Heth had decided to move his family after that third failed harvest when his land did not yield more than a fraction of what had been the norm. Nature had been cruel. Moreover, victorious.
So he had gathered his wife, Sarah, and little daughter, Melli, and loaded the wagon. They were now bound for Fairlake and his only brother. The wagon lumbered down the muddy road drawn by two large draft horses, horses that Melli said were as big as the elephants she saw in that picture book in the big library once. They were lazily plodding their way through the mud and the muck.
Heth clacked his tongue and gently slapped the animals with the reins, keeping them moving. They were tired of the long journey. They all were. Sarah sat beside him on the bench, desperately trying to keep her stitches from dropping at every lurch and dip of the wagon as she worked on knitting her daughter a new wool sweater.
Melliandria, barely five years old, rode in the back among the furniture and dishes, sitting comfortably on her bed of quilts nestled in a bushel basket. She was talking to her friend, Mary, a stuffed doll made by her mother's loving hands while she had been carrying the child to term. Coincidentally, Mary had been born on the same day as Melli.
"Daddy, when are we going to eat?" Melli asked, her normally cute voice sounded tired. She sat Mary in her lap and sighed, looking deep into her companions dark button eyes. "You are hungry too, aren't you Mary."
"Hush, child," Heth admonished, though his heart was not in it. He was hungry as well, but food was low and unless he could snare a rabbit or some other game this evening, they would all be even hungrier in the morning. Dried bread and cheese could only go so far.
Sarah laid her knitting in her lap and turned to her daughter. "Be brave, little one. I know it is a long trip, but there will be plenty when we reach Fairlake. You will see. Why don't you lay down and get some sleep? It is passed your nap time, isn't it?"
"I don't feel like sleeping Mama. I'm too hungry." Sarah looks at her child and her heart feels leaden. She looks a question at Heth. Heth frowns slightly and his eyes look away to the far mountains. Sarah knows that look, his thinking look.
Heth was mentally dividing what little food they had left, trying to find room for a snack for their hungry little girl. After a moment he returns and looks at his wife. He nods once and turns his attention back to the horses. Sarah reaches into the food satchel under the bench, pulls a piece of bread out, and cuts a small slice of cheese.
She hands the snack to Melli, "Here you are, child. This will last you until sup'time." Melli takes the food with thanks and munches hungrily. She even shares with Mary.
Just then Heth clicked his tongue again and got his wife's attention. Sarah turned forward and followed his gaze. Up ahead, walking in the middle of the road, slogging through the ankle-deep muck was road weary traveler, a man by the look of his back. He was wearing a black cloak slung over shoulders that looked strong enough to carry a barrel of grain on each. He held his head down and his hands carried something wrapped in oilcloth. The man stopped in the middle of the road at the sound of the wagon, slowly raised his head, and turned. His long stringy hair swung slightly as his head moved and a couple of strands were clinging to his face like streaks of black ink. His eyes were dark and hooded, the eyes of a man that knew well the specter of death. Sarah's fingers wrapped around her husband's forearm and gripped fiercely. Heth patted her hand gently, though he too felt it: something that was not quite right.
As the wagon drew closer to the still man they could see that he wore a suit of mail armor and had two knives tucked into his belt that surrounded his thin waist. His face smiled but that smile did not reach his eyes. Sarah squeezed a little harder.
The man in black held one hand up, his right, the other cradled the oilskin package against his chest, like a baby, a package that was longer than it was wide. He appeared to be waving at them.
Heth glanced around at the dark overcast sky and clouds full to bursting with what would soon be more rain. Not a good day to be travelling on foot. He looked at the road the man was standing in and could not see his boots for all the mud.
Sarah caught his attention with her ever-tightening grip and he looked into her eyes, eyes wide with alarm. He shrugged and squeezed her hand. "It will be alright wife," he whispered. "He is just a weary traveler like us."
"But look how he is waving at us," she whispered back. Heth did as she said and noticed that the man's arm was moving in a peculiar manner. He seemed to be indicating that he wanted them to pass by him, not to stop. He was telling them to go on. How odd, Heth thought.
Heth looked around the area quickly, suspecting that brigands were about, but there was not anything to see but empty grassland. He decided to stop anyway. Maybe he could be of some help. He could not see allowing a traveler as weary and soaked to the bone as this man was to walk alone when they had a perfectly good wagon to offer.
Besides, he obviously was not a brigand and he carried himself like a knight.
"Hello, stranger," Heth said to the man. "Where do you travel to on this rainy day?"
The stranger's voice was rough and his face scarred to match. He looked to be a soldier or a mercenary at the least, a sword for hire. That must be what he has bundled in the oilskin, Heth realized.
The man in black looked sad for a moment, a deep, troubling sadness that seemed to express a deeply felt regret, but regret for what, Heth could not begin to imagine. Then that passed into resignation after a brief moment and the man in black sighed heavily.
"I travel to Fairlake, beyond the mountains," he answered tiredly.
Heth mistook the tone for weariness. "Then you have a ways to travel yet, stranger, and hard travelling at that. What brought you to hazard such a journey without a beast of burden?"
The man looked down at his mud-caked boots and he remained that way for a long moment. Then his head slowly rose and his eyes locked upon the farmer and his wife.
Heth felt a chill crawl across his skin and Sarah was digging her nails in now. They both suffered an uncontrollable shiver.
If only what they saw that day had just been a glimmer, a flash of enlightenment, then Heth and Sarah could have passed it off as a trick of the imagination. However, they were not to be that fortunate. Heth and Sarah looked at the change in the man and fear, cold wet fear, gripped them to the soul. The man in black had eyes of fire!
