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 sip of whiskey, he never did get his chance to thank Valisha for the crate. Another splash on his knuckles, bruised and skinned from 'keeping the peace'; whatever that had meant. A list of names, he'd visited three homes before he had to head home. Three names scored off the letter. The civil war was over wasn't it? The politics of it were not his concern. They bade him go and whether he wanted it or not, he must abide.
It was that third house, the last one. The little girl that reminded him of his own Coraline - for no good reason, he understood the fugly demi-human girl that had peeked in through the doorway while he'd conversed with her father or older brother, or uncle or uncle-daddy -- or whomever, looked nothing like his girl. But she must've been close to the same age, or maybe it had been the fear in her eyes. The same look the kid would give him sometimes when he'd visited the camp without being in a fit mood for it; the times where he wanted to ignore everyone and have his woman. He realized, without regret, what a shit he could be when he really put his mind to it. The thought did not amuse him as he drank alone on his big chair.
He'd paused his conversation and went to the girl in the doorway, he'd smiled at her and told her to go back to bed. He'd even given her a flower when her eyes started to overflow again. He always had flowers to give to sad girls. When she'd been consoled he ushered her from the doorway and closed the door softly behind her. And while he made no apology to the man who'd been speaking aloud his insurrectionist thoughts, he'd - for the sake of the girl - shoved his forearm into the confused man's mouth, shoved it in hard enough to effectively gag him. Even through the man's nose there were only muffled screams. The man could not bite down, the arm was too thick and the jaw was too wide, near to breaking most likely, and truly he took no great pleasure in beating the man so. It was just business, thats all. He'd been stripped of his knighthood and promoted to 'thug'.
He knew the man wouldn't be working for a while, it'd take weeks just for the ribs to heal. Had he gotten carried away? Didn't matter, there were other names on the list. A few coins left on the table as one might pay a whore, the girl wouldn't suffer for this man's treason he justified to himself, and he left the man's home.
He sat on his big chair in the lonely hall he'd called home. He could see clear to the other side with nobody to get in the way. The small table and scattering of chairs at the far end where he'd sat and looked out the window sometimes with the woman he'd called Magpie. He sat this way for a long time, till drink or sleep finally took him. No dreams would come to him. He tried to hold onto the fragment of good in him but - the names kept coming. The 'secret war' within the walls of the city. The guard dog of Peltarch was running low on remorse...
When he awoke he looked at the next name on the list.
When he got home that night, his knuckles were bruised and bloody all over again.
The whiskey didn't kill the memory, after a while it didnt' kill the pain either.
It was never enough either way to drown the guilt.
His days pass quickly, and cheerfully. He can't think of a time where he'd been surrounded by so many friends all at once, nor a single time where support had been washed over him in buckets. Dinners that were owed were paid out in kind it seemed. Every meal was something fresh and new from 'outside'. He'd been leaving the grey paste for the rats but they wouldn't have it, it seemed.
A blessed reprieve from sword-work, from anything at all really. Now all he had was time, time to enjoy his friends - to unravel his thoughts. They all played games, shared jokes and stories. Promises and oathes were sworn along with whispers of vendetta and righteousness. The bars simply weren't there most of the time, so it seemed to him. Though - in the end, they could all leave anytime they liked. And eventually they all did, one after the other. They'd all promise to come back and even though most did, some did not.
Sweet words and the sobbed apologies from those he'd turned away were difficult for him. He often wondered how many times he'd give anyone 'just one more chance', but he did. And what of the other who never left his side, that he'd all but ignore for favor of the other - Cormac had it in him to be a bastard, he could burn as hotly as the sun but his coldness, the coldness of the grave, as ardent as the snow. It was all falling apart. And the comfort he could hold onto by distancing himself within the confines of his cell would be but fleeting mercy, as all of his friends seemed hell bent on throwing him back into the torturous hellfire of life on the outside, where he'd have to stand - and act, and face his problems as they are. The cruelty of his situation was not altogether lost on him, and perhaps he tried too hard to make Morgan keep to his oath and to throw away the key, for Reyhenna's prediction to come true - for him to be 'exiled' to some far-off place or at least well beyond the borders of anywhere he'd have to look at 'them' in their togetherness.
The gods, he'd often observed, would piss down his back daily - though he assured himself that they would only drown him but once. They decided to quickly release him. Words like 'merit' and 'heroic deeds' were mixed in with the sentencing. He'd heard of men being made to convert from one faith to another or be made to drink boiling lead. The thought was only so amusing, thought the tickle didn't take away from the tug of reality. He'd be held in bondage under pain of 'something'. A mark on his face that would be primed to explode, he imagined, should he deviate. The city that forbade slaves had put him in chains.
The spell was innocent enough, the terms were not so hard or difficult on the surface. It all boiled down to a very official 'don't be an asshole', on the surface that's all it was - all it ever would be to anyone shallow enough to believe that being bound to the spymaster prince and his jolly brother, the King, would be anything but bloodwork.
By the time he'd gotten back to his home from the city, after paying his fine and breaking the hearts of everyone who'd loved him, there was already a letter waiting for him - the royal seal, 'orders'. The kinds of things he'd have made himself 'unavailable' for in the past were now inescapable. 'Do or Die'.
At least they wouldn't be around to see what they'd made him. Laughing at him. Cormac the attack dog of Peltarch.
