Science Fiction & Fantasy by Dan Frederick
Science Fiction & Fantasy by Dan Frederick
All Rights Reserved.
All characters and other entities appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, dead or alive, or other real-life entities, past, present or other-dimensional, is purely coincidental. This is fiction!
Content Warning, graphic darkness, death and language.
Note: The Blade of Orn (c) 2021 by Dan Frederick is written in the same 'verse as my Broken Blade series of Dark Sword and Sorcery books. Welcome to the world of Riah.
End of the Magic
Orn pushed himself up from the blood splattered ground and stepped over the fallen. Dragging the heavy axe behind him he advanced on the last of the sorcerers. The axe cut a swathe through the blood, bone and burnt debris littered across the snowy ground.
Hefting the axe onto his shoulder he locked his eyes with the vile summoner of the arcane. Steel grey bloodshot eyes of the barbarian bored into soft green eyes of the mage. The lingering effects of the hell-spawned rolling blasts of fire unleashed from sorcerers’ fingertips at the men who came to end the magic left charred burnt bodies all across the stone and silver great hall.
Orn didn’t stop to wonder why he was still alive. Likely the horde of warriors had taken enough of the hellish blast that he still lived. All the tall, broad shouldered, heavily muscled young man cared about was the last standing sorcerer. If it was down to just Orn and this one last demon possessed caster of dark arts, he was determined to cut the evil down swiftly. Four hundred men assaulted the stone castle of Saug the Sorcerer and Orn would be damned if he would let their deaths be in vain.
One axe. One dark caster. Two opposing men hell bent on destroying the other. The green eyed, dark black and crimson robed man stood up shakily after the last spell. His sinister grin widened as he saw the burning remains before him. He had called upon the elemental forces and obliterated the last forty something warriors bounding up the stone steps through the snow-covered dais. The open roof of this portion of the chamber still let flakes of snow flutter downward from the cold heavens above. Glittering red and grey in the light of the fire.
Though his voice was hoarse the dark caster called out: “All for nothing young peasant! All your friends and best fighters, dead, destroyed by our magic's!”
His chortling laughter was short as his throat ached and he prepared to summon the darkness once more to lay waste to this last warrior advancing on him.
Several snide comments came to Orn’s mind, but he left them behind as he silently picked up speed, his walk turning into long strides, running towards the summoner, with his axe raised high over his head. Orn bounded up the last of the stone steps avoiding bodies when he could and leapt at the caster.
The blast of invisible force hurtled the barbarian backwards. Spinning through the air like a child's doll Orn flipped head over heels landing ten plus feet away from the sorcerer and his defensive spell. Blurry eyed and stunned the axe was still held tight in his right hand and he sprawled on his back and side amid a dozen dead. It was the heat radiating from the dead that cleared his mind and eyes, bringing him back to his situation.
The robed dark caster laughed heavily striding confidently down the stone stairs, kicking limbs and torsos out of his path with his black leather boots.
"You fail! Our order will regrow. I will seek an apprentice and build our foundation to even greater heights! All under my command. I will be the head Red Mage and reclaim all the people, peasants and kings will serve me!"
Orn's bloodshot eyes looked at the advancing dark caster, seeing his hands move in that particular way a mage does when summoning strength from the unholy. Ever muscle in his body ached, every bone felt bruised. Using the axe for support he hefted himself up once more to his feet. Groaning and turning to face the robed evil, the last of the casters, Orn grit his teeth together then bellowed a loud piercing scream.
The roar acted like a barrier, stopping the walking caster in his steps. A fear crept into the dark summoners mind. The primal yell would cast fear into any heart that heard it.
Orn bolted up the three stone steps between himself and the mage. The caster twisted his fingers, a spark igniting across his hands. The heavy metal blade of the axe cleaved into the robed man, sinking four inches deep into his chest, severing his heart. Even in death the dark mage blasted a wall of flames outward at Orn.
Dead, the caster fell. Axe still lodged in his chest, the last of the sorcerers, the last of those who knew the dark arts, dead.
A smoldering grin spread across the barbarian’s face as he was flung backwards, down the cold stone stairs of the chamber and falling to lay amid the heat of his dead comrades.
Village of Aremoor
Twenty-five years later...
"Seriously old man, you expect us to believe that?"
Laughter rang out in the tavern. Dozens of young mercenaries slapped each other on backs, raised mugs high and laughed at the old warrior.
The same young man, dressed in crisp clean black warrior leathers chortled, "You're crazy Red Eyes, you? You saw the magic? Are you sure you didn't just drunkenly trip and fall into a cook fire?"
More roaring laughter rippled out.
"Look old man, I ain't say'n I don't respect that worn leather vest your wear'n with the eagle burnt into it. I heard of the Black Eagles. Legendary mercenaries y'all were, like a decade ago. But come on man. You expect us to believe there was true magic and no less than a hundred powerful sorcerers once. I for one ain't never seen no magic."
