Cold and wet. Those two thoughts tore through Calaran’s mind as he shuddered awake. His chest was screaming for air and he obliged by reflex, inhaling what he thought would be life giving oxygen. Instead, he got a mouthful of coppery tasting water, that slid down his throat and mixed with the bile sitting in his gut.
Calaran started to cough and panic gripped him. He frantically kicked his legs, trying to swim to the dim point of light he saw above him, but couldn’t halt his descent through the murky water. A seductive voice inside his head whispered that he should give up, and let the lake take him. What good was fighting when you’ve already lost everything? At best, there was a long, hard, road, followed by violence and death.
Calaran snarled, and angry bubbles shot out of his mouth, as he shouted his defiance at the treacherous voice in his head. The sad thoughts of a dying man receded. There was no way he was going to die here and become a note in another man’s tale. He ignored the constricting pain in his chest and fumbled at the straps on his breastplate. They were hard to reach and as slippery as a spice merchant, but Calaran was able to tear them open and shrug out of his armour. Before his breastplate hit the lakebed he’d already started tearing off his leg guards and gauntlets. They came off with agonizing slowness, but when he was finally free of them, he immediately started swimming up towards the air.
Calaran kicked his legs and flailed his arms, with all the grace of a drowning man. He kept his goal firmly in mind, and refused to let the darkness take over as he shot towards fresh air and life. Finally his head popped out of the water and he greedily sucked in all the air he could. He scowled and started to cough, as he inhaled a mouthful of acrid smoke.
“The whole world is ablaze,” Calaran croaked, as he opened his eyes and swiveled his head from side to side, trying to find the shore. He couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of him, but decided that one way was as good as the other, and started swimming with the current. As he swam and lost himself in the rhythmic motions of stroke, kick, stroke, his memory started to slowly return. Calaran remembered rallying his armies and setting out to quell Lord Maergon’s rebellion. Mayors and Magistrates had all fallen to their knees and loudly renewed their loyalty to Calaran, forsaking any ties they once had to Lord Maergon.
The rebellion would be finished in weeks, or so Calaran had thought. That was until his beautiful wife smiled a secret smile, and Calaran’s head exploded in pain. He remembered hearing men scream and steel being drawn, then the cold kiss of the lake as all went black.
The shore became visible in the hazy distance and Calaran returned to the present with a grimace. Frigid water changed to muddy shore and he half walked, half crawled his way out of the lake. When he finally got out of the water, Calaran slumped down onto the wet banks surrounding the lake and lay on his back, gasping in smoke filled air.
After a few minutes, Calaran sat up and checked the back of his head. It throbbed painfully where he was struck, but wasn’t life-threatening. He slowly stood up and fought down the nausea that threatened to force him back to the ground. Violent fantasies lent Calaran strength, and he searched for something he could use as a weapon.
Everywhere he looked, hungry flames blazed along rooftops, making a meal of the lives and homes of the people who had lived here. Torn and butchered bodies were scattered throughout the village and Calaran saw a mother laying protectively over her children in death. She mistakenly thought her soft flesh could stop the point of a soldier’s blade.
There was beauty in a battle, all men knew this. Yet, when Calaran looked at the senseless slaughter that had taken place here, he couldn’t help but shake his head in regret for all the wasted life. It looked like the men had formed up and tried to offer some type of resistance. He could imagine them, standing there with shaking knees and sweaty palms, brandishing their shovels and axes as trained soldier’s came to kill them. His wife had a lot to answer for.
Calaran spotted a large hammer in the hands of a dead villager. It was the kind of hammer blacksmiths used to pound steel into shape, but would work just as well on the heads of his enemies. Calaran pried the hammer out of the dead man’s grip, then looked north. North was where his wife would be and where he’d find his vengeance. He swung the hammer over his shoulder, then started walking. He had a score to settle and miles to cover, before this day was done.
Calaran’s stomach growled and he patted it absently, as he walked down the road towards Maergon’s keep. He reasoned that any soldiers still loyal to him would be there. A few hours before he was betrayed, Calaran had given orders to General Uzzef and General Tilbrock to scout out the area surrounding the keep. Calaran had to believe that his betrayal wasn’t complete and that his two closest friends were still loyal to him.