CrayCajole last edited by
@kingcreeper (( great writing, very realistic and engrossing dream sequence ))
He'd found himself in the heart of the city again. A fine day, the warmth of the Sun beat down on his shoulders. Everything seemed bright, and all the hard things were far from his mind. He wasn't surprised to see the sundial in the heart of the commons, or the small blue birds, the name of which he didn't recall, that were singing in the surrounding trees and warbling their nonsense from the gaps between the stonework of the near run to riot wall.
Children were playing, he didn't pay them much mind, but their bright laughter lifted his spirits which had been low. He meandered aimlessly through the commerce district, past the Mermaid Inn, towards the Amethyst Hall. The shrill laughter from the children followed him on his way. Murmers from passers by didn't quite catch his ear, nothing articulate anyway. Their quiet tittering joined the outright laughing of the kids. Did he har laughing, too?
A woman caught his eye as she leaned topless out of a high window, she looked like a painting. She was smiling down at him, there was more than a tease in that smile of hers -- an invitation he allowed himself to believe for the heartbeat before her composure cracked, and the sly smirk had become a fit of giggles. She pointed down at him, her giggle-fit becoming the bellowing, cawing laughter of the lower class. He was sure somewhere behind him, he could hear both of them laughing at him too.
He turned from her madness, embarrassed, and saw that the crowd of children and city-folk had gathered in a semicircle about him, and that they too were pointing and laughing. Their chorus and pointing fingers were closing in, and even as he tried to turn away to find some peace from it all he could see the Prince, Kasimir with his arm around Thalaman - both near buckled over guffawing huffs of uncontrollable laughter. Seemed to him at the time, even the songbirds were staring at him and laughing in their own weird way. He was unsure what he felt, truly, when he heard Rosie laughing with them again. The sound had always been sweet music to him before. Now it seemed cut like a longknife.
It had become more than just ridicule. The pants of the men had become wet and stained, they'd actually pissed themselves in the uproar. The eyes of the women were streaked with makeup from their tears, the children had begun throwing up into the street. Many by now were on all fours coughing and puking through the laughter, he watched one particularly fat woman as she asphyxiated and expired, taken by the hilarty. The topless woman let out a terrible retching sob/laugh and fell from her window, she still looked like a painting as she lay there in the mud with her head twisted at an angle that was simply 'wrong'.
He turned his face to the sky, his breath echoey and raspy through the skull mask. A red star winked in the sky, but never seemed to draw closer. He could hear the pain of its laughter in his mind, too. Even as all else fell to dead silence around him and walls of the city - of all of the cities across all of the world - crumbled, as the existence of all things faded and fell to ruin. Everything was playing out as it had been foretold. The stern face of the woman/women he'd loved appeared and faded before him. Her words bubbled from the foreboding quiet when all other noise was absent. The crystal clarity of it seized his heart and stirred him from his sleep as surely as if someone had spoken directly in his ear.
"...you will find yourself in a lonely hall, on a lonesome throne, drowned in blood..."
He awoke in his lonely hall, and prepared himself for another day. The memory of the dream washing away harmlessly as his mind unmuddied the slumber and realized the reality.
He was alone.
A man's gruff voice barks like dry wood popping in a fireplace. He knows the voice well, though he in truth had seldom heard it. The voice of the winged beast that haunts his dreams repeats the sentiment with utmost tenderness, there's no harshness in the tone. Though the words "lift your shield" sound too much like "farewell". Cormac's heart breaks and he wants to look back, but the instruction squashes his desire; its a good man that can conquer his own wants - or whatever the philosopher said.
"I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self." - Aristotle
His woman was restless. There was a need in her eyes just as well as it was in her voice, and she'd made it well known to him that she wanted to visit the mountains, she begged for snow. Cormac wondered if she knew at all what she was asking. Wondered if she even remembered the prophetic words she'd spoken in the times before. If she knew what sat lifeless at the peak - surely still sat there, frozen and 'dead'. He did not dare hope 'dead', but surely. They had left together, and Cormac it seemed had just taken his first steps towards a fated number, to walking into another twisted tale of ill omen woven with ironic fortune.
She was not content it seemed with Blackbridge and pleaded with him to take her on yet further. It'd often been impossible for him to say no to the woman he called Magpie. This night would be no different, though he made a great effort to steer her well clear of any easy path that might lead to the frigid peak of the titanic mountain, and he lead her through deep snow where a messy half-breed of mountain men and goblins dwelled; so far as he could figure them at any rate. They fought poorly, those that were not quickly routed back into whatever cold dwellings they'd carved into the packed snow painted it with their lifesblood. This was the way of the mountain, so thought Cormac of Clan Rannúlfr. A poet at heart. His Rosie stood close by his side with his warsword from another time gripped in both hands, she cut the figure of a fine warrioress, there was always fear in her eyes he observed inwardly, fear that would not give way to flight though, a fighting fear - a suvivor's fear.
They stood together side by side atop a snowdrift crested hillock. Thunder rolled in from the distance, though, the sound of it made Cormac grip the ashwood shaft, making the stark white boarskin creak under the pressure of it. He did not answer the rolling thunder, but it came again over the silence of the permanent winter of the mountain -- thunder, and a voice. A rarity so close to the volcano, he had never expected to meet with a Frost Giant in this place. The blue-skinned giant slowly lumbered up towards them, issuing his challenge in the storming voice of Giantspeech. Cormac understood it well enough, a challenge was being issued -- the thing even seemed to know his name. In one fist he held what may have once been the keel of a fishing boat as his tall shield, though it had been painted and decorated beyond any sort of recognition. In the other the gnarled trunk of an ancient tree, an ironstone head nestled into its roots and lashed securely with ropes and and a thick chain. Cormac supposed these bindings may have belonged to the little boat. The thought made his eyebrows raise for the briefest moment, though he had no time to be lost in the thought as the lumbering giant's slow and steady pace erupted into violence as soon as he'd come into range.