"Alas, I was not always afoot, pilgrim," he said calmly. His voice had grown deeper and his smile was even wider, as if he were a different person. He waved his hand at Heth's team. "Would you mind terribly if I borrowed one of your stout animals to help me on my way?"
Heth blanched at the calmness in the man's voice, as if he were asking for a drink of water or commenting on how nice the weather was today; though it was not. His mouth dropped and Sarah's fingers drew blood.
Heth slapped rein to the horses so hard his wife fell back as the wagon lurched. The animals screamed and darted forward like the Hounds of Hell were nipping at their hooves.
At least that is what Heth thought was happening, what he wished was happening, but instead Heth hesitated before yelling and slapping the reins on the backs of the horses. He hesitated before pushing his wife back into the wagon to protect her and Melli from this strange man with the glowing eyes. He hesitated and heard Sarah make a strange sound, a sound that he had never heard from her before.
Heth looked at her and saw her brow furrowed in shock and fear, lips drawn back in terror, teeth gleaming, eyes wide and staring, but he couldn't hear her screaming. He knew that was what she was doing, but he could not hear her! Her hands flashed to her face and gripped with a fierceness that turned her slender fingers white.
Then he saw the blood!
Heth opened his mouth to speak, to ask his wife where she had been hurt, where had the blood on her hands come from, but no words would come. Then the pain struck him like thunder from the Gods. It ripped through his skull and he reached up to somehow stop the pain, but his hands never moved and he knew nothing more.
Sarah screamed when she saw the stranger lift his sword out of the oilskin, that massive length of shining steel that seemed to gleam in the sunlight that was not there. She tried to tell Heth to move, but he just sat there staring at the stranger, as if hypnotized.
As if time had slowed, she watched the long gleaming steel blade rise and fall, watched as the steel split her husband's head in half like a melon, watched as the steel withdrew.
Then Heth turned to look at her and Sarah screamed! She screamed a loud and blood curdling shriek as this disfigured husband of hers, a man she has loved for thirteen years, stared at her in wonder as his head fell apart to the neck.
The man in black bellowed a gale of deep laughter as he shoved Heth off the wagon and impaled Sarah on his sword blade. He shoved her off the opposite side, the blade sliding through her body to the hilt, to die in the mud. He sat down heavily and grabbed the reins in his hands. He started to slap the horses then stopped himself. Something did not feel right. Then he turned slowly and looked at the young girl huddled in her basket, eyes wide and frightened, throat tight and body shaking like a leaf in a gale. She was clutching a small ragged doll to her chest and staring at him with those wide frightened eyes.
"Well what have we here," he said to himself. His glowing eyes shined as he eased a jeweled dirk from its scabbard on his belt. The child met the stranger's gaze and immediately relaxed. "You look tired, little one. Don't you need to take a nap?"
Melli closed her eyes and lay back in the basket under the mesmerizing power of the stranger's gaze. Still smiling, the man in black leaned toward her and whispered in her ear, "Good night, little one."
The two equestrians materialized from the heat haze like ghosts from a bard's tale. Long alabaster cloaks, cut from the pelts of the giant snow leopards of the Athek Mountains, billowed behind them in the strong wind, stark whiteness against the brown landscape. Long hair, white as their cloaks whipped away from their faces, faces chiseled from stone. One could tell right away that they were brothers. They could even be mistaken for twins.
The two equestrians rode their white mares to the crowd gathered in front of a store, clustered around a large wagon splashed with dark red stains. The people stopped what they were doing, one by one, to stare at the newcomers as they approached. Some were seen signing the ward against evil, though they tried to hide it and all gaped with awe and fascination. By the time the equestrians reached the wagon the crowd had hushed. The riders looked with intense green eyes at the crowd and then at the blood splattered wagon. Their eyes followed the stains to the three bodies lying in the back atop the furniture and clothing: a man, a woman, and a small child.
One of the equestrians turned his eyes on the man at the front of the crowd, the only one wearing a sword, the town constable. The rider stepped his horse forward a pace and looked down at him. The constable's eyes grew wide as he looked into the liquid green eyes of the horseman, eyes that were dark, yet bright, malign yet benign, eyes that were everything and nothing. "How long ago?" the equestrian asked softly.
The constable seemed to shake himself and found his gaze drawn to the strange tattoo on the man's forehead, a tattoo that circled his head as a band, just below the hairline.
"They were found this morning," he answered automatically. "Just after the dawn, they were brought into town. On the road to Fairlake, they was . . . well not quite on the road but more to the side. Off the road in the meadow, actually, but the wagon could still be seen from the road." Someone popped him in the back to stop his rambling.
"Who found them?"
The constable wondered why he was even telling this strange man anything at all when he heard himself say, "Herr Braundin, our miller found them, he did. Found the wagon in the middle of the meadow, near a stand of trees, one horse-—"
"Do shut up, Bors."
The constable fell silent as a short fellow of better than middle years, wide girth, and large head stepped forward from the crowd. The top of his head was bare but his cheeks were bushy with the growth of a well-kept beard. His upper lip was strikingly naked.
"I am Herr Braundin, the miller. I found them."
"Did you see the creature that did this?"
"I didn't see anyone, just the wagon and the bodies. Two of them were lying in the road. The child was still in the wagon." He stopped and looked at the small child, sadly.
Suddenly someone in the crowd spoke out. It was the voice of a woman. She had been weeping and her voice was thick with emotion. "Who could have done such a thing?"