The soft jingle of bridles alerted Calaran to riders approaching from behind. He turned, and waited for them to come. There were five riders, armed with short swords and chainmail. Professional soldiers, no doubt, but Calaran wasn’t sure if they were his soldiers, Maergon’s or soldiers loyal to his wife, Queen Varra.
They stopped a few feet away from Calaran and eyed him suspiciously. Calaran offered a slow nod, and fingered the hilt of his hammer. His throat was still dry from inhaling smoke and ash at the burned out village and he swallowed to moisten it.
Their leader rode out in front of them, with his hand on the hilt of his sword. He had a pinched nose and lips so thin that they disappeared when he smiled, which he was doing now. “Good day,” the soldier said and eyed Calaran up and down. “We’ll be taking your gold, friend. The Queen demands that everyone travelling down this road pay a toll.”
Calaran’s eyes tightened in anger. “My wife has already taken everything from me. All I have left are the clothes on my back and the hammer in my hands. Perhaps, you could let me by without paying the toll this once?” Calaran rasped.
“Let you off without paying the toll? ” The man started to chuckle and turned to his friends. They were all grinning and fingering their weapons eagerly. When he turned back to Calaran his smile was gone, “Sorry friend, give us your gold or we’ll take your head.”
“Bloody fools,” Calaran growled. He wasn’t used to being spoken to like this and the leader’s arrogant demeanor was grating on his nerves. “Don’t any of you recognize me? I’m your King!”
The soldiers began to laugh, and Calaran hefted his hammer onto his shoulder. He’d tried his best, but there was a time for talk and a time for killing and Calaran had run out of words.
A hesitant voice rang out over the laughter, “I think he’s telling the truth. I saw the King once, when I was in the capital. This man’s covered in dirt, but the face is the same! I swear it!”
The leader rode up to the young soldier that spoke and cuffed him in the head. “Don’t be an idiot! The bloody King’s dead! We follow Queen Varra now! This is just some big peasant, trying to avoid a beating!”
Calaran jumped and slammed his hammer into the leader’s chest. The man flew from his horse and landed on the ground with a thud. His eyes were bulging and he was wheezing as he struggled to breathe through his collapsed and punctured lungs. Calaran swung his hammer again and the wheezing stopped.
There was a moment of stunned silence as the soldiers stared at gory remains of their leader. The moment passed and three of the soldiers sprang into motion, circling around Calaran.
One of the soldiers growled and swung his sword at Calaran from horseback. Calaran rolled under him, narrowly avoiding stomping hooves, then leaped onto the back of the horse. Calaran tossed the soldier onto the ground, then swung his hammer at him. The soldier raised his sword in an effort to block the attack, but the force of the blow knocked the blade back into the soldier’s face. Blood sprayed from the wound and the soldier screamed for a moment, before Calaran ended the soldier’s torment with a second swing of his hammer.
The soldier that had spoken out for Calaran was wrestling with another, a few feet away. They were rolling around in the dirt, grunting and swearing. Calaran disregarded them and turned to the last soldier. This one had the eyes of a killer, empty and unafraid. He held his sword in a steady hand and watched Calaran intently.
“Made your peace with the gods, traitor?” Calaran growled.
“The only gods I need are–,” whatever the man was about to say was cut off as a sword point burst through his neck. His eyes widened in surprise and he clutched at his ruined throat for a moment, before falling off his horse.
The soldier that had hesitated, and recognized Calaran, stood there holding a bloody sword shakily with wide eyes. He fell to his knees, bowing his head and muttered, “My King.”
Calaran saw that all the other soldier’s were dead. Two for him and two for this lone warrior, loyal to a King he’d only seen from afar. “What’s your name, boy?” Calaran asked.
The soldier’s head shot up and he hesitantly met Calaran’s eyes, “My name’s Aden, Your Highness.”
Calaran sized up the lad. He was inexperienced, that much was obvious, but he was also skilled enough to kill two armed men. One of them was a kill from behind, but whether a man’s killed from the front or from the back, didn’t matter. The man was just as dead, either way. The boy was also loyal and loyalty was in short supply these days.
“Stand up, Aden.”
Aden stood up, eyes wide, but back straight and awaited the word of his King.
“You did well. You know one end of a sword from the other and aren’t afraid to take a man’s life in defense of your King,” Calaran said and Aden’s chest puffed up with pride. “I have a lot more lives that need taking. Are you up for the task?”
