Chapter 1: Death knell
The white-shrouded maiden rings her bell for the dead. A soft, yet ominous sound emanates from it. It echoes through the streets and about many buildings, filling the town with a premonition of mourning. The maiden has come to announce the death of a man. People stop what they are doing and congregate to where she rests, her bell still ringing softly, yet loudly. Folk follow the sound to the town square, where a man stands bound to a massive, cracked bell. The maiden resides by a primordial sculpture and continues to chime gently, yet sonorously, in ceremony. Her pale veil obscures her visage; one of sad empathy.
Around the cobblestone square, there are statues of dragons, wyverns, lindworms and other mighty reptiles. Their grey stone scales gleam with old polished vibrance. A testament to the ancestors of the people who gather to watch the execution. These great beings of hewn rock gaze down towards the cracked and almost equally ancient bell in the center, presiding over all who possess souls of fire, regardless of how bright or dim they burn.
“Claiomh Solais, you have been sentenced to death,” says an official in black garb. He stares at the bound man, expecting a response. When he gets none he is visibly annoyed and asks “Are you so ashamed of your actions that you cannot even ask for forgiveness in your last moments?”
“No.” Quietly says the man bound to the great bell.
“Then repent! Now is your final chance to do so!” Yells the official.
“No.” Again, is all the tied man says.
“Fine! So be it,” The official concedes before signalling to the executioner to begin his task.
The executioner nods his wide, scaly head and lifts his tremendous hammer. He walks over to the big bell, to the side where it is cracked. He gets into a stance and prepares to swing. The man tied to the bell pays him no mind. His gaze is fixed straight ahead and is completely blank. His mind is worlds away, trapped by a deed done in the past. Anger and confusion burn behind his eyes from the memories, but his utter despair is too profound. Nothing of his internal struggle escapes onto his expression.
The executioner breathes in deeply before heaving his weapon with full force into the side of the bell. A toll of unrelenting doom erupts from the instrument. White and gray wisps shoot out of the bell’s great crack, twisting and wrapping around the man chained to the exterior. He lets out a depressed sigh and looks up at the overcast sky. The wisps begin to tear him from the realm. All the while the massive bell’s tolling echoes and reverberates tragically around the square. Onlookers watch as the wisps rend the man’s body and soul, though do not spill a single drop of blood. The stringy apparitions quicken their pace and soon the man is gone, leaving only the chain he was bound to behind. The wisps whirr around the bell for a few moments before disappearing back into the large crack from whence they came.
The onlookers go back to their lives, only casually discussing the man’s demise. The official and executioner linger for a moment to observe the bell until the ringing completely subsides. They then walk away from the square, their work done. The bell remains in place. Silent, as if it hadn’t been rung in centuries.
Chapter 2: A Memory
“Claiomh! They’re trying to flank us!” Shouted Rhongomiant Nioas, captain of the unit, to his lieutenant.
Claiomh looked to his right and saw what his captain meant. Axe-wielding brigands clambered over the low walls of the makeshift fortifications north of the damaged meeting hall the soldiers were guarding. Claiomh shouted out a warning and he was joined by two nearby troops and together they pushed back the brigands. Claiomh turned and saw Rhongomiant impale a bandit with his lance. “Captian!” Claiomh called out, “flankers were dealt with, shall we counter-attack?”
“No, not yet. Fortify the south of the hall.” Replied the captain as he kicked the corpse upon his lance away, freeing his weapon from the weight.
“The south end? We’ve got lookouts posted and they haven’t seen any enemies that way,” objected the lieutenant.
“I’ve got a feeling these so-called bandits might try something unexpected. They’ve been doing hit and run attacks at all our walls except the south. It’s like they’re looking for a weakness, but neglected to look at an entire side of the building,” the captain explained his reasoning.
“You think… that they think… that our weak spot is the south side. I’ll bolster the forces there then, just in case you’re right.”
“Have you ever known my hunches to be wrong?”
“No, but I don’t want the first time to be in the middle of a battle,” answered Claiomh bluntly before beginning to walk off towards his destination.
“Hah, pragmatic bastard” chuckled Rhongomiant loud enough for Claiomh to hear as he walked away. A small grin appeared on the lieutenant’s face as he disappeared through a door.
Claiomh reached the place where the lookouts were posted on the south side of the partially razed structure but found them dead with arrows piercing their scales and in pools of blood. He drew his sword just as two bandits ambushed him from the shadows cast by a nearby wall. He parried the blade of the first, but the second struck at the same time, slicing his side. Claiomh’s chest plate took most of the damage, but the attack was still strong enough to draw blood from the lightly armoured spot under one of his arms. The lieutenant backed off a bit to put some space between him and his assailants.