Someone cried that it had to be brigands, they had been seen coming down from Fairlake of late; another argued that suggestion, saying that brigands wouldn't travel so far and then leave the wagon with all the belongings in it. Another shouted that it was evil at work. Just look at the man's head; no normal man could have done such a thing.
This last suggestion caused several nods of agreement among the crowd. They began mumbling again, the spell of the strangers broken.
The Horseman sat up in his saddle and this simple gesture hushed the crowd again as if he had struck hammer to anvil. He looked at each of them in turn.
"Its name is Doom," he intoned, "and it holds death in its hands for any who are unfortunate enough to cross its path."
The crowd remained silent for a few more moments and then someone spoke from the depths. "How do you know of this evil you call Doom?"
"We are those who will put an end to its terrorism."
The mysterious equestrians turned their steeds and rode away before another question sounded, white ghosts disappearing into the haze.
"Who are you that you seek this demon called Doom?" someone cried after them. It was the weeping woman.
They did not answer.
The crowd of people watched until the two men disappeared. Then Herr Braundin was first to break the silence. "I know who they are." He turned to his people and his face was as white as the cloaks the equestrians wore. "I have heard tales told of them around campfires and in the rooms of little children. Tales I believed to be just ghost stories . . . until now."
"Well?" The constable demanded. "Who are they then? Tell us, man."
"They are the spirits known as Seth'Ini among the Onhuzi tribesmen of the Athek mountains. They are the living ghosts that hunt the Demons that escaped from the Pits of Asgard."
"Bah!" The constable turned to face the miller. "Reth, you have been paying too much attention to those children's stories, and that's exactly what they are, stories! Everyone knows that the Onhuzi didn't really exist. They were made up to frighten young children away from wickedness and sloth."
"You saw the mark, Bors!" Reth Braundin retorted loudly, pointing at the Constable fiercely. "You saw the mark on their foreheads. The mark of the Gods." He jabbed his finger into the man's chest, accenting his words. The constable fell back under the attack. "You remember that same mark from the Book of Legend that Master Willem had," he continued ominously. "You know I speak the truth."
Bors looked abashed and defeated and the crowd could see the truth reflected in his eyes. Master Willem, rest his soul, had been a well traveled man, learning many things and seeing many peoples in his days.
The crowd began to mumble among themselves again, to sign the ward against the supernatural.
Callandor Branagh threw his cloak from his body and rolled to a sitting position. He put a hand to his aching head and swept his natty hair from his face. The wine bottle at his side was uncorked and empty. He groaned and looked up at the sky. The clouds looked ready to pour forth more rain, but he knew it would not come. Not today, anyway.
He rose to his unsteady feet, stretched convulsively, and collapsed back onto his bedroll. He moaned again and lay there looking up at the tops of the oak trees towering above him, leaves dripping with morning dew.
"Another day of Hell," he said to them.
He started to get up but could not. He did not want to, rather, part of him did not; and that part of him knew that he would not be able to lie there for long.
The other part of him, the evil, was stronger. When it was ready to go it would compel him to move, force him to move. Most of the time it was dormant, showing its ugly head only when it was hungry, but lately it had been appearing increasingly often. Taking control of the better part, the sane part, and making him suffer.
He had tried to put an end to it once by taking his own life, but that wouldn't work, oh no, it couldn't have that happen. It was in control and it would make sure that he stayed alive to do its bidding.
Callandor's eyes rolled back in his head as he felt the convulsions coming again, the prelude to its arrival. He bit his tongue fiercely and blood began leaking from his mouth as he struggled against the thing. He began to tremble, fighting with all of his soul, what was left of his soul!
"Odin help me," he croaked just before losing consciousness.
He could see the glowing eyes across the darkness from him. The air was still and silent in his prison of a mind, but it was real, and so was he. A glowing mist formed around the eyes and began to coalesce and a form slowly began to take shape.
Small horns, like curved fingers, protruded from its skull, making the contorted and perverted face even more grotesque than it already was. Its skin glistened wetly, as if coated with blood and the scales covering its body sparkled as it moved, but its eyes were the worst. They were grotesquely opaque, serpentine, and swirling with the colors of the spectrum.
Mysteriously, they changed to the color of dried blood and glowed with the intensity of ten torches as the beast moved closer to Callandor.
The daemon's mouth cracked open into a toothy grin full of fang and spittle as it mocked him from across the void. Callandor heard himself yelling something but he did not know exactly what it was. All he knew was that it was a cry of rage.
Then they were at each other's throats, trying to squeeze the life out of each other. To Callandor it seemed as if they had been fighting this battle since time began, though he knew it was not so. His curse had fallen upon him only a few years ago.
The daemon began to laugh because it knew that as long as the knight was alive, the mortal would never be in control. Not until it was finished with him. Then the knight would have to die, wouldn't he? the daemon chuckled to itself. And in death, well . . . the knight could have all of the control he wanted when he was dead.
The knight had been a perfect choice as a vessel. He was a devout servant of Odin, a proverbial do-gooder, a savior of the oppressed. What better moral fiber to serve as a host for the power of evil. The demon laughed at the irony.
Callandor Branagh felt his fingers tightening on the daemon's throat. He knew in his heart that he was not succeeding; yet, he could not give up. To yield would mean the loss of all he has lived for. He needed to end the terror and misery that he was causing.
No! his mind shouted. The daemon was the cause of the evil! The beast had murdered all of those innocent men, women, and children, not me. The beast had been the one to spread the terror of evil during the long years. Years that seemed eternal.
"Damn you, Galth'Amon! Damn you to the Pit you came from." Callandor squeezed with all of his might but the daemon simply laughed.
