deed had just passed was long since over. A dream, obviously, he negotiated with himself as his mind sobered. The ecstasy of the drug, he told himself, it was exactly what he needed.
He lay in the pool as his faculties drew back in, hours must have passed - had to have passed. His lips tugged down at the corners in his bleak manner, his arms crossed over his chest like a body being presented in its coffin, and he exhaled - allowing himself to become stonelike, and he sank fully below the surface, and his back lay flat upon the burning floor of the hot spring. He lay there with his eyes shut tight where no sound or breeze could reach him; and he wondered if this might actually be what the grave would feel like. After a short time he pushed himself up with a splash, and a gasp, and he was born anew. He thought little else of it as he dried himself and dressed, and he left the springs behind him as he walked back out into the snow.
The weather in High Hold was bitter. And the chill alpine wind cut like a blade.
The angry pounding in his head won't relent. Wild horses beat their iron-shod hooves off the sides of his skull and trample his brains to agonizing mush. His heart races and he sweats lakes out of his anguished brow and stricken body, his ever rambling mind asks painful questions - is this a cardiac event? What's happening? - the unanswerable who, what's and where's of his inexplicable panic. His dizzy head reels as he fights his way through a crowd that may or may not even be there; with his vision so blurred and so bereft of his other senses it's impossible to say with any certainty. His shoulder drags along the moist outer wall of this building, and that, as he meanders seemingly aimlessly through the Docks district of Peltarch, one hand clutching a damp mat or hair in his trembling fist. He snarls wolfishly at passers by, whores that try to intercept are shoved aside with sweeping swipes of his enormous paw. He considers going for his dagger as one hooks her arm around his and tries to slow him down, 'this' one knows his name, he hears that much but everything else is drowned out by the ceaseless screeching tone that rings in his ears. He wants to vomit.
He finds freedom in some reeking, maze of an alleyway, and slumped against a wall he reaches into the pouch at his side and drops a large sprinkle of dried mushrooms into his open mouth. He chews them, and swallows them, the earthy pond-water flavour doing nothing at all to improve his mood. He clutches his chest and spends a few moments breathing raggedly with his back against the rain soaked stone wall of one of the city's squat buildings. His eyes close and he puffs out a sharp breath, he feels surrounded - small - mostly he feels unwelcome, in spite of himself...
He can't stay here. There's no sunlight, he is bathed in the shadows of the buildings and yet he feels 'exposed'. He drags his way along the stone wall yet further until he finds a set of stairs leading up and up, up onto the walls. His free hand wraps in a fist around the handle of his dagger, his other hand pressed firmly and flat against his freezing/flaming forehead. Quaking breaths puff out and hang in the cold air in clouds of breathy mist as he climbs his way up. He finds himself leaning over the parapet of one of the walls' turrets and staring out over the lake. His breathing hasn't softened, his cheeks flush with burning fever, his eyes squint out at the lights that have started to dance on the surface of the water. The rippling waves on the surface come in threes and then push out -- out... his breath follows as he exhales smoothly. He swings his legs up into the parapet between two battlements, his back leaning against the cool stone of one as he looks out over the water.
His breathing finally slows as he focuses on the waves, the mushrooms take effect, as he breathes in the waves come this way - as he breathes out whole lake seems to recede. An eternity passes and he breathes in again; the ceaseless ringing in his ears is music, mellow, gentle... the mid-day, bright sky burns rosy pink in his eyes and the clouds break apart and whirl in maddening, soothing, kaleidoscope lines. Every inward breath brings the whole world to him, and in every blink an eternity passes. His mind relaxes, and his heart and body too. The grip he'd kept on his hair relaxes too, and a gentle smile paints his blackened lips as he watches the many coloured ripples trail behind a fishing boat in its perfect geometric rainbow wake. He exhales and he can hear in the distant chiming bells that sound as gentle and far-away as songbirds, and his heart is glad, and his spirit is soothed. A numbness washes over the surface of his skin and he feels 'good' inside.
The clouds wheel overhead, rain comes and goes, comes and goes. From the eyewatering brightness that made his head hurt right to its core to a leaden grey clouded sky in the mere snap of a finger it seems. Time, occasionally, runs funny while consuming these 'shrooms. Even the boiling cloud and turning weather makes him happy in his soul in this state. And such wonders he witnesses from his high spot. Things that descend from the clouds in shafts of light and shadow, rain falling in waves - sudden, abrupt, and inconstant. Somehow within the mad twisting geometry everything makes sense.
The effects of the mushrooms lasts till early evening. In this time he has blinked perhaps four times, and if he had to relate the tale he would say he had breathed in maybe three times in all. The slowness of his momentary reality had by now caught up with itself and the waves of motion and stillness had blended back into the every-day goings on of the city. Everything was finally... peaceful. All of the 'bad energy' in his mind and his body had been expelled by this brief vacation from his senses. And for a few hours after he feels little guilt and much wonder. His heart feels for a time unburdened and his mind is untwisted. Here there are no dreams, there is no mood nor torture. In this state no-one can possibly exist; no faces, no yearning. Just colour and 'the moment'. He feels better. Or at least, he feels normal again - for now.