Orn frowned and reached for his own mug, throat dusty from telling the tale. These men and woman were a tan lot and he presumed they were mostly Southlanders, mercenaries come north in a dry time. Wars and battles had been sparce the last five or six years with the king of the south uniting all of the south under his banner.
"I don't care if you believe me. I was there. I was fifteen summers and proud to fight with the Mighty. We ended magic that day. I don't reckon you, in your crisp clean never seen combat fancy leather armor would have lived through it, you're welcome pup."
Downing his drink Orn could feel the change in the tavern and knew he'd pushed too much. Insulting the young mercenary would not end well. He was just tired, damned tired of those who didn't know how free they were from fear and the darkness of the Red Order. The north had mostly been obliterated in the fight against the Red Order and had no king, just a few dozen towns and villages, only Evertrade usually saw any foreigners with in its walls. The fact that these mercenaries were in Aremoor meant they had crossed the barrier mountains to come north instead of coming across the Faresea. Either they were a hardcore lot or hadn’t enough coin to pay passage over the sea.
Sighing, Orn lowered his head as the younger man slammed his own mug down.
"What did you say?”
Orn kept his flint and steel eyes on his empty mug and inwardly grumbled. His shoulders reflexively shifted, his body involuntary preparing for a fight. He instinctively felt the feel of his axe on his back. He wanted another drink, not to fight this lad who hadn’t really done or said anything wrong. Most people nowadays didn’t put much stock in the stories involving dark arts and the evil Red Order, especially if not from the north. Only the old had vague memories of that time.
Orn’s long hair, more grey than black, was pulled back and tied behind his head, his aged sun beaten bronzed face had both age lines and burns long ago scared over. At forty years of age, he was still powerfully built and had seen decades of battles. These younger men and women, like the big mouthed Haden Carver who Orn had just pissed off, just sought out glory and gold and couldn’t be faulted for their disbelief. He understood all too well having spent his own life as a wandering blade for hire. Orn was glad they would never see the evil he witnessed.
Turning his eyes up to look at Carver, Orn opened his mouth to respond when the cracked and split wood door of the old tavern slammed open. More than a few young men and women of steel and bow jumped and partially pulled weapons. Seeing the miller stumble in shaking and with blood on his clothes had everyone, including Orn, standing and moving to assist the injured man.
“What happened to you man?”
Carver was of course the first to speak. Orn reflected that he might be a tad green but he was definitely the leader of those assembled in the tavern.
While Carver and a few other mercenaries assisted the miller in standing, Orn stepped outside to survey the edge of town.
The old warrior didn’t see any danger and kept an ear towards listening to those inside.
“Please.” The man coughed. “I was walking at the outskirts of town with my daughter Lilly. A beast attacked us. It knocked me down hard, hit me in the chest with those claws! It took her, it ran off with my girl. Please! You have to help her. The beast ran towards the old road towards the lake.”
Several of the young mercenaries eyed the man with disbelief. None believed a beast could exist and they wondered what could have really happened. These hardened men and women had fought a few battles against other humans. No one had ever fought a beast. Only the rag tag injured state of the miller and the deep cuts across his chest led any credence to his story. Several noted that claw marks on this chest suggested the possibility of a bear. A damn big bear.
Haden was yelling at the others to shut up so he could ask the man more questions when Orn stepped back into the tavern.
It was the tavern owner. His calm voice called to the young fighter. Carver and the others looked at the keeper who nodded at the older barbarian standing in the doorway.
All eyes turned to look at Orn.
“Miller. Describe the beast.”
Faint and worn out the man proceeded to talk as two warriors held him upright, moving him to a chair to sit. All ears strained to hear the wounded man’s words.
“It was a nightmare. Exactly how my mother described them. Impossible demons, wrong, blurred somehow, massive upright walking man beasts with wolf heads. Red eyes. As a child my mother told me of days when scores ravaged the county side. There was only one... it came out of nowhere and back handed me. Gods, my chest hurts."
The millers breathing was ragged and Orn crossed the tavern as he spoke. Kneeling before the miller Orn listened.
Looking at the old warrior the miller ignored Carvers questions and asked Orn:
"Is it true?"
Frowning Orn looked the miller in his eyes and took the man’s forearm in a warrior’s grip nodding.
"Is what true?" asked the archer standing next to Carver. She looked befuddled as many in the room did.
The old barbarian just gripped the dying man’s arm, and leaned closer to him whispering, "I will find Lilly."
Again, the tavern keep spoke, softly, "My parents also spoke of these beasts. Their claws secrete a poison. Fatal." He trailed off quietly.