Rosie had done what any sane person might do, and stepped back and away from Cormac and his challenger. He found the giant to be slow, or perhaps he himself was simply on good form. He moved to one side to avoid a downward swing, and leaned back just barely to avoid the next sweeping blow. It was this moment that he took advantage of, and while the Frost Giant laboured against the motion of his overreach, the blade of Cormac's axe struck once deep into the knee, the second blow sunk deep into the monster's shoulder, and the third crashed through the Frost Giant's helmet where flesh gave way to bone - gave way to brain. It was over in a heartbeat it seemed. Too easy. But that's what he did isn't it? He slew giants - easily. He planted his boot on the chest of his foe and pushed, the axe came free immediately and the great lifeless body slid down the hillside. Cormac gave his woman a lust-filled look, invigorated by the kill and turned to her. A smug and eager look in his dark shadowed eyes. He hadn't quite taken a half step when this new voice split the air. It called for its brother, it bellowed its vengeful intent into slay Randolph - and cursed his twin's haste.
There was no lumbering slow climb to the crest, the larger of the pair used his gigantic axe to aid his ascent - driving the blade deep into the ice and rock, dragging and heaving himself up in bounds. There was no time to prepare for Cormac, in moments he was confronted by the rime-maddened frenzy, blessed by Ymir's very own blood it seemed, the pinnacle of Giantkind. He indeed bore the ritual scarrification and other such signs of one of Thrym's worshippers. The cold hatred that beat off of him was itself like being kissed by Auril. Cormac, it seemed, would be no match at all.
Axe clashed upon axe, but determination would not avail him - the Giant swung with fury and so, shaken, Cormac was unable to maintain his guard. A sneering rumble of a growl from the frosty foe signified its victory over him as it drove the keen lance-like spike at the top of his froststeel axe head through Cormac's dragonscale breastplate - and pinned him to the cliffside.
Blackness fell over him, the airy cold wind could no longer touch him. The frosty fingers of whichever winter patron could grasp till the end of days - but within these moments the patron of Clan Rannúlfr was gone. An unkind figure stood before him, replacing all the frost-covered world where he'd stood just a few short moments ago. Clear golden eyes blazed at him from behind the skull mask. "Found you..." it said, and it approached, doubtless coming to return the fourth rider back to the fore of Cormac's consciousness after being long abandoned through the ritual on the peak. There was little malice in the voice - it almost sounded like relief. It was at that time when something unexpected happened. It was at this time the terror of his dreams finally, and fully revealed itself to him - the valravn that had always haunted him - swooped forth on its black wings and held Shay/Cormac back. The pair fought, fang and talon swept at the golden eyed shade; the skull-faced reaper slashed back at it with a dagger made from wrought oblivion. There was enough distraction for something innate to awaken within Cormac who remained at the very edge of death. He would not die here it seemed.
All had become quiet. The hoarse breathing of Ymirskin and the frantic panic of Rosie were muffled to nothing against the ringing in his ears, not ringing, thrumming - his heart had not stopped beating, hadn't slowed but had sped up. There were no thoughts in his head beyond insufferable, uncontainable rage. The hairs on his arms and on the back of his neck were bristling, not against the cold but instinctually. His fingernails, ever painted black, had begun to elongate and taper to violent points. His sharp eye-teeth, too, were growing -- and his iron grey eyes had taken on an unsettling, perhaps familiar, orange hue. Cormac, it seemed, was finally turning. His clawed thumb hooked into the gigantic axe-head, and he pushed himself off from the cliff face, the giant was far too strong for this to be a test of strength, but Cormac had become nimble and difficult to engage. He swept mindlessly towards the giantkin and the pair fought on, mirroring the battle between Shay/Cormac and the Valravn. Fang and claw against magic axe. It was hard to tell how it had occurred, but in the end two giants lay dead at the base of the high place where Cormac stood with Rosie. He'd been calmed by the terror in her eyes, by the memory of the words he'd spoken a lifetime ago to his friend Nica. "I have mastered my rage". Seemed maybe he had. He broke the silence. He had to, the way she looked at him would break him otherwise. He said to her "...did you know there's an old saying where I come from? They say that when you seek revenge you ought to dig two graves. I don't think this is what they meant".
Maybe she was amused. He really hadn't been paying attention by then. He never spoke of it, not even to her - likey he never would. He himself didn't really believe it, he'd by then decided that it'd just been a vision of his death brought on by the battle-trance that sometimes chased off or consumed all other thoughts when the need was dire. The wound was gone at least. Rosie said nothing, she asked nothing.
“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”
— Frank Herbert
There's hell up on that mountain. Nothing but hell and misery, and there are men that'd suffer such things in pursuit of gold or fame. Cormac, though, hates that mountain - hates everything to do with that mountain. He'd always found it hard though to say no to the woman that he often called Magpie.