One more prison, he thinks, that could not keep him.
At the bottom of the lake, deep beyond the city docks, Cormac sits in the frigid waters enjoying mid-morning tea with the Baroness Isolde. He wears a pleasant enough half-smile while he consumes triangular cut cucumber sandwiches, the fluffy white white bread does not grow soggy beneath the rippling surface. Isolde pours some more tea and tuts at his lack of manners; though even while chiding him she seems, at least to Cormac, to be happy in his company. A crab scuttles by kicking up puffs of silt, its beady black eyes poking out from its blue-green shell - it is impossible to say whether it regards the pair at their small table; but its claws are up, and it looks like it's waving to them. Some comment passes between the pair and they both laugh. None of this seems particularly strange to Cormac.
They both drink their tea and share wordless stories - he can't hear what she's saying and his mouth is filled with cotton, he can't articulate even a sound but... this too, is fine. The shadow of a boat passes overhead. Oars dip, and rise, and dip, and rise, the surface so high above him opens up in a sharp wake trailing the boat. He swats at a fish like it is some annoying insect buzzing around his food and it darts off before a mad swarm of bubbles. Isolde pours more tea, a wry smirk on her red lips - perhaps amused by his boyish ways. Cormac notices the look and recognizes the softness in her eyes, the expression on her lips, and he leans partly across the table with his hand reaching across to her side, his black hair streaming behind him and floating in the murky depths. His heart skips a beat when the red haired woman responds and leans in towards him too; her fingertips moving uneasily at first as they slide across the tabletop, and then committing finally and resting ontop of his hand. He is -- for a moment -- electrified. Awash with emotion, unabashedly. The crab looks on and then silently wanders off in its sideways crab walk, waving goodbye maybe as it goes.
His hand grows cold, he opens his eyes and throws himself back in his chair - startled - horrified at what he can see. Isolde seems undisturbed and her fingers stretch out, unnaturally long over the table - fingertips clattering like crabs legs on the surface towards him. And Cormac himself cannot move his arm at all, by now, his fingers where she'd touched have turned to soft sand and are washing away in the drift, the reaction is spreading up to his wrist - his forearm - it reaches his elbow and he watches the dirty silt stain the waters around him. And still the creeping fingertips come closer; and still she wears that smirk. It's all gone, all the way up to his shoulder, half his chest is fading - being consumed by the icy waters. There is terror in his eyes as her fingers caress his cheek - so warm in the cold, dark, deep. And then frozen, nothing, he melts and drifts and falls down into the silt... and for a few black moments there is blindness, as well as silence and all is dark and gone, and peace descends finally to kill his terror.
This does not last.
He awakens to darkness. His hands are tied, his legs too. He's bound firmly to a pole and suspended off the ground. The pole flexes and he bounces gently, swaying in a wind that isn't present. He turns his head and something pokes his throat before he can stop himself, he can feel blood trying to squeeze itself out of the tiny punctures. The wounds throb. He can feel similar pricking things driving themselves into his skin, all over his body it seems. The pole dips and sways, and he can see petals drifting down all around him. Rose petals? Surely rose petals. Rose thorns it occurs to him, not that it makes any more sense yet -- he is sure of it.
His head throbs. His body is on fire, the scratching, poking, flaying feeling of many hooked thorns tugging at his skin murders his thoughts beyond 'roses'. And even though he's suspended high up upon the pole, the knight that emerges before him can stand and look at him eye level. Black armor, black blade, black plumed helmet, black shield, and on its black banner a black screaming raven. The valravn that haunts him in the form of a man. The knight stares at him for a time before speaking, finally, painfully. His words are black liquid that poison Cormac's ears.
"Your weakness is showing. Soon, you will run. You will flee and no-one will know why. They'll ask, but your coward heart won't let you speak the truth. You taint yourself, you taint Her name. Tch! And you were doing so well. When you are not fed love on a silver spoon, you learn to lick it off knives, isn't that right."
The knight yanks at a leash of rose thorns and bows Cormac's head, and while he tries to resist he is bidden by forces beyond brute strength.
"Look at 'you'! All those souls, you bought so much time - but it slips away like 'sand' through a tight fist. And for what? For 'who'? Some girl it seems. I've 'seen' her, you know. Did you think you'd be hard to find all the way out here?" The tittering sound is like glass grinding against glass. An uncomfortable noise that punctuates the unfriendliness of the creature that plagues Cormac's dreams. The barbarian tries to resist again, trying all the harder when the valravn goads him with his voyeuristic tales. But this is to no avail. His flexing muscles, his heaving chest, his hulking shoulders and thighs simply drive the thorns in deeper. Yet, he does not cry out; his eyes burn, staring at his terror.
The demon scoffs blackly and about faces, it paces a few steps, metal boots clinking and rattling against a floor that Cormac cannot see. Something about Cormac's defiance has irked the creature. The veil is slipping perhaps. The bound warrior would never notice as he verges on the edge of rage.