Rain had been falling steadily for two days now. The armour Calaran had stolen from one of the soldiers they’d killed had begun to rust, and he was starting to wonder if heading to Maergon’s keep was the right decision. They hadn’t seen anymore soldiers and Calaran thought that maybe he should have just returned home.
To make matters worse, the soldier he’d saddled himself with seemed a bit simple. He didn’t say more than a word or two and even those were reluctantly pulled from him like pennies from a widow. It was good that he could fight and was loyal, but Calaran wouldn’t have minded a bit of conversation to pass the time.
“Tell me of your home, Aden,” Calaran said. Aden jumped slightly, as if Calaran startled him out of deep thought.
“Well, not much to tell you, my King.”
“When we’re alone you can call me, Calaran. There’s no need for formalities here,” Calaran said and bit into the last of his jerky. The soldiers they’d slain hadn’t had much for supplies.
“Thanks, Calaran.” Aden replied and smiled. “Well, my home was a lot like these lands we’re travelling through now. I lived in a small city in the northern province of Erebaen.”
Calaran nodded. “I’ve been there. It’s a good city, with lots of men who are very handy with a blade.”
“True enough,” Aden said and stared off into the distance. “Most men who live there are happy to live or die by the skill of their sword. There’s a moment of pain for them, then nothing, but the wife and children they leave behind have to try to continue living without them. People there like to pretend that orphans and widows don’t exist, but they’re around, filling up alleyways and shacks, usually living off the generosity of others.”
Calaran regretted coaxing the boy into conversation. He wasn’t simple at all, just haunted by a difficult past. Calaran figured that Aden was probably one of those orphans, and that’s why he’d joined the military in the first place. A hot meal and a blanket were better than huddling in a cold alley somewhere, wishing you had something to eat, even if the meal forced a sword in your hands. “You any good with that bow you’ve been dragging along with us?” Calaran asked, trying to change the subject.
Aden reached behind him and ran his hand along his bow fondly. It was unstrung and wrapped up in cured hide, to keep it dry from the rain. “I’m good enough,” Aden said and grinned slightly. “I learned how to shoot when I still a boy, that’s the only way I was able to eat before I joined the army.”
“A hunter? You think you can find us some meat in this rain?” Calaran asked. “I’m starving and we’re out of supplies. We’re still a couple days from Maergon’s keep and I’d like to get there with a full belly.”
Aden stopped his horse and looked around. “It’ll be difficult, but I should be able to find some game. I noticed signs of deer grazing earlier, but wasn’t sure if you’d be willing to stop while it’s raining.”
Calaran rode up beside Aden and put his hand on Aden’s shoulder. “We’re in a bit of a hurry, but I’ve always said it’s best to do your killing with a full stomach. My horse and I can shelter under that tree while you’re gone,” Calaran said and pointed at a giant oak a few feet away.
“Alright. Hopefully I shouldn’t be gone more than a few hours,” Aden said and turned his horse back the way they came. He snapped his reins and rode briskly down the path, before disappearing around a bend.
Calaran tied his horse to a low hanging branch, before sitting down under the tree. It didn’t take long before he started to shiver. It was almost summer, but there was still a bit of winter’s bite in the air, especially as they travelled farther north. Calaran quickly realized that if he stayed sitting he’d freeze, so he stood up and grabbed his hammer. He started swinging it around in battle forms he’d learned as a young man. He’d learned them with a sword, but was good enough with a hammer that he could improvise his way through the routine.
It felt good to work the cold out of his muscles. After a couple days on the back of a horse he’d grown stiff and needed the exercise. He swung his hammer in wide sweeping arcs, practicing fighting against several foes. Calaran imagined smashing into the traitorous soldiers who had sided with his wife. He lost himself in the fantasy of vengeful slaughter and didn’t mark the passage of time.
The weak sunlight they’d had all day disappeared, and night fell. The dark made it colder, but the rain had stopped, which Calaran was grateful for. He started to set down his hammer, but noticed his horse making strange noises. It was whinnying in fear and Calaran saw it try to break free from the branch it was leashed to. Calaran couldn’t see anything that would spook a horse so terribly, but sensed something out in the shadows watching.