His eyes flew open and the knight heard himself screaming with every ounce of anger, rage, and frustration he possessed.
When the air had stilled, he rolled to his feet again and waited for his head to catch up, relying on one of the massive oaks for balance. He looked across the smoldering fire at the horse that has been carrying him for the past two days. A horse he did not want to recall how he had gotten. A draft horse used to pull large wagons.
He stared at the horse for what seemed an hour or more trying to remember through the haze where the animal had come from but it eluded him. All he knew was that he woke up one morning and it was there, waiting for him by his small fire and nibbling grass.
He knew who had gotten the animal but not how or when. The blackouts were growing stronger and of longer duration.
As his head cleared, he removed his hand from his neck where it had been resting and looked down to see it stained with blood. He withdrew a damp cloth from his belt and wiped it away. He could feel the half-moon cuts on his rough skin, cuts caused by his own fingernails.
After he gathered his black cloak around him and picked up his gear to load on the horse, he finally, reluctantly, moved toward the long oilskin wrap and the contents within. Though the sword was of his making, he no longer wanted it. It had become a curse, an instrument of evil.
He did not want it but it did, therefore, it was still at his side, another reminder of the evil that has overwhelmed his soul.
He untied the leather holding it closed and the end dropped away to reveal a dark hilt of black silver with a pommel in the shape of an eagle claw. Callandor glared at the ruby clutched within the claw and mouthed a silent prayer to Odin for salvation.
He imagined the evil within the gem winked at him as he finished his prayer. Why not? he thought, disgustedly. Galth'Amon heard everything he said. The beast was in his head, his body, and his soul. Odin would not interfere and they both knew it. The knight who had devoted his life to the cause of Odin had been abandoned.
The glow of the gem faded and the knight hung his head. Why couldn't the jewel have been a gift from the Gods? It should have been, having come from the heavens out of the clear blue sky.
It had struck his helmet as if directed there by the very hand of Odin. The impact had knocked him from his horse and he had fallen to the ground in a heap of clanging metal and mail.
Moreover, no sooner had he fallen than a spear from a giant ballista machine had impaled his horse at the spine. Right where he had been sitting. The Hand of Odin? He had thought so at the time. He had believed that his Lord and Master had reached down and spared the life of one of his loyal servants. So he had taken the gem and fashioned his sword to hold it as a symbol of his devotion.
However, that had been his undoing; that had been the end, for Odin had not played a part in his destiny that day. Evil had.
He gazed at the ruby that was as big as a ripe plum and still knew there was not a rational explanation for it hitting him like it did. It had flown through the air with purpose and struck his soul to the core.
The knight covered the hilt of his massive sword, a claymore, and retied the leather.
"Another day of Destiny," he said as he swung onto the horse's bare back. "Another day of Death."
Jakob, blacksmith of Fairlake, put his hammer on the table and shoved the hot tongs holding the glowing horseshoe into the bucket. A burst of steam misted the small enclosure a moment and then dissipated nearly as rapidly as it had come. He left the finished shoe in the bucket and mopped the sweat from his face. He turned to the door and the light rain falling from the sky.
He stopped just outside and raised his face to the cold water. He stood there and let it bathe him in its refreshing shower.
However, his bath was short-lived. A man was riding into town, a man with a bag slung over his shoulder, on the back of a large horse without a saddle. The horse appeared to be favoring one leg, but what caught Jakob's eye was the long oilskin wrap on the man's back. A shape that, the blacksmith knew, could only mean a claymore sword, that was nearly six feet in length from pommel to sword tip.
The rider approached the smith, stopped, and dismounted. His clothes were sodden and his hair matted his face. He handed the reins to Jakob and said in a tired and graveled voice, "He threw a shoe." Then the man walked away without another word.
Jakob stared after him wondering where he had seen him before, then shook his head, and decided it would come to him later. He slowly led the horse around the side of his shop to the stable, wondering.
Callandor Branagh trudged through the mud looking for a pub that was open. He did not have to walk far. The sign declared it as the Blue Rose, and he did not care. He opened the door and walked in.
There were several customers. Not enough to be busy but enough to keep the haggard looking waitress on her feet. The regulars called her Meg and she always wore a brown apron over a plain cotton dress cut low in the bosom, of which she appeared to be rather proud. She swished up to the knight's table and placed a mug of ale down and some baked bread and cheese. She paused to ask if he wished to have a plate prepared and the rough looking knight just shook his head.
The waitress paused a moment longer, sizing up this broad-shouldered fighter as if she had never seen one before. She leaned forward slightly; a movement well practiced for revealing even more cleavage, and said that if he needed anything at all to just call. The knight looked up at her and the smile playing across her lips flickered then faded as she stared into the stranger's queer eyes. She slowly backed away from that gaze. She was not sure what she saw but she knew that she did not like it.
She swished to another customer who was a little bit more warm and friendly. The former knight opened a pouch on his belt and retrieved a small bottle. He rolled the bottle between his thumb and fingers, admiring the blue translucence of the vial and the dark liquid within. He sighed heavily, uncorked the bottle, and tipped some of the liquid into his mouth. The bitterness of the liquid burned across his tongue as he put the vial back in his pouch. He quickly stirred the ale with his finger, tipped the mug to his mouth, and drank deeply, emptying the contents in one breath. The warm ale, mixed with the dark liquid burned a path to his stomach. He cringed as the poison mixed with the ale and exploded with the intensity of a volcano.
The mixture felt good to his cold and wet bones like fire warming his body and drying his clammy skin. Then the fire rushed to his head in a sudden explosion and he could feel it burning through his eyes and baking his brain.