The creature turns and speaks with an unsettling, buzzing evenness, though maybe - just maybe - a mild, pleading hint, just a faint thing
"She expects payment. You are a son of clan Rannúlfr. The bargain was struck and the price was well known before you ever came to be. Your battle prowess pleases Her, Cormac. But your heart grows softer. You are growing old. You will die - useless. Alone. Yield, submit and come with me. Come now and live forever in glory by Her side. Come and join your father's fathers. You can't outrun this."
Cormac presses against the pole, he fights with all his might against the spiked bonds, thick veins bulge on his neck and his forehead, his naked chest and arms, blood runs down in rivers from where the cats-claw thorns rake his flesh. A bellowing breath snorts from his nose like some over-eager demon warhorse, and he forces the words from his gritted teeth. His own voice, even the thorny rope wrapped around his throat can't take the words from him.
"I will not yie--"
The back of the knights black gauntleted hand is enough to steal, or at least still the words. A comical, surreal 'smack' sounds off against the flat metal - the warrior, falling limp and breathing out his last semi-conscious sigh perhaps finds nothing funny about it. The beast in his dreams stares on, muttering to himself -- or maybe to something else in the shadows - something unseen.
Cormac rolls out of his cot and falls face first onto the floor with a dull thud, and he lets out a hollow groan. He pushes himself up and investigates an iron taste in his mouth, he dabs the corner of his mouth to find blood. How hard did he hit the floor? He doesn't ponder overlong for the ceaseless pounding in his skull gives him no peace. He feels cold. He's naked, he discovers, and slowly dresses, finding time to drink two pints of strong ale between his boots and his pants, and a third before squeezing into his muscle shaped cuir boulli. His head won't stop pounding.
Thin, clammy sweat doesn't bead but slakes his forehead and his neck, and his chest and arms as he meets some other in the commons. George is speaking gibberish and Cormac wants to murder him, his narrowed eyes might pass for confusion but the iron drumming in his skull and flaring of every atom of light is causing him nothing short of agony. He escapes back to the docks where the working day is just beginning. Ships bells hammer him from all sides, screaming birds shriek their pleading, begging cries at him "Open your head Cormac, let us eat your brains and swollen eyeballs!", he growls and holds his head, and staggers unhappily back to the commons where the table he normally sits at is rapidly clearing. The only words he can utter seem to be "I'm not staying", or, "I have to go"... he doubles down by finding someone to blame.
Isolde. Who had done nothing wrong, who was laughing, and being the only soft thing that his eyes - which by now felt like someone was 'walking' on them - could find comfort in. "Its your fault" he might've snapped, and she responded in kind with a belligerent "F**k off!", or maybe it was "I'll miss you"... or maybe it was neither. He grit his teeth because Sebrienne was already quizzing him again about his insistent departure. Raazi, too, tried to get in on it. He felt like choking Raazi, if for no other reason than to make 'him' feel better. "...but I gave you a lock of..."; he was already standing by then... he staggered out into the city with his head in his hands.
There, Cormac would find a wall to slump down with his back against. His arse in the dirt, and his hair clenched in balled fists atop his head. Wild eyed and staring at an agonizing world; inhaling, and exhaling through his clenched jaw. Clammy sweat boiling off his fevered body. He thinks to himself in this poisoned moment, alone, and unheard, his mighty head bowed and fraught with grief and burdened with overflowing, internal anguish.
Heat blasts down from a black sky, a swirling cyclone buzzes with lightning over head; the heart of the storm is a black sun too immensely bright/dark to look at without going blind or insane. Tilled fields roll on forever in every direction, and Cormac Randolph sits in dreary silence. He cannot move. He cannot speak. For he is himself at this time a mere scarecrow, propped up upon a stick crucifix - the poles of which are driven up the back of his loose shirt and long-ways through his loose and ragged sleeves. A lady's sun hat, broad brimmed and made of straw with a bright pink flower embroidered in it covers his stuffy-guy head complete with sewn in X's for eyes. A thin smile is sewn into the sack material that makes up his face as he observes the dusty oblivion - horror that stretches out before, and all about him.
A trio of brightly dressed figures mill around in the dusty dry dirt. He is aware of their singing, a touch of bright loveliness in this barren nightmare. The closest one is singing nonsense words as she plants her crop. A bright yellow skirt with a blue blouse and corset she wears, a black bow in her red hair. She sings prettily her nonsense song and makes herself busy with her work. The stuffy-guy watches as black winged creatures circle above, a deadly brown viper slithering stealthily her way, fel beasts drawn to this anti-Snow White's song. The stuffy guy's heart is full of fear for the life of this lovely girl, yet with his stuffy head and sewn lips he can utter no warning, he simply rustles in the desolate breeze.