Whatever was out there caused a shiver of fear to run down Calaran’s spine. It was a primal fear, something that was ingrained into him that he couldn’t explain. It made him want to cover his eyes and curl up into a ball and hope that whatever was out there wouldn’t find him.
“Show yourself!” Calaran yelled, hoping he sounded braver than he felt.
Something shrieked in the distance, and the shriek was like dozens of discordant voices being torn from one throat. Calaran’s knees went weak as the creature appeared from behind a tree. Completely black, its skin oozed like spilled ink dripping from a table. It didn’t walk, but crept slowly, with long spindly arms stretched out in front of it, and a rictus grin on its lipless mouth. A pink serpentine tongue shot out and tasted the air, as the creature’s red eyes focused hungrily on Calaran.
Calaran felt his blood run cold and fear sweat break out all over his body. “A varagoth,” he whispered and clutched his hammer tightly. Calaran had stopped believing in these creatures when he was still a boy, yet here it was alive and in front of him.
The varagoth tilted back its head, and shrieked once more, before creeping towards Calaran. It casually tore off the horse’s head as it walked by, and the horse’s headless body slumped woodenly to the forest floor. The varagoth examined the head for a moment, as if unsure of what it was, before finally tossing it at Calaran.
Calaran knocked the head away with his hammer, and the varagoth made a high pitched sound, that resembled a laugh.
“Enough of this,” Calaran growled and charged the varagoth.
It dropped to all fours, and dodged Calaran’s two handed swing, then slapped Calaran in the face contemptuously. The blow sent Calaran tumbling to the ground, but he managed to roll away and jump back up to his feet, ignoring the ringing in his ears and blood in his mouth.
Calaran shook his head to clear away the pain and circled the varagoth. It was faster than him, that much was clear, and had a bestial cunning to it. If Calaran had any chance of killing the creature, he’d have to out think it. Calaran continued to circle the varagoth and it circled him back, never taking its red eyes off of him.
The thick muscles in Calaran’s arms began to burn, as he held the heavy hammer out in front of him, waiting for the varagoth to attack. The ground underneath him was wet and muddy from the rain and the threat of falling was ever present. He pretended to slip and fell down to one knee, offering up the varagoth an opening.
The varagoth shrieked, then lunged at Calaran, who swung his hammer up to meet it. He used his legs to push off the ground and connected with the varagoth’s chest. Calaran felt its ribs crack and he grinned as it cried out in pain. Calaran’s victory was short lived however, as the beast recovered and tore the hammer out of his hands.
Calaran slammed his fist into the varagoth’s head, but it just grunted and wrapped its hands around his neck, before throwing him down. It loomed over Calaran and backhanded him in the face as he struggled. Motes of light danced in Calaran’s vision, then the varagoth struck him again and all went dark for a few moments. When he regained consciousness, Calaran could feel the varagoth running its coarse tongue up his arm, and purring, apparently enjoying the taste of him.
The varagoth wrapped its left hand around Calaran’s throat, enough to restrict his breathing, but not kill him. With its free hand, the varagoth ran one of its clawed fingers down Calaran’s arm and slowly peeled back a thick hunk of flesh. Calaran screamed and tried to break the beast’s hold, but was no more successful than a child struggling against its abusive father. The varagoth tore off the flesh it had peeled and placed it on its long pink tongue, then rolled the tongue back into its mouth slowly. It closed its eyes, and savoured the taste of Calaran’s flesh, while he lay there unable to move.
“Kill me and be done with it,” Calaran croaked with what little air he had.
The varagoth’s eyes opened to slits, before going to work on another strip of flesh from Calaran’s arm. The pain was excruciating, but it was the idea of being slowly eaten alive that was driving Calaran crazy. Dying with a spear through your gut, or boiling oil raining down on your head was a reality all warriors accepted. Being slowly skinned alive and eaten was a thing of nightmares.
Calaran felt the varagoth move its face down to his hand and put one of his fingers in its mouth. The varagoth sucked on his finger like an eager lover, mixing the horrible pain of being skinned alive with a brief flash of twisted pleasure, before it bit down and tore off all the skin. Calaran screamed until his voice broke and all he could hear was the beast moaning and growling in contentment, as it slowly devoured him.