As the miller's eyes fluttered closed Orn released the dead man’s arm. Without looking at the men holding the now dead man upright in the chair, Orn flatly stated: "Take him to his home."
With that Orn strode out of the tavern. The others looked at Carver.
"Deacon, Jasper, do it. Carry this man to his home. Then catch up with us. The rest of you lot, hurry up, I'm not being left behind by Red Eyes! Let’s go!"
The majority of the young mercenaries moved with speed, when Carver glanced back at the group as he moved out of the tavern door, he noted a few were looking skeptical.
"Let’s go! Are you scared of a big bear or something?"
With that the entire group proceeded to rush out of the tavern and after Orn.
The Carthian Hills
Outside the village of Aremoor
Haden Carver quickened his pace and moved to walk adjacent to Orn as the mercenaries and old barbarian followed the dirt path at the base of the Carthian Hills towards the lake east of Aremoor.
“Old man. Where are you headed? East towards the lake is pretty vague.”
Without looking at the younger man Orn grunted and shook his head. Abruptly stopping the old warrior pulled his water skin out and drank.
“Carver. What do you see?”
“See? Other than two dozen Cutters following an old man? Trees, hills and a dirt path. What do you mean?”
Pointing at a nearby tree Orn waved his hand. “Look.”
It was Elize, the archer, who saw it first.
“Look up. Claw marks on the tree. Up there. Look Haden.”
The mercenaries gathered around the broad oak tree and looked up at the cuts in the tree. Roughly a dozen feet up the bark was marred. “The beast is this way. It will as often move through the trees as it will across the ground.”
Looking at Carver the older warrior returned his water skin to his small pack.
“Look. I don’t expect you to believe me. You will after we catch up to it. But. Not yet. For now. Just go with, we are hunting a being that has abducted a child. Trust me. I can track it. I’ve tracked them before.”
Looking back at the markings in the tree the mercenary leader nodded.
“Alright Red Eyes. The Cutters are with you for now. Be it a beast or ... a damn big bear, we will follow your lead for now. We will see what we see.”
Orn looked at the band of fighters. They were around twenty-eight in all. Axe, sword, shield and bow. They were all in for quite a surprise. Orn tried not to think about the ramifications of what it meant if this creature was here. Grunting he nodded at Haden.
“Right. Stay alert. They are very stealthy. Come on.”
Spreading out and carefully making their way through the sparse trees and over hills covered with rock and grass the band followed the old warriors lead east towards a lake.
It was Carver who spoke first after a long silence.
“Wait. What in the hell?”
Looking around at the men and women of the Cutters, Haden noted several had disappeared. At first, he was angry, then he saw it. Just at the corner of his eye he saw Finnic violently disappear. Pulled back from the group and pulled from sight, up into the shadow of a tree.
“Circle up! Outward formation! On me!”
The remaining mercenaries moved with practiced efficiency, forming an outward facing protective circle. Orn had never worked with the Cutters but understood the order. On his right was Carver, short sword and shield at the ready. On his left the archer Elize bow ready.
“Their claws are poisonous and they will trick your senses. Don’t trust your eyes. Look with your gut. Aim for moving darkness and strike head or heart.”
Many of the mercenaries felt the unfamiliar sting of fear at the words uttered by the old man.
A silence settled over the scene as men and women readied for a fight.
When it came, it came with a stirring of hot wind as the area darkened, sun disappearing behind clouds. As if nature was succumbing to the will of the beasts.
Unnatural screams pierced the silence as half a dozen black shapes raced across stone and grass, through trees, as if coming out of nowhere, howling guttural cries, manlike beasts with heads of wolves, red or orange eyes, long blackened claws reaching outward. Unnatural bodies, rippling and blurred, casting strange shadows in all directions as they bolted in amongst the mercenaries.
An odd, unfamiliar tingling sensation fluttered through Orn’s body as the creatures attached. It started in his hands, rippling down his arms and into his shoulders outward across his chest and body. The haft of the axe felt hot in his hands.
As a beast separated from nowhere and clawed out at the old warrior the blade of his axe radiated with a red heat. Swinging the long-handled axe down and up flames swirling in its wake the blade cut across the creature’s arm. Its arm fell to the ground, its blood sizzling in the grass, and it howled in pain. Keeping his momentum up, Orn swung the flaming axe around and cleaved it into the skull of the wolf demon, killing the damned beast and tearing half its head away.
As it fell in death, its body shifted unnaturally and turned from bone and muscle to a listing dust.
More beasts crashed into the circle of warriors. Men screamed. Beasts roared. Blades clashed. Claw’s tore.