Second has platinum hair tied up with a plain black band, blazing silver-gold even in the bleakness between the blackened sun and the scorched earth. She hums along with the other's song, and is dressed in a simple blue dress with a white shift. White stockings disappear up under the wide skirt and her dainty feet are adorned by plain black shows. She is nevertheless lovely to behold, young and vibrant. She beats at the earth with a rusty iron tool and her stunted crop is little more than a patch of broken earth, the kind of red dirt that hasn't been kissed by rain; cracked and void of life. This 'Alice' beats the earth and kicks up dust. The stuffy guy's mind is full of thoughts of hope, of curiosity and wonder.
The third figure has wild red hair and she sings to the sky, and dances upon the earth; she is dressed in an elegant blush-pink ball-gown, all done up with fabulous lace and embroidered with pearls and gold. A golden tiara adorns her head and on her feet her delicate shoes are matching pink. This princess Aurora; the Sleeping Beauty dances boldly beneath the tempestuous sky that forever threatens to storm and bring its deluge. She has planted nothing and tends no crop, and yet her field seems so close to coming to life. The scarecrow on his pole's soul feels calmer knowing such a one has faith in the dismal field. In his stick and scrub stuffed head he can almost imagine the things that might bloom here. Sunflowers; Moonflowers. Silver daisies or fiery orchids. He is at peace and all is well in the world as the three tend their respective plots.
The fluttering of wings by his head startles him from his placid daydreams of silver and gold flowers. Sharp, needle-like talons puncture his ratty shirt and sink deep into the stuffing in his shoulder. The exquisite pain is very real and yet he's unable to cry out, or wince, or shudder in response; he is just a stuffy-guy held up by two poles that have been crudely lashed together after all. And while he can't turn his head to look at it, he knows that there on his shoulder sits the beast that haunts him; the valravn. He feels the warmth of its breath as it pecks at the loose string that makes one of his sewn X's that are his eyes, and he feels as the string is first unfettered and then drawn out in its great length. To his horror, as the sack peels away from that place he realizes that he can see clearer - plainly with his own iron grey eye. He tries to blink the blood away, a few droplets finding their way into his open eye from where the string had been stitched in, the salty thick liquid stinging his exposed eyeball. The winged beast speaks in a man's voice by his ear.
"Look at how they each care for thee in their own way Cormac. This one tends thine own heart. That one eases thy mind. And this one; the dancing one, she cares for thy very soul. But for how long? Look there with thine own eyes. Look on, I bid thee, for this is the future that is sewn by thee..."
And as he speaks the woman that sings in her yellow skirts turns about, soaked up to her elbows in blood and caked in dirt. The deadly snake that had been approaching her is lifted in her hands, panic washes over the stuffed scarecrow as she kisses the top of the serpent's head; he hadn't seen how perfect her face had looked or how tempting her bright red painted lips had been when her back was turned. He felt weakness, and he loathed himself for the lust that warmed his hay-filled belly. This Snow White figure dropped the snake into the dirt before approaching the stuffy guy, and yet she addressed the valravn on his shoulder - and her laugh was like a crystal song, and her voice was a touch long yearned for. "It won't be long now little friend, the things that ail him are coming into the light; soon, my dear. Soon you shall feast upon the crop. For here grows the heart of a hero in this ugly earth. Ah! But it is yet too small for you. Soon, my dear". And as she spoke the serpent slithered to the budding crop in the ground, a beating heart that spurts blood in steady pumps into the dusty soil, the snake - as Cormac observed - coiled itself around the beating fruit and tightened about it; black tongue flicking. Black fangs threatening. The man knew terror and the foreboding feeling grew in his chest. A coldness that was not altogether out of place in this dire territory. His spirits were not uplifted when the red haired pantomime Isolde with her black bow whirled gayly away, singing her bright song as she went back to tending her crop. His anguished heart.
"And look yonder at the young girl" commanded the valravn in its man's voice. "Look there and see the fruits of that one's labor. She dwells within thy mind, yes? Cultivates your thoughts, brings forth such thoughts in thee as 'consideration', and thoughts of 'warmth' in thee. Look ye at how thee burdens thy companions; more than merely faithful is she; she is as a salve upon thy weary consciousness. I know she soothes thy thoughts of rage, of cruelty and torment. But look now at how close she is to breaking -- soon, Cormac, soon thou shalt dwell in darkness. Soon loneliness shall be thy only companion".
His iron grey eye, grey as the wheeling storm above flitted out in the direction of Sebrienne - Alice - as the lovely girl stood beating the dry earth with her iron tool. He noticed now that her humming was pained grunting with each swing, and that her small hands were bleeding from endless toil. She sounded tired and looked to be on the verge of giving up. Puffs of dust boil up from the arid ground and the land yields nothing, yet the girl tries so hard. Sweat soaks her blue dress and her white shift is blotted with dirty stains and bloody hand prints, the dust must surely sting her big blue eyes for they are ringed red and wet with tears that threaten to spill over. The stuffy guy knows well that she is strong, and yet his mind is filled with anguished thoughts of how she will surely leave him to seek greener, less terrible lands; lands far from his troubles. His guilty thoughts of what might grow there; what could grow and blossom, and how bountiful it all could be are repelled and forced down and away whenever they spring up like weeds, plucked away by melancholy and hurtful notions of abandonment, of false or misgiven affection.