Hot fetid breath tickled Calaran’s face and he opened his eyes. He hadn’t even realized he’d passed out again. He saw the varagoth open its mouth and its tongue slid out to lick his face. Calaran tried to move away, but a bony finger kept his head in place. He wanted to scream defiantly at this horrible beast that was eating him, and go down in a blood splattered ending befitting a King, but all he could do was moan piteously as the varagoth brought one of its clawed hands towards his face.
Calaran refused to close his eyes as the claw pierced the soft skin of his cheek. The varagoth dug its claw deeper, then started to slowly peel back the flesh. An arrow slammed into the varagoth’s neck and it shrieked in rage as crimson rivulets flowed from the wound. Another thumped into its chest and it charged off towards the archer in the distance.
Calaran heard a shriek, then a cry of pain. He had to help whoever had saved him. The varagoth would kill this would be hero quickly if left alone, then Calaran would be back to being a meal. He pushed himself up to his knees with his good hand, then to his feet, as quickly as he dared.
He limped over to his hammer, then lifted it with both hands, and bit back a cry of pain as his skinless finger closed around the grip. “Pain is nothing,” Calaran muttered over and over as he headed towards the varagoth.
Calaran saw his tormenter standing over a limp form, then took a deep breath and swung his hammer as hard as he could at the varagoth’s head. It connected with a wet thud. Brain and skull fragments shot forward to decorate the ground, as the varagoth let out one last shriek. It tried to turn around, but its legs gave out underneath it, and it slowly fell like a man trying to stand after having too much drink.
Calaran exhaled, then spit out a mouthful of blood at the varagoth’s body. The adrenaline wore off and all Calaran’s wounds began to scream for attention. His arm, finger, and battered head demanded that he stop what he was doing immediately and Calaran obeyed. He fell to his knees and crawled over the dead varagoth to his saviour.
The face was a bloody ruin, but it was clear that it was Aden. The boy’s loyalty had cost him his life. “Rest easy, Aden,” Calaran muttered and placed his good hand on Aden’s shoulder.
Blood shot eyes snapped open. “My King,” Aden croaked.
“You’re alive!” Calaran exclaimed and looked around for something to use as a bandage.
“Just barely. There’s something I must tell you–,” Aden tried to speak, but began to cough. Bubbles of frothy blood formed on his lips, and Calaran saw a hole in Aden’s chest.
“There’s nothing you need to tell me, Aden. Twice you saved my life now, you’ve earned your peace. Close your eyes and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Aden winced in some personal torment, then nodded and closed his eyes. His breathing was slow and laboured, it was clear that every breath was torture.
Calaran pulled a dagger from his belt, and held it over Aden’s heart. A quick death was better than most soldiers got, and it was all Calaran could offer. The dagger slid in and Aden let out a long sigh, before quieting forever.
Calaran lowered his head onto Aden’s chest. The pain in his finger was blinding and he was having trouble staying awake. He closed his eyes and darkness overtook him.
Voices. There were voices all around him, speaking excitedly. Calaran tried to remember where he was, and what he was doing. Images of claws and long bloody tongues shot through his mind and his memory returned. He was the King, and these people probably wanted to kill him. Calaran opened his eyes.
“He’s alive.” A gaunt looking man exclaimed.
“He is,” replied a voice from Calaran’s left.
Calaran pushed himself up to a sitting position. His head was throbbing, but it was the pain in his finger and arm that were the true torments. “Who are you?” Calaran rasped at the soldier standing beside him.
The soldier grinned. “I’m Lieutenant Tovar. We’ve met before, at the battle of Ivansoar. Do you remember?”
Calaran felt relief flood through him. “Yes, of course. You’re one of Uzzef’s. How is that old bastard?” Calaran asked.
“Dead,” Tovar said and nodded twice into the distance.
Calaran felt his back explode in pain and he was thrown forward onto his chest. “Traitors,” he tried to growl, but the words were too difficult to form. Calaran tried to push himself up, to kill this insolent bastard, but his arms refused to move and he could only roll his head from side to side.
“Is the King dead?” The gaunt man asked.
Calaran heard the sound of steel being drawn.
“We have no King,” Tovar replied.
All went black.
AUTHOR BIO: Tyler Bourassa has a BA in Psychology, which he puts to great use while working in the IT department for an insurance company. He currently resides in Saskatchewan with his wife and somewhat irritable guard cat, where he enjoys reading, writing, and slaying monsters in video games. His fiction has appeared in Electric Spec and The Wifiles.