Looking back it almost seemed a trap had been laid out for them to stumble into. Bones stripped of their flesh littered the blood-saturated red earth that simply could not absorb any more. There, in the middle of it all, within the spell-circle of arcane sigils laid out and stupified -- a still living Hill Giant. Cormac's voice rumbled like the grinding of stones; "...tell us Trollborn what happened here, and I'll send you well to Jötunheimr" when he was bade to communicate in Giantspeak. There was no answer. Nor had Cormac truly expected one, he'd meant Trollborn as an insult to his kind, insinuating that Hill Giants are low born. He loathed their kind almost as much as he loathed Trolls. He pondered the Fey-maddened accursed Fomóraigh. Even as someone cast a healing spell on the Hill Giant, even as the Giant got up to flee he pondered his loathing for these lesser Giants. What caught his attention were the dull, killers' eyes and snarling voices on the edge of the forest - the man-shaped things that walked on all fours like beasts that were closing in around them. There was little negotiation; and the battle came on quickly.
The second instance of misfortune had come. He'd come out without his armor, and he would soon pay for his hubris. He realized all to late that the things that were bearing down on their small group were neither men nor beasts, but 'things'. Abominations. His blood was aflame with all the fury of Hell itself, Reyhenna close by his side as had become such a common occurrence. They all fought for their lives. Cormac fell first, and for a time the world wheeled. Far away growls and snarling nonsense-speech, and faded. Snuffling throaty voices that said nothing came from all sides, he saw the trees, and faded. The tunnel where there were some voices that seemed to speak language, stone gave way to 'flesh', the maddening stink of the place and... faded.
When he was finally brought to, he could see that Reyhenna was close. By his side again. The thought, in spite of their situation, amused him. There they were bound and hung aloft with their arms outstretched; crucified. He'd committed this act on others before at a time when neither mercy nor cruelty meant much in his mind. Still, he was reluctant to believe that he'd deserved this fate. He struggle against the chains when the feral non-human guards moved away, and rested when they passed by more closely. The steel bar would flex - at least, he imagined that it flexed - but would not break or permanently bend. The chains would not break. He grew angry at the wretchedness of this misfortune.
There was some discussion, gloating mostly it seemed to him. A masturbatory pat on the back for bringing in such a fine pair, and wouldn't they make such 'perfect' additions to the meat, and oh how the undead one lavished them with his own brand of acidic pity. That one took his leave when the robed one brought up some terms that they had agreed upon. Business as usual. The pragmatic part of his mind could just about appreciate that. He could almost see himself in those shoes, even.
It was only when the robed figure went too far with it and cut Rey' with his knife to comment on her fine blood that Cormac finally threw his all into the only escape plan he could figure. He strained and heaved on the chains, he stressed his whole body against the crossed beam and threw his arms forward against the chains. All the sinews of his being turned taut like metal wire. But neither the beam nor the chains would break. The ritual had begun. He'd tired himself out from resisting against his captivity, and had nothing left when his skin had started to bubble and burn, parts of him threatened to split open. He wanted to believe that this was simply torture but no, this was more - they were being turned, absorbed, they were to be broken and reformed into one of 'them'.
His mind raced, he searched for options within himself. It would have to be now. If any of it was true at all it'd be now, or never. He'd turn, change, not into a fleshghoul abomination but into the beast he'd only been partially aware of, the creature that had been brought forth by Kelemvor's knights - the weapon they'd brought into their eternal battle against the undead. He'd change and he'd burst free from this bondage, he'd slay them all, he'd fill these halls with terror and -- and...
The lock clicked, Reyhenna had already dropped down from her hanging place and vanished from sight under some spell by the time Cormac's feet hit the ground. He was half-mad with the mad thoughts that had just been vanquished from his mind. The voice of Rosie at his side bade him run. And all of them fled... there was no victory in that place; but at least there was no great loss either. Though even in his mental and physical weariness he refused to join in the merriments shared by the others, he'd been beaten and he'd suffered and he hurt. Even Isolde dressed in small clothes could not bring him from his miserable inward thoughts.
He walked off.
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” ― Marcus Aurelius
The sky turned dark, too dark for midday. Darker than any oncoming storm - and there were no clouds to be seen, nor any stars. The sun still burned but it was dull, masked somehow. Meadow didn't quite blame Cormac for what had happened, yet he suspected that she did. She'd have been right to suspect, for he could tell that she did not hear the voice that seemed to speak directly to him - and with familiarity. She called him 'Harbinger', and spoke of how he had heralded the coming of the devouring star. She spoke of oblivion and the void beyond. She bade him come and see. To look over the edge one more time with her; to come and see.
He knew somehow exactly what the voice meant and to where he must go, and he knew that he truly must for he was being drawn by powers he'd long believed to be dead. Though he walked as Cormac he knew that he would be recognized as that other one - that skull-faced one from so long ago. Still a part of him, it seemed. Maybe rekindled from his time up there on that cursed mountain. Maybe. The questions came as he stared down into the dark portal that threatened to spill Ginnungagap's black void out into the world, that nothing-waste that would consume all things from faintest sound to brightest light, the space between spaces where things like 'light and dark' are mythical. His steely stormcloud gaze observed the things that seemed to swim forth from it and meander around, alien things made of nightmare and madness. The questions came; the offers and the temptation. The Voice did not reveal itself.