Death from this poison was instantaneous and very painful, but to the knight it was only an agent that would take his mind away from his misery for a short time. Every day he would drink from his flask of arsenic, hoping that one day it would actually work, but Galth'Amon would not let it. The daemon was not finished yet.
He shivered all over, the last vestiges of the cold fleeing the heat, then he heard a loud popping sound and his forehead thumped on the table as the poison pulled him into darkness.
Adin was a big fellow, not necessarily in height, but his large frame made up for it when it came to regulating the rowdies. His arms were well muscled and as massive as two legs of ham. They were directing his meaty hands with fingers like sausages, scrubbing an ale tankard with damp linen. His gut stood out like the rest of him and was a good place to rest against the bar when he was not serving customers.
He was a peaceful man by nature, but was well adept at using the mace he kept behind the bar and quick with it as well. He could not abide drunks, rowdy drunks or sloppy drunks, that is, and would not tolerate their kind in his pub.
Such as the stranger he was looking at now, the stranger in black. Not only had he passed out at his table, he had not paid for his ale yet. Two strikes against him already and he hadn't even been there fifteen minutes. Adin put down the mug he was cleaning and tossed the towel onto his shoulder. He picked up his mace, the one with the solid iron head and little knobs the size of marbles on it, and strolled out from behind the bar.
Some of the customers, the regulars in particular who knew what was going to happen, some having even experienced the receiving end of the mace themselves, shook their heads knowingly. Some even grinned at the chance of getting to see a little blood.
Adin tapped the man in black on the shoulder with the heavy iron none too gently. The man did not move. He shoved the iron into the shoulder, pushing the man into a sitting position, and said, "Off with ya, ya drunk. Don't abide nobody decoratin' my place with their filth."
The man in black slowly raised his head, looked at the bartender with heavy bloodshot eyes, and smiled.
"Well, hello there, Adin, you fat pudgy piece of shit," he said with a toothy grin. "Haven't seen you in a while." His smile looked strained and distended, as if his face were going to split in two at any moment.
Adin involuntarily stepped back, taken aback at hearing his name coming from this grotesquely grinning stranger that he had never laid eyes on before. Adin noticed that the man's eyes were so bloodshot that the pupils even looked bloody. Trick of the light, of course, he thought. He must have been drunk out of his mind when he came in.
"Don't know you, mister, and don't want to. You're in my place and I don't want you here no more. Shag it to another pub. Don't abide your kind of drunk, and nobody speaks to me that way in my own place."
"Sure you know me, Adin," the man in black said. "I was there when your wife was raped and murdered three summers ago. Don't you remember?" Meg dropped her tray of mugs and they shattered sending ale splattering over the floor. The rest of the customers hushed at the sound and it left an eerie silence in the pub.
Adin's blood froze in his veins, shocked by the stranger's words. Then rage welled inside of him at the memory of his wife at the hands of those brigands and the mocking tone of this man sitting in that chair admitting that he had been there when it happened!
Adin could be fast to action when he wanted to be or when his ire was up. His mace swung at the man with deadly accuracy. Those marble sized knobs on the head of it reaching out to touch the stranger's nose and mouth. When it connected Adin felt the shock all the way to his shoulder.
He looked at the man's face, knowing what to expect when he saw the mashed and bleeding flesh, but he found nothing but gloved hand. The man in black clutched the head of the mace in his right hand, still grinning broadly. His eyes held the look of one who was looking forward with relish to what he was about to do. They were the eyes of a murderer, the eyes of evil.
Then slowly, strangely, Adin watched as they darkened. Right before his eyes, the strange glow faded and he was staring into the gray eyes of a man who had known one too many battles and one too many deaths; the look of a man that was sick of killing, a look of sorrow.
For a moment, Adin felt as if he were looking into the eyes of a man pleading for help.
Then that faded so quickly that he felt he imagined it. The smile had returned, teeth gleaming brighter than ever.
"I believe I need to reintroduce myself, Adin," the teeth growled. Adin had been in many a fight and was no slouch, but he was not prepared for the pain he felt in his groin that started as a small pinch and slowly escalated into searing fire.
He tried to move but found his feet would not respond to his commands. His legs would not budge. He tried to cry out but his voice would not work either. He just stood there looking into the stranger's glowing red eyes and felt numbness spreading over his limbs as the pain passed through him like a white-hot bolt of lightning. The last sound he heard was a grotesque splat on the floor at his feet.
The regulars watched as Adin thumped the stranger on the shoulder, and then push him into a sitting position. They heard the barked orders and the stranger's ghastly reply. They heard Meg's startled gasp and the dropping of her tray. They even heard the sound of air moving to get out of the way of Adin's mace as it arced toward the stranger's face.
The regulars watched, knowing this would be the end of the stranger for what he said. They would talk of it for many days to come.
They watched as the head of the mace stopped just inches in front of the stranger's face, deftly caught by a gloved hand as if it were a trickster's ball, and halted that powerful swing as if Adin had only the strength of a child.
They watched as Adin's face turned white as a sheet and a peculiar look of surprise overwhelmed him. A look that the regulars could not explain until the stranger stood up.
That was when terror knifed through every soul in the pub in the form of a blood-curdling scream.
Meg could not stop screaming. It seemed to go on and on. The sight of the knife slicing through Adin's middle as the stranger stood was too much. Her head began to shake violently as she stared at her friends intestines spill onto the floor.
Surely, she must take a breath soon, Galth'Amon thought. A woman's scream is the most annoying thing about these people.