Carver, seeing Orn’s axe burst into flames and the demon killed, turned his attention to the flickering beast rushing towards him. Pushing outward with his heavy metal shield the fighter expertly thrust his sword outward and under the shield. The massive beast crashed into the shield knocking Carver back. His blade pierced into the beast belly as he was rocked back. Howling in pain the wolf demon backed away from Haden as the leader of the mercenaries stumbled and fell. Landing on his ass he shuffled his feet under himself to stand up. His eyes never left the blurred demon. As it doubled over and racked out with its claws the fighter swung his legs around and ended up face down and pushed himself upwards. Striking out with his sword the blade cut into the demon’s neck. Dark blood erupted from the wolf demon and it rolled away onto its backside sputtering more blood from its fanged mouth. Careful to not get hit by the searing blood Carver tried not to think about how this was impossible.
Carver stood quickly and swung the blade down, cutting head from shoulders, the wolf head twisted and rolled, bouncing across rock and grass, now separated from the beast’s body. A burnt trail of blackened grass from burning blood and then head and body turned to dust and disappeared into the grass.
Another beast twisted out from between trees and soared towards Elize. She had an arrow notched and pulled back, ready to lose, and let fly when the wolf demon bit out at her face. Flinching back from the deadly white teeth of the beast she let the arrow fly. The tip struck the creatures right eye snapping its head back. As it tilted forward again, she saw the arrow was deeply embedded in its head.
It howled and swung its left claws out at her. Noa, the tall muscled blade master, pushed Elize aside and blocked the claws with her wide, broadsword. Metal rang across claw and the beast tore back in agony. Noa spun in a circle and pulled the great blade around in a powerful strike across the creature’s midsection cutting it in half at the waist.
The rest of the Cutters punched, cut, tore and shot at the other demons as they crashed into the defensive circle. Within a minute the chaos was over. Six beasts burst into flaking ash and were destroyed. Only two of the Cutters had been cut down by poisonous claw and powerful bites.
Carver yelled to the men and women of the Cutters to stay alert and keep the defensive circle. Wide eyed and stunned the group was glad to have a commanding voice tell them what to do. Only Orn had anticipated what was coming. When several minutes passed and no further threats were apparent it was Orn who dropped his stance and sighed. Carver spoke: “There has to be at least one more. One more that has the girl.”
Orn nodded, “Yes, and there will be one more, someone controlling the demons. So at least two and the girl.”
Looking at the old warrior Carver growled, “What now?” He instantly regretted asking, he was the leader not this old man.
The Cutters all looked at Orn.
“Someone had to summon these beasts. Someone has learned to cast. We follow them to the lake.”
Looking unsettled himself, the barbarian shook from a chill. “There cannot be beasts without magic. Someone has brought the magic back.”
The Carthian Hills
East of Aremoor, Lake Baden
The Cutters made good time. A few hours out of Aremoor they arrived at a hill overlooking the large lake. A path formed as they neared. A rough, rocky passage led down to the water below. Man, and animal had worn the path over time. As the mercenaries made a careful approach towards the bottom Carver stated, “Something ahead.”
A looming shape was cast in the shadow of two large trees.
Orn nodded. “Baden Lake. Named after the great fighter Jarls Baden. Before he died with the Mighty, he was a ruler of the lands around here. He was cut in half, neck to groin by a fiery whip when we raided the castle of Saug.”
Carver grunted. As the Cutters got closer, they could see the large stone statue of a grizzly warrior standing adjacent the path, easily twice as tall as a living person. As the old barbarian passed the statue, he pounded his fist on his chest and muttered a quiet greeting.
Arriving at the bottom and making his way to the water’s edge the old barbarian studied the wet dirt at the edge of the lake.
When Jasper set his crossbow down and knelt by the water Orn cautioned the tall man back.
“If the Abyss Wolf, the wolf headed demon creature, is in the water you won’t see it coming. It does not need air to breath. I caution you from getting too close.”
Several of the others chuckled at Jasper's face and his quick retreat from the water’s edge. Returning an empty water skin to his belt he looked angrily at those around him.
“Go on ya nasty lot. Go fill your skins.”
More laughter pealed out but none of the Cutters moved closer to the water’s edge.
Elize covered Orn with an arrow notched and stood near him as he edged closer to the water. He had his axe out and blade aimed at the water as he crouched closer.
Carver yelled, then laughed. Orn jumped backwards and Elize fired an arrow into the water. The rest either took shocked gasps in, or laughed lightly out at their captain’s jest.
Carver’s face changed from smug to surprise as he stepped back and pointed his sword at the water’s edge, “Damn! No seriously! Shit.”
Raising out of the water, shimmering and rippling, the tall wolf demon sprinted towards them, an arrow jutting out of its right shoulder. Dripping wet and howling the beast advanced on Orn. Another bolt struck it as Jasper fired his crossbow.