When the Voice, this demi-power, had heaerd enough and grown frustrated she had set her mad things upon him. He fought them off one by one as they shambled on inky tenticles out of the rift. Each one he smote became a reeking puddle of filth and decay on the ground. He never saw the one that had shambled up the cliff behind him, his heel had been dug into the ledge as he held off the waves, he didn't realize the danger until he felt the absent chill of the vast nothing wrap around his calf. He wheeled and hacked, thrusted at and finally slew the horror that had blindsided him, he watched it fall and splash upon the rocks below. The sight amused him. By the time he'd turned around another was upon him, he couldn't resist it and they both fell - following the last together. There was no good landing for either. Cormac lay broken on the shores of the lake. There was no panic in his final breath. His final thought was to curse his ill fortune, and then nothing.
"He deserves better don't you think, my love?" the voice of the Valravn spoke clearly, a woman's voice. He could see her clearly now as she was. She wore a robe that was accented with black feathers, her hair was blacker than the void that was belching out its demons. She had grey eyes and her lips were painted the colour of blood. Cormac felt no pain. He felt nothing. A man's voice spoke from nearby. It was gruff and verged on being unkind. The figure wore an austere coronet of leather, his hair was not quite black - Cormac in his fugue state suspected it had greyed with age by now, though he recognized the face very well. The voice argued "Meddlesome witch, we mustn't. You can't." , the woman's eyes teased in response, sly, cunning beyond measure. She whispered to Cormac "You remind me of him in your affairs. I named thee, though we never met. I have always wished to tell you that I am sorry that he blamed you for my death. He cursed you the day that you were born - not out of hate for you Cormac, but for his love of me. You two are too much alike! I have longed for the day where my spirit could speak freely with you, and now as the veil is thinned I --" her words were cut off by the crown-bearing other, the man's tone was ugly and cut through the woman's sweetness like a knife. "He'll remember none of this, woman! Leave it. We should not be here". The valravn grew visibly frustrated and seemed actually to caw at her lord, her feather-lined cloak billowed in the windless space between life and death. "Thou knowest not!" she screamed shrilly, the void shook, and she forged a baleful spell.
The signs that she conjured hung in the air about the shattered remains of Cormac, the words she spoke shone down like the mantle of stars that were weirdly made absent by the unknown being, the Voice. The magic of the curse that had been laid upon him at birth, that had marked him from the very day he had entered the world, was plucked from his lifeless body on the day that he was supposed to leave it. "Go Cormac Randolph, and do not forget the face of your father!" It was then that the man's gruff voice barked out like dry wood popping in a fireplace. He knows the voice well, though he in truth had seldom heard it. "Lift your fucking shield!" The voice of the winged beast that haunts his dreams repeats the sentiment with utmost tenderness, there's no harshness in the tone. Though the words "lift your shield" sound too much like "farewell". Cormac feels heart break and he wants to look back, he wants to search madly for the face of the woman that had been speaking to him - the moment has passed, he stands atop a cliff with a steep drop at his back, instinct takes over and he wheels around at the touch of some thing upon his leg. The thing is thrown to its ruin, and a thought comes to his mind; his blackened lips quirk up at the corner as his father's voice leaps forth from some buried memory. He turns with his shield raised and bears the brunt of his foe's assault, catching it on the surface of his roundshield and driving it back before running it through with the full length of his warsword. No more come for him. He tells Rosie at his side that its over, that he'll keep her safe. He didn't understand why his cheeks were wet nor the bitter inexplicable sorrow that had gripped his guts.
The winged woman took form nearby and spoke to them both, calling him 'the Harbinger', and her the 'Demon Touched'. But it became clear as the Voice spoke that not only was she not of this world, but that while she knew of Cormac her knowledge was based on 'rumor' more than kenning. This amused him; his legend had spread beyond the confines of this mortal world into the vastness of unreality. Dizzying. When she offered him power he refused, and rejected her. When she questioned his existence he explained to her that he is just a man, that in choosing to be just a man he'd been denied oblivion and his place among the riders. He told her plainly that she had chosen poorly her champion.
The new patron of Clan Rannúlfr, and father to those that will bear his banner long into the future laughed, and spoke bleakly and without cheer. He admitted, as the sun might admit that it radiates light and warmth. "You see, I am as you say - weak flesh. And cursed to carry no luck with me at all, wherever I go. The very gods have turned their sight from me. A better champion you'd find among any pack of wild dogs".
Cormac perhaps will never know that the power of hate, the curse of love, would unbind him from the finality of 'death'. It's likely he'd never recall ever having spoke with the mystical woman that had gave birth to him beyond the terror that often haunts his darkest nightmares. He could never imagine either that he'd been slain and dashed upon the cold stones at the base of that forsaken mountain. Would Kelemvor favor him hereafter? Would Shay/Cormac resurface from all of this? Was he truly to become the beast? He only knew victory, and that would be enough.
The winged being, the 'Voice', she swore that the age of 'ichor' was upon them, and that come what may - they would someday kneel before her. Cormac and Rosie laughed about this later.
Rain had passed through the old gypsy camp before sundown, the ground had drunk in the water and every rock and bough was slick and wet. The clinging fog that held through the night had not allowed the forest world to dry, and as Cormac made his way out just as the horizon threatened dawn's first light he knew already that the new day was threatening to be unseasonably warm.
He rarely stayed in camp with Juniper, and even more rarely would wake so early. The twins had made their demands once or twice through the night, and after the second apparent contest to see which could scream loudest, he'd found that he could no longer sleep. He instead opted to take a morning stroll. With his tattered cloak pulled about his naked torso he found himself quickly deep in the woods, the smells of wet earth and satiated leaves still damp with the previous nights deluge assaulting his nose. He liked the fragrance. The earthiness was unironically grounding for him, and the brisk chill in the air that he was so sure would die off soon tinged his cheeks with their own rosy right.