Yet, it seemed she would not, so he helped her. He jerked the knife out of Adin's body, the one that he used to disembowel the bartender, and threw it with practiced ease. Her scream cut off in a liquid gurgle as the knife stabbed into her throat with unerring accuracy. She fell back and thumped on the wooden floor like a sack of grain.
The stranger sighed softly and looked at her whimsically. Such a fine figure, too.
Two of the miners, Bors and Danath, had started toward the stranger, daggers in hand, but as the knife flew by them and dropped poor Meg, they stopped, which turned out to be their undoing.
The Stranger smiled winningly. "Welcome, brothers!" he shouted as he raised his hands to the heavens, still dripping with Adin's blood. "Welcome to Doom!"
The two equestrians rode into Fairlake less than an hour after Adin had disturbed the stranger's nap. They did not veer from their course nor slow their pace until they reached the Blue Rose. That is where the crowd was, and where there was a crowd, there was a tale of the man in black. An ashen faced man with two days worth of stubble on his cheeks, soiled pants and wide darting eyes was telling the tale. The two horsemen sat their horses unnoticed and listened.
"And then this daemon from Hell grabbed the longest sword I ever seen right from out of thin air. He chopped Bors in half from head to foot where he stood, then laid into the rest of us and . . . and . . ."
He trailed off reliving the moment in his own tortured mind; the blood bath of severed limbs, crushed skulls, and disemboweled corpses.
"And how is it that you were spared, Danath?" a voice asked from the crowd. Danath just stared, his mouth opening and shutting very slowly, his eyes distant and empty.
"He was spared because a forgotten knight wanted him to be."
The crowd turned as one toward the voice. The two horsemen sat their horses calmly returning their gaze. Then Danath cried out in pain and doubled over.
"DOOM!" he screamed maniacally.
His hands slapped to the sides of his head and he shot to his feet, raving like a man possessed, spittle flying from his mouth, crazed eyes bulging and darting everywhere, seeing all yet seeing nothing. The crowd instinctively moved away, as if Danath had some horribly contagious disease. As suddenly as it started, the convulsions and screaming stopped. He let out a final wail and then collapsed, dead before he hit the ground. The crowd looked in horror upon his features as blood began to hemorrhage from his eyes, nose, and ears.
The crowd scattered even more.
A man with a thick beard and even thicker accent spoke first. It was the blacksmith, Jakob. "What happened to Dana'?" Everyone looked to the two horsemen.
"Doom," one of the ghosts said. "Danath spoke truly of a daemon but the evil has passed. The man you saw here today, the man in black, is a prisoner in his own body. He spared your friends life but the power of Doom is greater. And now your friend is dead."
The crowd remained silent, absorbing the words of this strange horseman. Then Jakob broke the silence and asked the question on the lips of everyone in the crowd.
"Who are you, sir?"
"We are those that follow the daemon" the ghost answered simply.
One of the riders stepped down. The crowd parted for the white ghost as he stepped toward the dead man. A woman made the sign warding against evil and cowered back as he walked passed. She saw what the others did not, that the mud of the wet road did not touch the ghost's clothes.
The elf knelt beside Danath's body and placed a hand upon his head. He spoke softly but with purpose. Some would later say that the man spoke gibberish, some would say it was witchcraft, or the language of black magic. Others would say it was the language of the Gods. No matter; they would all agree that after he had said those few words in that strange tongue, Danath' s body began to tremble, then to shake, and then it was as still as the ground beneath them.
When the ghost arose Danath's eyes were closed and a look of peace was upon his face. There was not a drop of blood on his body.
The ghost mounted his horse, turned to the crowd and said, "He is with Odin now. His soul is at rest."
The brothers looked at each of them in turn then rode off as silently as they had come leaving the crowd of people even more bewildered and confused.
Callandor Branagh grappled with his foe. Blood matted his hair and smeared his face and hands. His hands, those strong valiant hands that had slain so many of the evil Barbarian Horde during the Wars of Streth, were wrapped around the daemon's neck, desperately squeezing with every last ounce of strength left to him.
The daemon, it's hideous face glaring, it's own claws digging into the knight's throat, stood against him again, as he always did when the blackness overcame the knight. Again, the knight was trying to kill it while it continued to control.
They were locked in their own world somewhere between the living and the dead.
The Demon spoke in the knight's mind, telling him that he would not win, could not win. He belonged to Galth'Amon, Master of the Pit, now. His soul was lost forever.
Callandor stepped back and raged.
He awoke in his bedroll screaming at the trees and the night sky. Night creatures scurried from the sound and the leaves shook with the force. The rage turned to pain as he rolled onto his back, hands clutching the blade of the claymore that had pierced his side. His own sword, yet no longer his. He wrenched it free, spittle flying from his lips as he cried out, and threw it to the ground. Instantly the wound began to heal itself. The ruby glowed brightly then winked out.
"Odin . . . please, release me!" he cried in pain and anguish, his voice cracking with weakness and despair. "Odin, my Lord, my God . . . please take my life and release me from this evil."
He collapsed back into unconsciousness and dreamed no more.
The two horsemen abruptly drew rein. The cry still echoed among the trees of the forest, as if the forest itself had cried out. They heard the pain and suffering in that cry and they steeled themselves against their emotions. They sat motionless for another moment, looking, then they both rode forward silently.
They rode into the thicket, found the clearing and looked down upon the man in black, the man they called friend. Their long journey was at an end. They dismounted and removed their cloaks, revealing gleaming swords in platinum scabbards. Swords given to them by their father once upon a time, swords that were now blessed with the power of the Gods of Asgard. Suddenly, the man in black was awake and staring. He looked at the two elves standing above him and his mouth fell open.