Orn rolled away from the advancing beast as Carver bolted forward slamming his shield into the face of the wolf beast. Sound of crunching bone could be heard and the demon raked claws across the thick leather vest Haden wore. Cursing the Captain of the Cutters rapidly backed up and looked down at the acid like fluid sizzling on his vest. Dropping sword and shield he quickly unbuttoned the leather armor and dropped it on the ground.
Orn muttered, “Well your fancy armor is finally christened.”
Deacon, dark skinned and powerfully built, fought with paired short swords. He was now the closest to the wolf creature. He yelled a battle cry and struck out at the beast. The man had powerful arms and the blade hit the creature hard across its chest. The blade was thrust away so violently by the beasts clawed hand Deacon lost his hold on the grip of the sword. As the blade spun away the man grit his teeth and struck out with his left-hand sword. The blade cut across the creature’s midsection unleashing dark black blood. Kicking out, the beast sent Deacon spinning away from the impact.
Half a dozen bolts struck the wolf demon. Keeping careful distance from the beast, Elize, Jasper and several others unleashed arrows into its horrible form.
After the rain of arrows, the beast growled angrily and charged forward. Orn hefted his axe high and took a wide stance prepared to meet the demon head on. The axe head burst into flames.
Noa had other thoughts though. The younger female barbarian charged the beast from its right. Crashing into its side, water blasted outward from its wet fur, and the beast was knocked to its knees. Howling the Abyss Wolf flung wildly at Noa who danced out of the way then arced her massive blade down onto the shoulder of the wolf creature. The thick blade didn’t cut the beast but crushed bone and slammed it down into the dirt face first. Lifting the heavy blade up she crashed it down again onto the beast’s head and it shuttered and burst into dust.
“Damn Noa. Nice. Circle up you lot. Orn. Do you think that was the last one?”
Orn looked at Carver as he quickly moved to follow the order with the others.
“I only saw sign of one coming down to the water. But like I said before. Someone had to summon the Abyss Wolf here. Someone still has the child Lilly too. Keep your eyes open. The summoner is likely nearby.”
Noa stood next to Orn in the defensive circle and grunted, “Don’t worry old man. I’ll protect you.”
Inwardly Orn was impressed by her strength. Outwardly he just grunted at her dismissively. Unlike the rest of her group, she appeared to have originated from somewhere here in the northlands before joining the southlander mercenaries.
Minutes turned into many minutes as the mercenaries waited for what would come next. Finally, they heard a scream of pain and terror from their left, coming from a thick group of trees several hundred feet away. All heads looked that direction. A faint blue white explosion of light could momentarily be seen between thick branches of the trees.
Cursing Orn broke ranks and ran towards the trees.
It took a moment for the other warriors to decide what to do. They were used to waiting on Carvers orders and everything that had happened today was surreal. They broke nearly as one mass. The Cutters ran after Orn. The moment wasn’t lost on Haden who hadn’t ordered the group to break, but he ran too.
Gathering apprehensively around the old barbarian the mercenaries looked down at burnt sand formed in a circle and they could smell an odor of sulfur and ash. Laying in a pool of blood was a young girl. She was dead. Cut down by a blade presumably.
Orn stood up looming over the dead girl and growled.
Carver moved to stand next to the old barbarian, “Explain what we are looking at old man. I see a dead girl and a circle of burned ground. Why? What’s going on here?”
Without looking at the Captain, Orn answered as his flint steel eyes looked north towards the Dead North. Memories flooded his mind’s eye as he spoke.
“I saw his back as he moved through the blood portal. He wore a red cloak. He sacrificed the girl to power the dark arts. He teleported across the distance. I saw the stone and snow. The Red Order is back in the castle of Saug. Whoever he is, he has command of the magic. He is in the high mountains of the Dead North. He has brought back the evil. The world is going to be cast into a dark shadow again and all will perish in agony or serve the death sorcerers.”
Trailing off Orn looked down at the dead child. “I’m sorry girl. I was too slow. You are lucky you will not see the death that is coming. I’ll bury you; may your soul find the heavens.”
Orn reached down to lift the girl but Deacon placed a hand on the old barbarian’s arm.
“A moment Orn. Let me say a prayer over her and then I can prepare her for burial.”
Nodding once Orn moved away from the grizzly scene and found a felled tree to sit heavily on. While Jasper moved to assist Deacon, the others set about preparing the evening meal and posting a watch.
Elize, Noa and Haden Carver gathered near Orn.
Grim, the old barbarian sat and drank some water. Once again wishing for that second drink at the tavern.
Carver asked, “What are you planning on doing Red Eyes?”
“Before today I was happy to sit around in the Summertime tavern or any other like it. I already helped stop the Order. If the magic has returned all lands are in trouble. My plan? I’m going north to kill the Red Order before they can grow too powerful to stop. They will start with one and multiply into a group of magic casting mad men. Unchecked they will destroy any who don’t bow before them.”