His heart suddenly throbbed and his hand dropped to the dagger at his thigh. Something in the shadows had caught his eye, and he'd chosen it seemed to creep up upon it. A thin predatory grin spread across his pale lips - as yet unpainted in his morning ritual - as a plan rapidly came to mind. His hand knew the task before it came to mind, even. So quick was the thought to come to him that he'd surprised himself. He first bent, then stretched the hand wielding the blade out until if found the target. A quick jerk, and lifting by the cap with his free hand, and the big mushroom was free of the stump from which it was growing. As he looked around he realized there were more, dozens perhaps. Some medium to large nutty brown ones, a big mustard yellow one growing off the side of a tree. He avoided many of the smaller ones until he found a bunch growing together, thin stalked with chalky white caps. He cut enough of these to make a bundle. All in all he ended up with a neat basketful of wild forest mushrooms.
He likewise filled the basket with herbs that weren't commonly used in the dishes prepared by city folk, in particular the grassy wild onions and garlic that grew weedy-like in the sun dappled crevices' where rock met earth and strange spear-like chivey things that grew in patches among white flowers.
He was pleased by these simple things, and it wasn't before long that he found himself back within sight of the camp that Juniper and her family had called home. The delicate stream of white smoke from one of the roughly fashioned chimneystacks told him what any wolf that'd roamed close to civilization might've guessed - there are people here, yes, but they haven't fed their fire in many hours. Asleep, probably. If he'd been feral, truly feral, he might've kept the thought going and considered having their chickens, or snatching a fat little child from the cradle and eating it for supper. The thought that didn't quite come to mind amused him yet further, though his lips thinned and came to tug down at the corners. The babe sleeping inside was after all his own.
He spent much time in preparation before so much as touching a knife at the campsite. He'd washed his hands first, then the big block of wood they'd used for chopping on, and then over that surface he generously scattered a handful of rough salt. Many of the herbs he'd gathered were already in the cauldron adding their flavor and pungent aroma to the water that wasn't quite boiling within. The mushrooms he'd gathered were soon to follow, albeit rough-chopped and in shapeless, idiotic chunks. The silky whisper of his sharp knife shearing through the flesh of the mushrooms and then clicking loudly against the surface of the chopping block was at least somewhat rhythmic, and paced as though by practiced hand. Occasionally a piece of salt would find itself between block and blade and would be crushed and pulverized into dust, which would be transferred with the chopped 'shroom into the cauldron to cook and to simmer. The onions, and the garlic would join in similar fashion - along with some seasoning that belonged to the camp. When there was nothing more to add he put the big iron lid atop the cauldron, and as much as it frustrated him, he left it alone to do its own thing - to cook and to stew and to go from raw ingredient to, hopefully, delicious soup.
The light of day was by now creeping in more easily, the dense mist was not yet ready to burn off in the new day's heat however and lingered eerily between the trees like a river of smoke, or perhaps the march of some spectral army - a memory, or an echo of this place's past. Cormac thought little on it. He was pragmatic, the fog would fade - or it wouldn't. It really made no difference.
His attention instead was turned to the big bull shanks that he'd bought, he'd peeled the waxed paper back and the meat was beautiful. Blood pooled in the paper and a few flies buzzed around in the open air around the bones. He didn't admire them overlong before he brought the blade of a heavy cleaver down upon one of them, and with the thud - thud - and third thud with a wooden mallet the bone finally gave, and split. He worked the big knife through the bone to at least try to make sure the split left two even sides, and did the same to the second bone in no time at all. He'd been warming oil in a shallow ceramic pot by the same fire that his soup was cooking over. He'd used some of the herbs and especially the garlic to season the oil and the aroma that wafted out when he took the lid off was simply delightful on its own. There wasn't much of a sizzle going on, and that was just fine. He laid the four pieces of bone into the ceramic vessel side by side and spooned some of the oily potion over the whitish pink marrow. The bones took on a spit-shiny glisten almost immediately. He placed the heavy ceramic lid back on the pot and pushed the entire thing back into the fire. He tooled some hot coals onto the top of the pot to help it bake the bones inside oven-like.
The birds chirped, and somewhere a squirrel made its spastic rattling cry high in one branch or another. Cormac considered grabbing his bow and shooting it out the tree - he thought perhaps to roast it over the fire and to eat it, or perhaps just to shut the damned thing up. But there was a peace here that he did not wish to disturb. Spirits in the forest that he felt he'd do well not to offend. A resting Elf-wife who might be better off left undisturbed at the very least.
Alone with his thoughts and being driven half mad by the relentless warning cry of the invisible squirrel he continued to make himself busy around camp, finding a bag of rye flour. He mixed up a mess of dry ingredients, a variety of flours that had been kept in sacks along with oil and water, and perhaps most importantly almost a full bottle of beer before kneading it all into a tight dough. He let it proof, covered with a light cloth, while he stirred his soup and moved his pot of bones around. It was at this time that he added fresh cream to the broth that had been simmering in the cauldron. He mixed the lot together, it was still very watery and refused to thicken up. This didn't seem to bother him as he went about preparing the meal. He was absent disappointment simply by keeping busy.
The dough had risen slightly and was airy to the touch. He cut the main lot into smaller portions, and then rolled those into medium sized baguettes, and laid them on a rack by the fire to bake by the open flame. He had to turn them often and occasionally adjust their position so as to not let them burn, and to stop them from drying out over much.