He quickly took in information about them. The first wielded a long sword, while the second had a curved sword, its wicked edge gleamed with Claiomh’s blood. The one with the curved sword suddenly threw down a smoke bomb. Claiomh, in response, let out a bellow powerful enough to clear some of the smoke from in front of him. His draconic roar cleared the smoke from his reptilian eyes and nostrils. He caught a glimpse of a foot dashing to his right and he swung his claymore, slashing something in the smoke. He heard whoever he struck fall to the ground hard, grunting in pain. Claiomh then spun around one hundred and eighty degrees and swung again, this time blindly, assuming the other enemy would be behind him. He heard two footsteps as if someone had just back stepped very suddenly. The smokescreen began to fade and out of the corner of his eyes, he saw a long sword on the ground in a small pool of blood. He determined it to be from the first bandit he caught in the smoke. He prepared for the curved sword-wielding brigand to take advantage of the last few seconds of smoke cover. The bandit did just that, but unexpectedly from Claiomh’s left, the lieutenant hadn’t even heard them move after they backstepped.
Claiomh did a quick upward vertical slash, forcing the bandit to stop in their tracks and parry the attack. Carrying the momentum from the parry, Claiomh pivoted into a spin, which brought the sword back around in a wide horizontal arc that cleaved into the bandit’s left shoulder, which severed their entire arm and carved a deep wound into their chest as well. Claiomh followed up with a tremendous kick to his enemy’s sternum that sent the bandit flying a few meters back onto the cold, hard ground. Briefly, Claiomh pondered at the oddness of the skirmish, as he had never seen a bandit use a smoke bomb in combat before. That was usually a tactic implemented by assassins.
Moments later Rhongomiant and half a dozen soldiers burst through the door Claiomh came from not too long ago. “Lieutenant, we just got word that the lookouts here were attacked,” said the captain as he looked at the dead lookouts and bandits surrounding Claiomh. “Ah, I see you’ve taken care of it. Nice work.”
“Who sent word of the attack? These two were the only lookouts posted here,” questioned Claiomh while he caught his breath.
“Does it matter? We’ve got bigger problems right now. One of our scouts just found out that Bevelehm the Oarfish is among the bandits here,” redirected the captain.
“What’s the Oarfish doing here? And why ally with brigands? After he deserted the Shoulder Guard I heard he became a mercenary and went east.”
“I guess he came back. Unfinished business maybe? No idea why he aligned himself with these savages. Anyway, if the leaders of the opposing forces know about his skills, you’ll bet we’ll see him on the battlefield. Be ready for him, he’s the only fighter of renown our enemies possess. That we know of. You and I are probably the only ones that could take him in a fight.” Spoke the captain while wiping blood from the tip of his lance.
“I’ll keep my eyes peeled for him. His red Mohawk should easy enough to spot,” reassured Claiomh.
“Good. The fighting seems to have subsided, for now, so get some rest. I’ll get you if something comes up.”
Claiomh nodded and saluted his captain before Rhongomiant gathered his men and left to take care of other business. As Claiomh made his way to the improvised mess hall, he had a nagging feeling in the back of his mind. He searched for the origin of the sensation, but it took him hours of subconscious thought to find it. Finally, as he lied down on a pile of somewhat clean cloth to get some sleep it came to him. The vagueness of Rhongomiant’s words. Why such sparse detail? Glossing over the fact that there was no way he could have known that the lookouts were attacked. Also, the strangeness of the ambush encounter lingered and hinted at sinister implications. As he fell asleep, Claiomh made a mental note to keep an eye and ear out not only for the Oarfish but also for any strange orders given by the captain. An ominous apparition appeared to Claiomh in his dreams that night, but when he woke up the next day he remembered nothing of it.
Chapter 3: Pathetic Soul
Claiomh opens his eyes. Gray skies, gray ground. He is standing in a field with a few trees. He can see people, they too are shades of gray. Then he remembers. Being chained and executed. Wandering for years. He looks down at his feet and he moves his left foot. It feels like lead, muscles tense from not being moved in a long time.
“How long have I been rooted in this spot… like one of these trees?” He asks himself aloud, briefly noticing the few twisted blue oaks around him. After death, the body no longer changes. The body no longer ages or deteriorates. Neither can it become stronger. The person one is when death embraces them is who they are in the afterlife. If their spirit persists. Not all who die remain among the living, but only those who die in peculiar and specific methods.