Elize and Noa exchanged glances but waited for their leader to speak. There was a short silence as Carver looked across at his warriors. Mercenaries. They fought for gold. Most of them no one would ever accuse of being heroes. Smirking at the notion Haden said, “I’m no hero. Gold is my god. When a warlord or nation pay’s I join their cause. Not because I give a damn about the politics. For the gold. You said earlier that you didn’t expect us to believe. Not until we caught up to the beasts. Well as much as I hate the truth I believe in the magic and the evil of it now Orn.”
He paused. Looking unsure of just what he wanted to say next.
Noa interrupted the silence. “I will go with Orn.”
Elize and Carver looked at the big barbarian women.
Carver stated, “Of course. I won’t stop you. We’re between contracts and there is no reason you can’t go.”
Elize said, “We could all go Haden.”
Breathing deeply the mercenary Captain looked up at the first of the stars, as the sky darkened above. Inwardly he thought about how his warriors had broken ranks as one to rush after Orn. They hadn’t been ordered to. They just had followed the old barbarian into the unknown.
“I don’t know.”
Elize said, “You’re still our leader Haden. Even in times of no contract. We follow you for a reason. Vote. When in times of no contact we vote. You get two votes the rest of us get one each, these are the rules as you explained them to us when we joined remember. Besides, if we are heading north, we might find a paying employer along the way when people realize the danger that is coming. Plus, spoils. I’m sure evil mages horde gold like dragons.”
“If dragons existed.” Noa chuckled.
“They did.” Stated Orn flatly.
The three starred at the old man in silence.
Shaking her head Elize turned her attention back to Haden. He held up a hand before she could go on.
“Let’s eat, set up camp and then you can organize a vote.”
Noa and Elize nodded at Haden.
The archer and Captain stood and set about tasks.
Noa moved closer to Orn.
“Tell me about dragon’s old man.”
Across the Carthian Hills, northward.
Jasper Ganndar moved through the thick woods soundlessly, scouting ahead of the Cutters. The tall thin man had a knack for disappearing into his surroundings. Trained from an early age as an assassin and woodsman the man had left the cities of the far south and joined the mercenaries of the Cutters right when Haden Carver was first putting the group together. Over the last year of working with the group he’d seen a fair bit of fighting and gold. Carver had a talent for finding jobs. What Jasper hadn’t seen until yesterday was any proof of demons and magic. Now. Things were suddenly different.
He wasn’t sure he liked these new rules where monsters existed, but he had been one of the mercenaries who voted they head north and look into this new danger. Crouching low he slid a dagger back into his arm sheath and pulled the medium crossbow from his back. Pulling an arrow from the quiver he laid it carefully down on the grass and pulled a glass bottle from his side pouch. Uncapping the dark brown glass, he dipped the tip of the arrow into the greenish yellow fluid inside then notched the poison tipped arrow onto the crossbow.
Returning his poison and gear to his pouch he closed his blue eyes and listened to the woods around him. Very faintly he heard the mercenary group behind him. Ahead and to his right, sounds of a deer. Stopped now. Silence reigning, only the intermittent rustling of leaves when the wind picked up. Unmoving, his heavy brown leather trench coat resting across his tall frame he was statue still. As the wind stirred it ruffled his short brown hair and cooled his face.
There it was. Another sound. Only when the wind blew. Heavy quick steps. Jasper felt as much as heard the deer bolt away. His attention momentarily pulled by the deer’s retreat it took a moment to realize the other steps had changed course. Straight towards him.
Both of his hands pointed the crossbow up and out in the direction of the advancing heavy, unnatural steps. Faster than humanly possible the advancing form broke between trees and pounced towards Jasper.
He unleashed the poison bolt, dropping the weapon and pulled two daggers out raising them up at the twisting shadowy beast racing at him. The bolt slammed home in the creature’s neck. He had but a split second to think how this black furred monster looked similar to the things Orn called Abyss Wolves. The charging black beast ran on all four powerful legs, not two like the demons they had fought yesterday. This thing seemed feral in comparison to the upright Abyss Wolves.
As Jasper and the beast collided, he noted that this thing was much larger and heavier than the beasts yesterday. The impact left two dagger holes stabbed into the beast’s chest and then the assassin was blasted backwards and the beast landed on top of him. It was all he could do to make sure his arms were out to his sides and not pinned to his chest under the beast when it landed in him.
The wind knocked out of him; the assassin struggled to breath. The hundreds and hundreds of pounds of muscle and teeth snarling on top of him left his vision hazy. Unthinking he repeatedly thrust both daggers into the things sides as his vision darkened. Faintly he saw it growling and shaking its head back and forth, jerking abruptly the monster howled. White frothy gore formed around its jaws then mixed with crimson blood. The poison was working.