Morning had come and gone. The mist that would or wouldn't fade had given way to bright midday light that spilled down through the canopy and lit up the forest floor. Little white flowers popped up around the roots of ancient trees and seemed to dazzle magically as the light hit them just so. The squirrel had either relaxed or had left. Some late rising birds made their cries, and some of the smaller ones had come to peck around the campsite for scraps and bits.
He'd taken the bones out from the fire and they were resting on a plate. To the still-hot beef and herb infused oil he added the leftover flour and stirred the mess over the fire until it became a rich, dark roux. This he scraped into the cauldron, which in turn thickened the mushroom soup.
He sliced two of the four small baguettes into bite-sized cuts and laid them out with the bone marrow he'd served, the other two were left on the plate with a nearby dish of fresh creamy butter, presumably to be eaten with the soup that he'd prepared.
Everything was ready to go. All he needed now was his companion, his Elven wife. All he needed was for the dour thoughts to stop plaguing him, to stop the bristling chill feeling from crawling up and down his back. The voice of the black-winged wolf ever present in his ear nagging and jeering. A bead of sweat rolled off his brow as he thought about stealing it all away to some part of the forest where he could pour the entire pot out and bury it before anyone could see the mistakes he'd made; he should've started with the roux, adding it this late would probably give the soup a doughy four-ey, or burnt taste. He wondered if he'd burnt it. His heart grew colder as his thoughts turned to the marrow, what if she didn't even like this kind of thing? She's an Elf after all -- should he have gone with cabbage instead? What if he'd misidentified a mushroom and poisoned her and her family - what if...
The flap of their tent opened with a billowing, flopping sound. The purple haired woman who stood there stooped in the makeshift doorway chased his dark clouds away. For now.
"Hungry, little Elf?"
"...it's a quick job Cormac. The guys a tramp - a no good bum. Just get the coin and meet the contact right here. It'll be fine..."
He'd been starting to think this was all behind him. Kasimir hadn't asked him to do any 'under the table' sort of work since Thalaman lost interest in him. Things had been dry. That'd been just fine, amends wouldn't be made easy but he'd been trying. And by now he'd come to terms with the fact that some people would never see him as anything but a brute, a thug, or a letch with too many wives.
These thoughts didn't cross his mind as he put his breastplate and helmet on. Though he found himself unable to meet Isolde's gaze as he left the commons to do the thing that the cowardly knaves had bade. He checked that he had his knife, a pointy stiletto blade - a knight's dagger - that he'd kept over from that Lathanderite's trove. A memento of sorts, sentimental. He thought of her briefly.
It didn't take him too long to find Everett in the farmlands. The old man might've been clueless as he went about his chores. Cormac's mood had grown even and dispassionate. The sullen look in his stormy grey eyes hidden behind the iron mask he'd taken to wearing, and cast in shadow by the last light of the dying day. It crossed his mind that the old farmer might not see another. The old man threw another hay bail onto the stack in his barn. The palaver was brief.
Cormac gruffed, conversational - but blunt "Everett, isn't it? This your barn?"
The startled man let out a shallow yelp and wheeled to look at the much taller man who'd surprised him. He calmed and spoke finally "Ah! Yarp, my barn."
"...and that's your house over there near the cliff? All these beeves yours?" He spoke in the same gruff tone as he took a few more paces towards Everett.
"That's right. All mine." The old man didn't back away, he just stood there like an idiot and answered chummily. He mopped his brow with a rag and then pulled out a wooden pipe, lit it, and began to puff. Cormac was a little put out by this, he was trying to be at least a little bit intimidating and this bumpkin geezer was making his shakedown seem like his fifteen minute break.
Cormac's jaw clenched. He kept his composure and continued his inquiry. "...doing well for yourself. These beefs bring in a lot of coin?" ... and so the talk went back and forth for a while, yes - and no - and something about an old nobleman, an Ashald, in the city who bought cans of milk by the dozen. Eventually the Skald-turned-thug turned to the old man and said the words that he surely knew were coming.
"It's time to pay. The money loaned to you, the five thousand." The even chumminess had turned to an unkind rasp, the sound that maybe a rough-scaled snake might make as it coils about some tame thing that had come to the end of its days. "It's time to pay" he repeated.
Everett the cattle farmer puffed on his pipe, puffed and puffed - seemed maybe he wouldn't stop puffing. The orange glow in the bowl was like the birthing of another galaxy now that the sun had fallen behind the walls of the city and left everything in darkness. He took the pipe from his lips and said quite friendly enough "Sorry, I don't have it". He'd looked like he might've gone on with his excuses, some mewling nonsense about how times are hard and maybe about the price of feed. There was none of it, Cormac wouldn't stand for any of it. The lies, the blubbering - the blathering, it made him sick right to the back of his throat. The big man's nostrils flared, and he lashed out the only way that made sense to him.
He punched the man, not on the chin or crosswise on the jaw - but squarely in the mouth. The sharp studs on his gauntlet turning the old man's face into something akin to ground beef, and Everett's knees went out immediately. Cormac wouldn't let him fall though, and held the yokel up by his shirt and backhanded him once, twice, and a third time before permitting him to drop. The whimpering broken faced man was trying his darndest to crawl away, he wouldn't get far. Cormac squatted nearby and retrieved the old man's pipe, and he puffed on it himself as he rose and strode close behind the desperate farmer. When the bowl was good and hot he tossed the pipe into the barn, into the hay that had been stacked. The whole thing ignited quickly, white and orange flames sprung up - choking smoke billowed out from under the roof. The evil barbarian leaned down and gripped Everett by the shag of hair on his head and turned the bumpkin's face toward the fire by force. Dragged him to the fire, and held him there till his eyes boiled out of his skull and nothing remained of his face but a charry grin. Such was deserved of those who didn't pay their debts; of those who lied to him. The ragged sobbing breaths of the ruin that had been a cattle rancher not even ten minutes ago were silenced when Cormac pulled out his remaining pistol and put a hole in the man's chest. After all, he wasn't a cruel man - not Cormac.