Then spoke the raven-wolf into Cormac's ear. "And what of the dancing girl? She prays for thy soul. She dances for it and pleads with the gods for thy salvation. She has the kenning, aye, t'is true; yet for all its worth she knows not what ails thee Cormac Randolph. Perhaps she has cast her spells and looked out to thy future; delved thy past; or sought understanding from thy present. But what crop comes from dancing alone? None - does thou not see? Thou cannot be saved son of Magnus. Son of Morrigan. Son of Legend. Son of Story and Song. Thou cannot be saved by any of them. Not thy heart, thy mind, nor thy spirit. Thou art doomed".
Asha, the red-haired Aurora danced in the dirt; the hems of her pink gown and underskirts all splashed with mud as she whirled and stepped. The tambourine she slapped ringing out with the sound of her own beat. Tears streaming down her dust caked cheeks in black little lines and turning the field beneath her rose-coloured shoes to red mud. He could hear her begging the gloomy sky to relent, to drop its rains down upon her and her 'sisters', to end the drought and to let Cormac's spirit grow strong again. Lightning lit the swirling vortex and disappeared into the black sun at its center. The only answer that came to the dancing gypsy princess was bleak and empty void; silence broken only by ceaseless wind that seemed to come from every direction - and yet sucked the air out and away from ones lungs and made it hard to breathe. There was no hope there in this blasted land, no seeds had been sown after all, just the coaxing dance of the red haired princess in her golden tiara that hinted to the nature of such a thing; Hope. She danced close to the stuffed man and she tugged on the brim of his lady's hat, and as she pulled his stuffed head closer and down to her face she kissed his stitched lips deep, and with uncommon passion.
The vertical stick that held him in place snapped at the neck and is head tumbled off. The woman laughed and danced with the stuffed head in her hands, the sudden crack caused the valravn to fly off startled. Blood ran down the front of the gypsy girl's embroidered gown and dashed the lace and pearls with misty spatter. His iron grey eye stared up at the reeling storm clouds, at the laughing smiling, insanely weeping face of Asha until all went black; and he awoke alone, and cold.
He clung to the dream in his first waking moments for as long as he could, sought meaning in the weird visions - but all drifted as he left his quarters to relieve his nagging bladder. All that remained would be a sick sense of guilt, bitter remorse, and an emptiness in his heart.
A horn rings out from afar, Cormac is so far into the center of the battlefield that he can no longer tell over the din whether it comes from behind or from the front. Sweat rolls off his soot and mud splashed body; his axe and him both standing ready; bare-chested and helmed. Combat ensues, a host of spearmen in black armor bearing down upon him and his battle-line. He can't just stand there and wait to take the brunt and so he throws himself into the mess of spearheads. He knocks the stiff wooden shafts aside and brings his wrath down upon a spearman - but his foe is well trained and with a whirl of his spear has parried Cormac's greataxe. The two step out of their formations and begin to fight in single combat...
The fight is long and hard, the sounds of chaos ring out on all sides as the enemies circle one-another. Death is in the eyes of his enemy; death is too, in Cormac's eyes. The foe thrusts first and Cormac dodges; a mere back-step, a test? It matters not, for his axe wheels and cuts down upon the shaft of ashwood and splinters the stave. It's uncommon for a warrior to show his back in combat, but Cormac does - a flourish as he spins around and brings the heavy blade of his greataxe across and through the poor soldier's neck. Before his blow lands his common battlecry "Randolph!" sounds over the battle-sounds. His enemy's head tumbles. And he is most certainly dead.
Cormac stands a moment above his defeated foe, savoring his hard won victory. Exhausted from the exertion of combat; he doesn't see the next spear coming towards him, not in time to do anything about it - he thinks 'this is it', his end is the blink of an eye away; but Isolde rolls forward with her shield in hand and blocks the deadly tip. She winks up at the barbarian and smiles beautifully; "You're an AMAZING warrior!" she chirps sincerely, and rolls forward once more into the fray - Cormac watches as her thin blade pricks the breastplates of almost a dozen enemy soldiers in quick succession; her shield clattering and battering the spear formation in her path. He thought a moment on how uncommonly good at fighting the woman had become; he dwelt on days gone by perhaps too long while he watched her move like a wicked dervish-dancer.
He raised his axe once more and went to jog back into the fight alongside his companion; but he was startled and forced back as elemental bursts disrupted the enemies in front of him. Whirling storm-clouds, roaring thunder that sounded so close that it was steal his very breath away. Aoth and Sebrienne not far to his rear conjuring the raining death and clearing vast swathes with little more than a mere gesture; a word, at times. A streak of lightning trailed in a zig-zag line too bright to stare at, cinders and scorched land in its wake. And then an echoing boom from somewhere deep within the enemy ranks; Seb' must've split the sky, thought Cormac, and he was right. An eerie cloud of static dust rising from a barren dry patch of dirt, and for many ranks beyond and around all the soldiers had fallen to their knees and were holding their heads or discarding their helmets; ears and noses bleeding. Okay... he thought, and twirled his axe - looking for another spot to make himself handy.