Jasper stuck the daggers into the beast again and left them there. He reached painfully with both hands to the top of his own head. Scrambling he tilted his head forward as much as he could and frantically pulled his coats leather hood over his face desperate to not let any of the crimson froth drip onto his own face. Being killed by his own poison would be an insufferable way to go. Likely he’d just die from lack of oxygen.
His arms felt heavy as he proceeded to continue to black out. The assassin’s left arm dropped useless to the ground as he grabbed onto the blade stuck in the beast with his right hand. Loss of feeling saw him grabbing onto fur instead of the dagger.
Something heavy slammed into the beast and Jasper's left side. Unable to see due to the hood he had no idea what it was. It kept slamming into them though. With each impact he was able to breathe in just a little bit of oxygen and stay conscious.
Soaring south, hitching a ride in the eagle’s mind, Hazel grinned as she felt the wind sweeping across their face. The ten-year-old girl shared the body of the eagle as it swooped down, through the hills below, searching the woods for its dinner. She’d likely break the connection when it enviably dropped for a kill. As she had learned, experiencing eating as one with an animal was gross. Laughing inwardly, she enjoyed the freedom of flight.
They had soared from Eagles Drift, across the Forest of Archers, mostly staying in sight of the great trade road. Now over the Carthian Hills she was further than she had ever made it before. Staying in touch with an animal over distance was increasingly difficult for her the farther she was from her own body. Over the last year of exploring these new out of body experiences it had gotten easier, but distance was a factor always.
Sensing the eagle was preparing to seek dinner she focused and got ready to lash back into her own body when she saw something, she hadn’t seen but once before. An aura like burning light radiating from the ground below. Softly she probed the eagles mind, requesting it fly closer for a look.
As the majestic bird flew overhead the band of men and women making their way north, she focused on the older man with grey black long hair carrying an axe that nearly seared her eyes with brilliant light. In the last year of the coming of her abilities she had only seen one other light like this. It had been in the far north, thrice as blinding as this axe was. Some kind of staff. It burned her to look upon it. So much so that when she returned to her body, she had been blind for a day. She had not returned north after that. Whenever she explored outward from her town of Eagles Drift, she avoided the ice planes, and the northern mountains, mostly flying south-east to the massive trade center and town of Evertrade. There was so much there to see.
Swooping past those below Hazel watched as the eagle turned back north and away from the light below. About to leave the eagle, she saw a massive black wolf. Something about the beast drew her attention towards it. She then realized it was one of the creatures she had seen more often over the last few weeks. Creatures that didn’t belong. Beings that hunted to kill not feed. More and more of them had been coming down from the north, headed south over the last weeks. This one was rapidly advancing on a lone man. He struck her as a handsome man. Twice her age. He had short hair and looked clean. Not something you often found in the wilds south of Eagles Drift. With concern she and the eagle arced in a wide circle high above the man and beast as she watched him preparing an arrow by dipping it into a jar of something.
The battle between man and beast quickened her heart hundreds of miles away where it lay in her bedroom. When the beast collapsed on top of him, she knew he would suffocate under its weight. Somewhat in panic Hazel searched the woods in the area of the battle. Deer, squirrel, a badger, and there, a large bear making his way away from the fight. Hazel had only tried this once before, about a week ago, near the great nests over Eagles Drift. Jumping from one host to another had been exhilarating and worn her out to the very core. She had slept for 16 hours after the last jump; her mother had been beside herself at not being able to wake her. Hazel recalled the vile medicine the town doctor had made her take. Horrible stuff. She didn’t like the doctor.
Concentrating Hazel and the eagle swooped down towards the lumbering bear. Thirty feet from the bear Hazel thanked the eagle and pictured her mind in the bear’s head. She nearly slipped, her body tugged at her mind, demanding its return. The bear roared in defiance, a reaction to Hazel crying out and gripping the new host. Careful to sooth the bear she hurriedly ran her new shared form in the direction of the tall man.
Slamming into the side of the dying beast she and the bear reeled back from the impact. The beast still covered the laboring man. Hazel saw the foamy froth of the beast dripping from its mouth to drip across the leather hood. It took three more attempts for the large bear to knock the monster off of the man. She nearly giggled and wondered what that would sound like emitting from the bear when the man rolled onto his side then stomach, pushing himself up onto hands and knees, gasping in breaths of air. Then it was too much, the pull of her body dragged her mind back to her room where she dreamed of the handsome man.
Jasper’s lungs burned. Righting himself he gasped several times and carefully removed his hooded leather coat, tossing the whole thing to the side his vision slowly returned. Looking around he saw the dead beast, now laying on its back. Shakily standing the assassin pulled the one visible dagger from the beast and stood. Looking straight into the dark eyes of a large bear standing on the other side of the dead wolf beast Jasper’s mind reeled and screamed inwardly, run or fight man, however his exhausted body just stood there.