"Arden? Serge?" The knight looked bewildered. "What are you—." Abruptly his eyes clouded and changed as the daemon awakened.
Galth'Amon was filling with the power of darkness. He leaped to his feet to face the two elves, eyes smiling, mouth open wide in a maniacal grimace, and tongue flicking slowly from side to side, laughing at them.
"We see you Galth'Amon," Serge Uhridis said. "We have come to return you to the Pit from whence you have come."
"You dare to be so bold, young Serge?" the demon spat. "Or you Arden? You who once desired to rape the innocent and slake your thirst for blood upon the weak. You are not worthy to invoke the name of Odin, but you are worthy to serve me. Long have I waited for this day when you would join your once knightly companion and ride together again. But this time you ride to serve me."
The demon spat into the fire and flames shot forward at the two sentinels, but they had moved as swiftly as light and were now flanking the daemon on each side, swords raised.
"You cannot defeat me," the daemon hissed. "I am Galth'Amon, Master of the Pit. You will only succeed in killing the man you once called friend. I will live on, to kill and torture as I have always done." In a flash, the claymore was in the hands of the daemon and swinging. "And I might even choose one of you to serve me!"
Serge parried the blow and raised a kick to the chest of Galth'Amon, sending him flailing into the fire. The daemon rolled and a dagger flew at Arden who caught it in a gloved fist. He dropped it to the ground.
"Trickery will not serve you now, daemon," Arden said calmly, "Nor will your lies. Leave the body of Lord Callandor Branagh, Knight of the Order of the Unicorn, or you shall die with him, Galth'Amon."
"You cannot kill me!" Galth'Amon shouted. "No mortal can defeat me!"
Serge stepped forward and dropped the tip of his sword to the ground, resting it there. "But we are no longer mortal, daemon," he said softly, almost gently as if he were speaking to a wayward child. "We are Seth'Ini, Sentinels of Odin. And we have come to take you home."
Doubt clouded the daemon's face for a moment.
"No mortal has ever been given the power of Seth'Ini," he said, trying to sound stern though his confidence in his own beliefs on the matter were apparent in his tone. "The power is too great."
"We are Seth'Ini, daemon. Behold the power of Odin."
The clearing around the three of them began to glow. A faint grayness at first that steadily increased into a brilliant blinding white light that emerged from the swords that the brothers held. Galth'Amon cried out and cringed at the heat tearing into his mind from the white-hot power of Odin.
"No! This is not possible!"
The light swirled in a brilliant array of color, red, yellow, blue, indigo; and then the light went out as fast as it had come and they were standing in a void of opaque grayness. A void surrounded by mist with nothing but darkness beyond.
Galth'Amon felt something else had changed as well, something that did not feel quite right. The daemon looked at the brothers and looked upon the truth of Arden Uhridis' words.
Lying behind them was the body of his former host, Lord Callandor Branagh, Knight of the Unicorn.
Galth'Amon screamed. All of his power was summoned in that cry of rage and he directed that power at the Seth'Ini standing before him. A fiery bolt of energy exploded from his outstretched hands and blasted the brothers where they stood.
He stomped forward, firing bolts of energy with each hand and watched as they burst in a blinding brilliance upon each of the Seth'Ini, draining their power with each blow.
Arden fell to one knee, holding his sword before him, deflecting the brunt of the bolts of energy but he could feel his power draining under the onslaught, his brother, Serge, being equally punished. They did not have much time.
Mustering all of his strength, Arden regained his footing and charged at the daemon, sword leveled. Galth'Amon easily dodged the deadly steel and side stepped, slapping the elf on the back as he passed. Arden was hurtled, reeling into the darkness and disappeared. Serge, seizing the moment, dodged one of the daemon's energy bolts and spun a circle to his right, slicing with his sword as he came back around to face the daemon. Galth'Amon screamed as the power contained in the steel cut across his chest as he tried to deflect the blow. He immediately countered with a crushing fist that caught Serge on the side of the head despite the elf's efforts to get out of harms way.
Serge crashed to the floor, dazed, his sword slipping from his grasp.
"Now you shall witness the power of the Master of the Pit! A power unequaled even by the Gods of Asgard!" Galth'Amon raised his hands above his head and the darkness around them began to coalesce between his clawed hands. A ball of darkness began to form with little sparks of fire flashing within it. "Behold the Power of Darkness."
Serge regained a knee and struggled to gain some strength, just a little was all he needed. He raised one gloved hand, a hand that glowed in the darkness, and pointed to the wall of mist. It parted to reveal a fiery maw in the blackness, a pit that descended to the depths of the netherworld.
"That will do you no good, Seth'Ini," the daemon spat. "You only aid me by opening the door to the Pit." The ball of darkness had grown to twice its size. "Now you shall die!"
However, Serge saw what Galth'Amon could not, as distracted as he was by Serge's action. Galth'Amon grabbed the ball of darkness and glared at Serge Uhridis, looking into the eyes of the dead.
Then Galth'amon let out a blood curdling scream that echoed in the darkness and his claws seized the tip of the blade protruding from his chest. The ball of darkness hurtled into the air and exploded harmlessly above them. Callandor Branagh collapsed to his knees, releasing the claymore that he had thrust through the back of the daemon. Galth'Amon reached behind him, grabbed the sword and painfully wrenched it from his body as Serge looked on, drained of his strength. The daemon whirled upon the mortal knight and raised the sword.
Callandor watched, helpless, as his own sword rose and started falling toward his head. He fell to the side in a final effort to avoid death, heard the clang of metal on metal, and looked up to see an angel from heaven.