Claiomh looks to the bland horizon and begins his wandering anew, his mind plagued by thoughts. The gray skies and ground blend at times to create a sense of floating in an endless dull sea. Adrift in a purgatory of aimless venturing, Claiomh marches on, ever set upon by the consequences of his actions and the moments leading up to them. Repeatedly the hated thoughts cycle through his mind. Unrelenting. Unforgiving.
After a time, his pace slows until he comes to a stop. He doesn’t notice when he ceases moving, eyes glazing over in a numb haze. His feet become leaden once more, rooting him to the soil like a tree. He stands there for days. The days turn to weeks. The weeks to months. He doesn’t move again.
Debris of the afterlife begins to catch on his body. Wisps of fading spirits and discarded cloth once bound to spectres make their way to his ankles. The subtle energy attracts small beings, nibbling at his aura curiously and hungrily. The smaller creatures attract a larger one.
A wounded creature of ethereal nature approaches Claiomh’s still frame. It bleeds glowing green ichor, vividly contrasting the surrounding gray. Its skin like the bark of a haunted old oak and its skeleton that of a massive buck. Where its blood hits the ground small gray sprouts begin to grow. It walks up to Claiomh and stares into his eyes. It sees no hope or salvation and it sheds a single bloody green tear. Not for its state of dying, but at the bleakness of the pathetic soul in front of it. It settles down around Claiomh’s motionless statue and breathes its last breaths. It dies after a few moments, leaving a pool of glowing energy and sturdy flesh around the pitiful soul.
The bark-like corpse shelters Claiomh from other creatures and the green ichor oozing from the body causes plant life to grow rapidly. Soon Claiomh and the corpse are overgrown by plants. They begin to grow into the body of the beast and Claiomh himself. They grow off the energy of both and become bound in form and spirit. Thick vines and sinuous bark begin to encompass the man and husk, creating a chimera tree. A reef of spiritual energy with Claiomh at the center, persisting but not aware. The only parts of Claiomh that remain visible are his ever-unblinking eyes. Years pass and the vegetation grows thicker. Most cannot notice that there is a man inside this tree; to them, it just looks like all the other warped navy oaks. Only those looking for something out of the ordinary will find it.
Chapter 4: Gone Fishing
Claiomh awoke to a messenger handing him a piece of paper. All it said was ‘Come to the front lines now, we need to speak’ and was signed with a large ‘R’. Claiomh got to his feet headed out to see what Rhongomiant wanted.
As the lieutenant left the hall and reached the top of the short hill to the north, he saw what his captain must want to talk about. Doing battle on the front lines and leaving corpses in his wake was the Oarfish, his unmistakable bright red Mohawk weaved in and around soldiers. Claiomh made haste to his captain’s tent, hoping there was a plan to deal with the situation.
“Claiomh, there’s no time to waste, I assume you’ve already seen why,” Rhongomiant said the moment Claiomh entered the tent.
“What do you need me to do?” Claiomh asked, ready for anything.
“You’re the only one I can trust with this. I would like to crack the Oarfish’s scales myself, but I’m needed everywhere else.” The captain then scratched his brow, clearly having been stretched too thin by many duties. “I need you to go down there and bury your claymore in his chest. Or at least something similar.”
“Will his neck or spine do?” The lieutenant replied with a straight face.
“Shut up and get out, I have no time for your pseudo-jokes.” Rhongomiant said bluntly before turning around for a moment as if he was going somewhere. He then turned back and said, “I trust you to do all you can,” a serious look appeared in his eyes.
There was a pause in the conversation and for a moment all that could be heard was the sounds of bells chiming outside for each soldier that met death.
“I will,” was all Claiomh said, as he met his captain’s stern gaze with equal intensity. He left the tent and went down to face the Oarfish on the battlefield.
The lieutenant gathered a group of five nearby soldiers to help him cut a quicker path to his redheaded target. It took the better part of an hour to get there. Bevelehm turned to watch the lieutenant cut through a bandit right before him and backstepped to avoid getting hit as well.
“Finally, a Head Guard worth the title. Judging by your weapon, you must be Claiomh Claymore,” spoke the Oarfish.
“You can’t know that for certain, many people use claymores,” Claiomh said without humour.
“Fine, whatever. Doesn’t matter what your name is anyways, you’ll be dead in a few minutes,” spat Bevelehm. He raised his war scythe and prepared to strike.