Over the sound of his kettle-drum heartbeat and the rough, animal breathing from his heaving chest, the words came it seemed from another world..."and they took Esmerelda, my prize cow. My daughter could tell you more about it" Everett's words snapped him out of the thought. He stared at the old man, his dark eyes blazing and his teeth clenched at the vivid premonition, at the apparition before him. "GEORGE!" the old man cried. "GET OVER HERE AND TELL THE STRANGER WHAT YOU SAW!"
And there she was, the plump and heavy chested milkmaid daughter of the man Everett. A frosty cold sensation came to Cormac's gut, he felt like turning away and running from this mad place, from the beautiful girl named George. He softened, and listened to her words like she was reciting poetry in that weird accent of hers. Where the bad men went, how many there could've been - and of course she knew her numbers for who but she would count the cans of milk. He swallowed the wet lusty feeling down and assured them both that he'd do what he could to get the prize cow back, and he'd even pay their debt in full today for two or three beeves tomorrow.
Cormac and Everett shook hands, and parted on friendly terms.
The debt would be paid, no bones broken - no blood spilled. None of the old man's at least...
When he'd finally return to the city he found he could meet Isolde's gaze again. Perhaps there'd been a change somewhere along the way after all.
**The Opportunity lazily rocks, unsettled in her spot in the docks. There's an occasional woody bump as the ships large hull meets and collides with the much smaller S.S. Nancy. Ships bells sound all across the docklands and the rowdy voices of drunken sailors cuts just above the turmoil of whipping shore winds.
None of it stirs Cormac, who lays in a wakeful state within the captain's quarters. And neither the easy breathing of the purple haired smiling Elf woman that rests atop him with her head on his chest, nor the unashamed Human girl with blonde hair that sleeps soundly in her night clothes with her head nestled on his arm at the shoulder, the one that snoozes calmly and evenly into his ear, can give him the comfort that he so needs.
The wolf looks up to the ceiling where shadows cast from the sooty dim light from the few candles that were left burning during the trio's evening together. The shadow of an overturned wine bottle casts its weird green/grey shadow on the opposing wall. There's no smile on his lips.
Thoughts come and go in drifts not unlike the waves that lap and beat against the walls of his wooden castle at sea, his ship - 'his ship' - the Opportunity. Asha had called him a guardian once upon a time, and Berkleigh had said it best at the Marigold Tavern, of course Cormac had snarled at the gentle mannered barkeep for it. "...you have a need to look after them...", or somesuch. Did he really only look for the broken ones, the ones with a screw loose? Reyhenna might allude to something like that in the future, it'd strike him with no less poignancy than the time at Marigold. Still, maybe. He thought. Maybe. This thought brought him to Raazi, and he wondered how long it'd been, and when it stung too much he gripped and his fingers sunk into the flesh of one lover or the other, and he tried not to moan or hitch his breath as a tear rolled back from the corner of his eye.
"You can't kill it like that Little Crow. You won't drown her memory in flesh". The words came from a voice that had been silent for so long. He didn't respond. He didn't even think of a response. He was on the mend - getting better. The mad thoughts and wild tendencies were in the past. He hadn't even used since Juniper and Valisha had started joining him regularly, not anything stronger than wine anyway. And, it'd seemed to him for a while now that people were actually enjoying his company - they'd certainly remarked on his heroism, told stories of his deeds without being prompted.
"...you can't kill it like that, wolf. You won't drown her memory --" ... and he was to be a father again. Juniper had told him not too long ago that she'd visited with the priest, and that it was certain. Another one swearing that she loved him. Maybe his cursed state was truly ended after all. The world, it seemed, was lavishing gifts and good fortune upon him at last. Even when he'd did wrong it seemed to invite a favorable outcome; he was living a charmed life. He found that for all of that, he couldn't help feeling completely and miserably alone.
"It's a thing that can't be killed. It's because your hair is black and her wolfish look in your eyes." He squeezed again, a mild yelp and a sigh from one of the women let him know that all were yet at rest. All but him, though he ever suspected the Elf might be laying between rest and wakefulness by now. One of the candles died and the shadows danced one step to the side. He wondered to himself whether or not he might have to kill her if she ever came back. A thought he'd gone wild with rage at when Varya had suggested something similar. He argued with himself internally, wrestling with both parts of it. On the one hand, how could such a thing not cause his blood to boil - for good or for ill, Raazi had been his wife, and the mother of his child Rafni. On the other hand - yes, she's a demon - does she even have a heart that could love him? Did she ever really?
He knew in his heart of hearts that she'd struggled, that much was plain in the letter she'd written for him. The letter he'd never finished reading, probably never would finish reading. He would try to find his comfort. He struggled with himself, but the Elf that had fallen in love with him, the one with purple hair - and the blonde haired girl he'd jokingly made his deck-swabbie, might at least make it a little easier to accomplish....**
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.