He was saved decision or excursion of moving. The bear made an odd guttural noise and then ran away from him.
Jasper Gunndar stood on weak legs and looked down at the wolf beast, mind lost in thought. What had just happened?
Several minutes later the rest of the Cutters moved into the small clearing where Jasper stood over the beast. Deacon placed his hand on the tall man’s shoulder, “Jasper, you okay? God’s man, you killed this thing? Its big.”
After a long moment Jasper responded: “Fine. I’m fine. I’ll scout ahead again.” As the tall man ran forward the rest of the Cutters inspected the dead beast. More than a few of them noting that Jasper had to be crazy and a damn fine fighter to single-handedly kill the big wolf thing.
“Does this mean a mage is around somewhere Orn?”
Answering Carver, the barbarian said, “No. This isn’t a demon. This is a beast and might have been summoned but isn’t capable of being commanded beyond a simple sense of purpose. The Abyss Wolves are intelligent and can be communicated with by the summoner. This creature can be directed to purpose but not easily manipulated.”
Carver looked up from the dead creature and motioned for his men to keep moving. They had a long way to go still.
As the mercenaries continued north Carver watched Orn and thought about the flaming axe the man carried. No one had mentioned it busting into flames as of yet, even though several stunned mercenaries had witnessed the flaming axe in action.
The march wasn’t particularly difficult and Carver’s mind wandered. Grassy hills and trees. Even the knowledge of unnatural creatures didn’t overly weigh on Haden Carvers mind as he thought about the axe. He quietly snorted at that thought. Two days ago, the world was steel on steel. Now it had monsters. There was an irony in the fact that one of the Mighty Four Hundred that had ended magic, according to lore, was wielding what appeared to be a magic weapon. It already bothered Haden that the others of the Cutters were so willing, eager in fact, to follow this old barbarian on what undoubtedly would be a deadly endeavor.
Carver was close enough to overhear Noa tell the large man she would be back as she broke off from the rest to head towards a tree. Carver reflected that of all of them it was Noa who definitely was the most smitten, spellbound or something, by Orn. It was like just being by the barbarian promised adventure. Carver understood the feeling but he was the leader of the mercenaries. Something they had better all remember. With the axe man walking alone, mostly, Carver quickened his pace and matched strides with the man.
Orn glanced sideways at the mercenary leader. Carver’s long blonde hair and beard reminded Orn of the northern mountain men he had met, except Noa claimed the left-handed sell sword hailed from the far east. Supposedly the man had been trained as a fisherman before getting into mercenary work. Orn had decided to take everything Noa told him about the others of the group with a grain of salt. If Carver told him about his past, he’d put stock into it. The girl could talk. He enjoyed the company and liked that she seemed more excepting of belief in his recants of a time with magic. Of the mercenaries only Noa was from the northern lands, it gave them something in common.
Nodding at the mercenary’s leader Orn said, “Captain Carver. You look like you have questions.”
Silence lingered between the two men. Finally, when Orn was about to try again the mercenary leader stated, “I’ve got to ask. The axe. Flames, what was that?”
Orn swung the axe around and off his back so fast Carver almost thought the axe man was going to strike him down. Holding the axe out to his side the barbarian offered it haft first to Carver.
“My father’s axe. From hook to pommel, assembled sixty years ago in his forge. Once a double bladed axe, now single. I carried it after he was slain by the Red Order. I carried it with the Four Hundred. I killed the last sorcerer with it. Cleaving his black heart. I have felled hundreds in my time with the Black Eagles. Never once has it burst into flames until I struck that demon. Go on man. Take it. Inspect it. You tell me.”
Carver waved it off. “No. I believe you old man. I just had to ask. Maybe it’s history somehow makes it special. Maybe nothing makes sense anymore.”
Orn grunted, returning the axe to his back, thinking about the one time that it had ever burned before. Decades ago. In an alley at night. Hunting witches. He wasn’t even sure he believed it at the time. After today it seemed, it had been real. The broken blade had burned while fighting pure evil.
Several minutes passed and Carver saw Noa jogging back towards them.
“We need to swing by somewhere to purchase horses.”
Carver grunted acknowledgment at Orn and moved away as Noa returned to the old man’s side, already talking as she sided up next to him.
Turning about the leader took in the group and then moved towards Elize. It would be time to stop for the night soon. Carver would want the archer to range through the surrounding area once they settled on a spot.
As the Cutters made their way across the trade route road, north through the hills, the sun set and the mercenaries came to the last hill of the Carthian Hills. Looking down at an expansive thick flat forest Orn stated, “The Forest of Archers.”
Head over to The Blade of Orn (Part 2) for more adventure.