Arden Uhridis, blood from his wounds staining his white tunic and breeches, held the blade of the claymore, hovering inches from the head of his former companion, with the blade of his own sword. He looked into the eyes of Galth'Amon and fear stabbed through the daemon. Fear of the power of the Gods.
The two stood that way for several moments and in that time even Callandor could see the distress in the daemon's eyes. He looked scared. Callandor watched as the daemon's hands began to shake as he held the claymore. The intensity on Arden's face was brilliant.
Callandor's eyes fell to the ruby in the pommel of his sword, the daemon's ruby, and he realized what his friend was doing. He was draining the power from the gem somehow, for the glow of the orb was slowly fading. Then Arden surprised the daemon with an attack that was completely unexpected. He stepped forward and simply slapped the claymore from out of the daemon's hands. Both of their swords went skidding across the floor. Arden followed this tactic with a powerful kick to the daemon's middle with such force that he sent the massive daemon sprawling backward. Galth'Amon fell to the floor, stunned.
Arden helped his brother to his feet and they both turned to the daemon as he was getting back to his feet, faces glowing with the power of Seth'Ini. "Begone, Demon of the Pit!" Arden shouted. "Never to return! I command thee by name, Galth'Amon, return from whence you have come and disturb the mortal world no longer. Your power is no more."
The demon cried in rage as the whiteness of the Seth'Ini surrounded him. "No! This cannot be!" In a final effort to save himself, he raised his massive hands trying to summon the power of the pit.
The fiery glow of the chasm strengthened and the light of darkness began to pour forth into the ruby on the claymore. However, Arden, who had regained his own sword, stepped to his brother's side and raised his sword. Serge stood and crossed his blade with his brother's. White light instantly bathed the void, a light that blinded the daemon and warmed the knight's body.
"Ah'Ned, Seth'Ini. Ma'Ahntu Tai, Bhenai!" they shouted together. Galth'Amon screamed in agony as the light of his talisman dimmed again, then disappeared completely.
From out of the darkness walked a man that was not a man. He was everything and nothing. He placed an ethereal hand upon the demon's shoulder and the demon stiffened as if electrified.
He tried to break free from that cold grip but could not. He struggled and there came another hand from yet another Bhenai Seth'Ini, the Guardians of the Pit. This hand held his arm. Another appeared and held his other shoulder, and then another, and another until Galth'Amon was carried to the pit and cast down. His screams faded as he fell.
Arden and Serge Uhridis, former Knights of the Order of Sin'Chan, walked over to their friend still on his knees. The knight looked up into the green familiar eyes of the friends he lost so long ago.
"I am dying," he said. "I can feel it."
"You are in the land of the Gods, Cal, where no mortal can remain a mortal." They helped him to his feet.
"I do not understand what has happened."
"You were not abandoned by Odin, my friend," Serge said softly. "He heard your prayers. He sent us to save you. We are Knight's of Odin now."
"What happened that you have become thus?"
"We met our destiny after we parted ways those many years ago, but that is a long story, old friend. A story that we hope to be able to tell you one day."
"What will happen to me now?" The knight's breathing grew labored and he began to feel dizzy.
"You have a choice to make," Serge said frankly. "Odin asks that you join us. Be one with Seth'Ini. We could travel together in the land of the Gods as we did in the land of the mortals, Callandor. That is the choice you have to make."
"You speak of a choice, my friend, but you do not speak of an alternative to the proposition you make. Is my choice to live in your world, or to live in mine?"
The brothers look at him with sadness in their green eyes.
"No," Arden answers. "Behold."
He sweeps his arm at the mist and it parts to reveal the clearing in the woods. Callandor looks at his bedroll, his horse, worried and frantic, and the fire still blazing. In addition, there, lying beside the fire, he looks upon his own body.
"I am not sleeping, am I," he says, quietly, already knowing what the answer will be.
"No." Arden answers. "You did not survive your battle with Galth'Amon- no mortal could." The vision disappeared as the mist coalesced. "You died the day his curse fell upon you from the sky."
"Then what is this choice you speak of?" Callandor grated. "Do not speak to me in riddles now."
"Your choice is this, Callandor Branagh," Serge said softly. "Join us and walk among the living again as Seth'Ini, helping those mortals who need our aid, or step into the Kingdom of Asgard and join the others who have journeyed to the great Hall of Valhalla."
"What will happen to me if I choose the latter?"
"You will live with the Gods, of course," Arden answered simply.
The knight straightened himself; oddly, he was beginning to feel stronger. He looked into the eyes of his comrades, men with whom he had shared the field of battle, men with whom he had shared dreams, men with whom he had shared his soul.
His mind drifted back to the glorious days before his accursed downfall, to a time when the three of them were known far and wide as the Champions of Asgard. When evil cowered at the mention of their names.
And evil could cower again, he realized.
Callandor Branagh, former Knight of the Order of the Unicorn, picked up his claymore and turned to his brothers in arms. His gray eyes mirrored feelings that he had not been able to feel for years.
He held the hilt up before his eyes and stared blankly at the ruby that he had created. A mailed fist reached up and closed around the gem and the iron that held it.
The talisman came away easily in his hand and he crushed the lifeless rock in his fist.
"Take me to your master, my friends," he said. "Take me to Lord Odin. We shall ride together once again!"
They smiled and embraced as warriors as the mist parted to reveal the entrance to a gleaming city of Silver and Alabaster.
The Knight of Odin gazed upon Asgard and walked to his redemption.
George Tackett can be e-mailed at: email@example.com
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