There it was; his opening, a bristle of speartips falling into formation. He grinned to himself and leapt dreamlike from his spot to this spot where battle should've been thick. When he landed there were George and Mako, both twirling their bladed polearms - he fell back in awe as Mako unleashed a burst of lightning-breath and sent a dozen men at once to their graves. Before he could even speak a word she had spun into the remaining formation; back to back with George, their halberds sending limbs and jets of blood streaming into the air around them. Fine; this area is covered, thought Cormac, and he turned away to another spot. Before he could take a step the thunder of hooves from behind; and rushing past. "You're doing great! Keep it up!" the voice of Reemul cried, full of mirth as he rode past - a silvery scimitar in each hand. Like a row of match-stick heads he cleft two lines, and rode down his center-line with his heavy warhorse. Nothing could stop him; he was like an arrow cutting through the air of a windless day. Cormac stood awed; humbled.
His axe faltered in his hand, the shaft slipping down till the heavy blade was near his fist - he felt useless, and as he turned to walk off the battlefield a spear was thrust through his side. He looked down and saw the bloodsoaked iron tip, and he cried out. He fell to his knees as the weapon was tugged violently from him leaving behind a ragged and fatal would. He gasped, his eyes wide - hands holding in his guts as his axe lay at his side. "This is how it happens? The spear of some nobody...?" he felt himself growing cold, shaking as his bloodlife was drained into the dirt. As his eyes grew hazy he saw a pair of blue boots in the dirt before him; and though he hadn't the strength to raise his head he could hear Asha's voice and he knew the spell she was speaking. The wound healed and he was whole again and with his axe in hand he stood to face the red-haired woman. She grinned at him, she was so pretty - he thought - and she bade him "Keep fighting Cormac, you're 'so' strong!", the encouraging words baffled him - he'd been so close to death.
He spun around with his axe, furious and ready! Eager to shed the blood of those who had wounded him so. And his axe clattered against the shaft of a spear - and with a movement he'd brought the point down into the dirt. A movement drove the iron shod shaft of his gigantic axe up and into the jaw of his enemy; and as the man reeled back he finished the soldier off with a rapid recovering strike. His magic ring tugged his axe aside and he was prepared immediately to deal another fatal blow to the the next man; and he did, into the hollow of his foe's shoulder. There was much blood, and gore, and Cormac was in his element.
Another spear was thrust at him before he could move or step, two men he'd just slain and the third was ready for him. Cormac's jaw clenched, he hissed a feral breath through his teeth and the spear-tip stopped little more than an inch from his naked chest. Raazi wove her hands mysteriously nearby and Cormac knew that the enemy was held by some hex spoken from her weird mouth. That one was dispatched quickly and Raazi said "You're the best, Cormac. You're a true warrior!"
He looked back at Asha, and she was grinning and pointed forward. When he looked ahead at what she was pointing at there was Jonni, smiling at him, blood streaming down his chin and down and down, and down onto his armor and his boots, and the dirt above which is boots dangled - for he had been impaled by many spears and lifted up off the ground. He too raised his hand in a bloody-grim thumbs up, and he choked out the bloody words "We'll look after you Cormac, none of us would ever see 'you' hurt!", the light faded from Jonni's eyes and Cormac turned to the side and vomited.
Freddy gave him a thumbs up from across the way, his plumed helmet handsomely dancing in the wind and a litter of many corpses around him. A branded mercenary was drawing the enemy's center and they could not make him yield. Thau'lira and the barbarian Elf-woman picking enemies off from either side of him; all looked back to Cormac with supportive grins and thumbs up. Cormac stood confused and all became still before him. Even the enemies were calling encouraging words at him and clapping, and cheering. "Well done!", some would cry. "You're doing so good, Cormac!" cheered others. The applause rose higher and louder and Cormac stepped backwards. He felt a coldness on his back and some coo'ing nonsense words filled his ears. He was surprised and frightened when he was lifted from the ground, and when he looked at his feet they were naked with tiny toes; and they were on the ends of chubby legs with chubby little knotted knees. And 'what the hell am I wearing', he thought as he saw the pin that held his puffy white diaper on. No axe in his little clean, pink baby-hands. He cried; an infant's cry. And it was Nuwairah the warrior woman who had lifted him, and she brought him to suckle at her steel breast. And he did.
He drank her molten iron milk and she sang and she coo'd at him. Everyone on the battlefield; even the many-pierced corpse of Jonni all gathered around to adore the baby Cormac, and they told him how great he would surely be when he had grown up and gotten so big, and so strong. And oh - how handsome the babe was. Coochie-coo!!
And Cormac's eyes opened suddenly and wide. He dwelt on what he'd dreamed; he couldn't think on what it could all mean but his heart raced, and he wiped the sweat from his brow.
Cormac's bleary eyes scan the dimly lit room, everything is white-painted, clinical, and he can't move his head. He struggles but can't get up, his arms are bound - and his legs. "What the devil is going on?!" he growls at no-one. His voice bounces off the walls, there's nothing.
"Stop struggling", a woman's voice - familiar. "Don't you know I'm trying to help you?" she continues, sounding genuine and servantly. Cormac tries to relax, his struggles cease and he looks up to endless black where he imagines the ceiling ought to be. He hears a click - or a fingersnap from the same direction that the voice is speaking to him from. A bright light blinks on over his head, a bright white halo beaming down directly into his face. He can feel the heat from it, but he can't blink or close his eyes. He growls and begins to struggle again.
"Stop struggling!" The woman's voice again through soft calming laughter, though firmer this time. From either side he ears a separate set of footfalls, the clicking of heels on stone floor. A man's voice, and a woman's voice speaking together. They're both familiar too - people he knows well. They speak as one "He's ready. You can begin the procedure", and each grabs an arm. Cormac's half-blinded eyes roll from one side to the other, above him he can see the white uniform robes of healers, though tight and open necked, cut low he thinks. Buttons open and, he thinks to himself that he glimpsed underwear. He tries to peek further but his attention is stolen away by the sound of metal on metal, like chains, or tools down by his feet.
"Excellent! Now 'sweetie', lets take care of what ails you" The first voice says, the familiar woman. She called him 'sweetie', she's never called him 'sweetie' - she said as much - was it days ago? Years? His thought dwelled on this. He felt a hand caress his ankle and move up his shin, it rested on his knee and he felt fingernails drumming there. "A little higher", the two voices said at once. And he felt the fingernails trail upon his muscular thigh. "Ah, yes. Right here I think 'sweetie'. I promise it's for your own good - only - you simply 'must' stop running away from 'what ails you'." She sounded sincere, she sounded like she truly cared. But Cormac was panicked and rightly so. He didn't see the tool but he could feel the sharp edge bite his flesh, sink into the tissue, and glide around his thigh bone. He could 'feel' his bone. It was horrific, and he screamed. He felt his body fight against the restraints but he could not break free, even as the sound of one tool being put down was replaced with the sound of sawing. Rapid sawing. It was over in moments. The sensation was both hot and wicked, and he knew at once that his leg was lost. He swallowed back the sick feeling and his heart sank like a stone. What kind of warrior could he ever be now? That's where his mind went. The two assistants gently stroked his hair, and wiped his tears away. "There there, Cormac, it's all over now you see? Well done amputator." The both comforted Cormac and praised the surgeon in their singular man/woman voice.
In his dizziness he could hear a slow cranking, and he became aware that the table he was lashed to was moving and when he was finally upright the image he saw before him made him sick. There was Isolde's beautiful body, dressed in a white healer's robes, though the front was open in a low V, cinched with a red belt, and the lower skirts barely covered below her waist. Thin white gossamer stockings were worn high above her knees, and she wore, he noticed, dainty shoes of silver/white with long thin stiletto heels. It would've drove any man insane, were it not for her face, her whole head, what looked back at him was the head of the Devil, Amshiel. From the shoulders down she was ever the knockout; but the unsettling gaze of this fel creature that spoke with her voice should've been enough to break his mind. What pushed him over the edge though was the 'limb' he cradled in her arms like a newborn babe. Not his severed leg, but a symbol. A tattered, bloodied banner bearing the screaming raven emblem of his clan. Blood dripping from where the wooden shaft that bore the once-proud flag had been sawn in twain. "There, now it's gone. And yet I see 'sweetie' that something still ails you", spoke the she-devil. "Something still ails him amputator", said the twin voices that still stood at either side of him. "Nothing ails me!" Barked Cormac. "Release me, let me 'die'!" he couldn't hold back the broken sob that warbled his words.
They all laughed. Cackled. The ruined banner was cast aside and she approached him; this not-Isolde figure, this devil that both was and was not her. The silvery serrated sawblade glinting bloody as the bright halo of light shone upon it. She didn't hesitate, no more words of comfort. The devil grinned at him, and Cormac screamed in agony in its face; no surgical cutting of the flesh this time - just sawing, once - twice - a third stroke and he felt his arm no more. The flesh was torn away after the bone had been cut, the ragged flap of me at squirting blood on the stark whites of the female healer by his side. She did not protest. The devil-woman walked away from him, holding something - his arm, obviously - but no. When she turned around she held his Warblade; the longsword he'd claimed from the mazelike tomb of the vain-glorious warrior. "There, now! I've cut away your vanity, your dreams of fame - I've taken your desire 'sweetie', can't you see? You're free now!" She waved the bloody sword at him, pointed it at him, the devil's face grinning and laughing all the while - yet the voice was honest.
This too was cast aside and it clattered to the floor, the room was mad with sound for a hellish moment. The devil's head shook and he heard Isolde tut sweetly at him. The twin voices on each side tutted along in unison. "What ails you?" said all three, quizzically. "Yet more?" Each said, the twins speaking out of line with each other for the first time, as each one asked in a circle. The blood-spattered 'nurse', this 'amputator' cast her saw aside and it rattled and skittered across the stone floor. Her stiletto heels clicked and clacked with furious speed as she moved towards her tools. "Ah, this one - for he sees much - he has knowledge of us. He has 'seen' us". The voice of Isolde melting away to the voice of some aged crone, her plump and gorgeous exposed thighs fading to the gray and wrinkled, vein-laced thighs of some old witch. She turned, a strange corkscrew tool in her hands; she turned the handle and the devil's head grinned at him as she came closer. The ancient haggard witch's flat breasts sagged and swung within the open V of her shirt and she was soon upon him, her wrinkled stockinged knee bracing against his chest as she plunged the mad tool forward - driving it into his eye, and with a few furious cranks he heard the 'pop' in his head and all went white - then red - and then black in one eye. He screamed madly and shook furiously against his restraints, this was somehow worse than having his limbs cut away.
He watched with his remaining good eye as the hag slithered from him, she laughed her cronish laugh merrily, no softness in her words anymore. The devil's head faced him still even with he body facing away this time. The sexy nurses at his sides' hands were cold on his skin. He realized they, too, had taken their hag-forms. They congratulated their surgeon once more, though no longer in their weird unified speech but separately, and each with different praising words. "Very good, sister!" "Well done, love!", the leader hag unscrewed Cormac's ruined eye from the tool, in a weird sensation he 'saw' through it, for some reason, the room turned and turned, turned thrice and ceased. He could see his broken and bleeding body from their perspective, and at the same time could see the hag holding his eyeball. It wasn't really an eyeball, not a human eye anyway. It looked to him like a painted stone with an eye symbol painted on it. He knew this spell, protection magic; 'The Evil Eye' it was called and it was worn by the superstitious to ward off evil enchantments and beguilements. "There, 'sweetie'" the crone hissed through the ragged teeth of the devil's head. "...I've taken your magic. What remains now that you have no past? No future? What do you have now that I have in my hands your present? Nothing? Tell us Cormac -- tell us what else ails you".
The three sisters spoke the same question. "What ails you Cormac?", over and over. They seemed to taunt him. He had little fight left in him, and he felt sick in his stomach as the dizzying scene unfolded when his eyeball was cast aside and the whole world wheeled around him. One eye focused forward, and the other rolling with clear sight. It rolled to the edge of darkness and settled staring upwards and to an angle. There in the corner he saw the real beast. It sat doglike, the body of a black wolf with thick fur, hindquarters with great large paws and a curled black tail; the front half, head and shoulders covered in the black wings of an enormous red-eyed raven. It looked down and he felt it was unimpressed in spite of its featureless black beaked face. This anti-gryphon (lion hindquarters and eagle fore to wolf and raven) was him. Maybe? His spirit - his terror. He watched from the unattached eyeball as it looked up and away, and back towards the torn body of Cormac on the butchers' block.
With his one good eye, Cormac too watched as the hag had put down her insane corkscrew tool and pulled up an ornate silver knife. The three sisters continued to babble madly among themselves. One promising that she knew what 'ailed him', the other agreeing with the other, but protesting to the surgeon - begging her to take his other limbs. "Just to be sure, fair sister - just to be certain, my beauty". The bloodsoaked surgeon came forth and hushed them both. The face of Amshiel dead with flies buzzing around his dead bulging corpse-eyes, rotting and bearing down on Cormac. The mad click-clack of stiletto heels and the sound of them slipping in the lake of blood that had spilled onto the tiled floor echoed in the dark room; only the halo of burning light above him. He winced as he heard the hiss of the blade slide into his bare chest. He sighed out a weak breathy gasp as he felt the bones of his breast cracking open, as his ribs were pulled apart his loose eyeball watched the Valravn's beak drool its dark, hungry saliva in the dark. It licked its black-lipped beak as it watched the hag pull his beating heart from his chest; a feast, a feast for the beast that feasts on the hearts of kings, the hearts of lords, the hearts of babes; a feast was such a heart! "Such a heart!" spoke the three hags together; "my goodness, such a heart!" the surgeon said again, excited - giddy - full of girlish glee and wonder. In her blood covered talon hands, raven's talons Cormac thought insanely. He could hear his heart beating from the greataxe she held in her claws, held it like it was both as light as a feather.
He passed out, or he died. His heart he feared in his dreamstate was being fed to the Valravn. His broken body left in its ruined state being drained of blood and removed from any kind of warriors' use. His mind, body and soul broken and scattered to the four winds; or entombed forever in this mad and haunted place. The beast in the corner, in the dark, ever watching and waiting for scraps of him. The devil and the girl. What could it all mean?
It did not matter... he slept. He dreamt. He sweated through the night and would rise again at dawn; having perhaps no memory of the mad things that haunt him. Simply aware of the inescapable thing that burdens his heart.