Claiomh rushed forward, knowing that polearms were weapons meant for range. He threw a gauntleted punch to the gut of the Oarfish, which winded him. Bevelehm took a step back and quickly unsheathed a dagger coated in frost. At such close range, Claiomh could not dodge the slash, but he did manage to block most of the swipe with his off-hand, using his forearm. He instantly felt the bite of frost and his left arm’s muscles tensed at the sudden drop in temperature, restricting blood flow to the wound but at the same time made his left arm somewhat numb below the elbow.
Claiomh countered with a horizontal slash swung by only his right arm, which the Oarfish deflected with the shaft of his war scythe. The red-scaled warrior launched a fury of thrusts, pushing Claiomh back. The lieutenant cursed his foolishness. Assuming anything on the battlefield without reason can mean certain death. In hindsight, it made sense for a warrior with a long-ranged melee weapon to have an option for close combat, but most didn’t carry enchanted weapons.
“Frostbite is quite painful, isn’t it?” The Oarfish sneered. “I have no weakness. Not anymore. With this gifted dagger, I’ll end your life and the true revolution will begin.”
Claiomh paused, considering the Oarfish’s strange words. “What do you mean by ‘true revolution’? You’re a mercenary among a large bandit horde; this isn’t political. The only reason the Head Guards are here is because of your group’s proximity to government buildings.”
“Oh, so it’s all a coincidence? Ha, fool. You’ll die in the dark like the rancid fungus you are,” Bevelehm said with disdain before he sheathed his dagger and he pressed his attack with war scythe alone.
Claiomh went on the defensive, his blade was meant to be wielded with two hands, but since he could only use one, his movements were sluggish. With each passing moment, he lost more ground. The soldiers and bandits fighting around him became mere colours and shapes, blurred when out of focus.
As Claiomh’s one-handed parries became more and more inefficient, the Oarfish began to land serious hits. The lieutenant knew that he would die here if he did not think fast. He cursed his useless left arm as Bevelehm slashed him across his left hand. Blood flowed freely, but the pain was numbed by the frostbite. An idea then came to him. If he could not use his left arm to wield his sword, he might as well use it as a shield.
Bevelehm continued his assault; years worth of battle experience had given him endurance enough to fight for days on end. As he went for a deathblow to Claiomh’s head, the swordsman raised his damaged left arm. The war scythe pierced through his forearm, stopping mere centimetres from his face and splattered him with blood. He then tensed the muscles of his arm around the blade, which prevented the Oarfish from pulling it back out. Unable to free his weapon, a visible look of worry appeared on Bevelehm’s face. The red-scaled man drew his dagger in his off-hand once more and prepared for Claiomh to close in for an attack, but the claymore-wielding warrior would not fall for the same trick twice.
Claiomh brought his blade down with as much force as he could muster onto the shaft of the war scythe, cutting it in two. Bevelehm stumbled back from the unexpected lack of tension, his scythe separated into the stick in his hands and the blade imbedded in Claiomh’s forearm. Claiomh followed up with a three hundred and sixty degree spinning horizontal slash, a move that allowed him maximum power while only needing his main hand. The slash carved a deep cut into the Oarfish’s chest plate. Bevelehm stepped back further, he was still uninjured, though no longer protected due to the huge gash in his armour.
Furious, the Oarfish dropped the now useless shaft of his war scythe and charged at Claiomh, dagger swinging wildly. The short blade allowed Bevelehm to make much quicker attacks and soon the lieutenant was covered in frostbitten scratches. Luckily, the dagger didn’t have enough piercing power to land a fatal wound through armour. Though, he was now dealing with a copious amount of blood lost from having the head of a war scythe lodged in his arm. The ice magic from his initial dagger wound helped to congeal the blood, preventing him from bleeding out too quickly, yet Claiomh knew he didn’t have long to turn the tide of this battle.
It was then that Claiomh got another idea. The amount of the war scythe’s blade protruding from his left arm was significant. Keeping with the theme of using his weakness as a strength, he began to use the scythe head to parry Bevelehm’s dagger. It was an awkward tactic that resulted in many more wounds on his forearm, but it had allowed Claiomh to gain some ground in the fight and isolate the damage he took to his already wounded limb. Bevelehm’s rage was palpable as he began to get pushed back due to his weapon.
All around them the fighting began to subside. The Head Guards had repelled most of the bandit forces, which left only a few stragglers to be taken care of. The Oarfish noticed and scowled.
“Tsk, well played, Claymore. We’ll have to finish this another time,” Bevelehm said angrily before beginning to retreat with his remaining forces.
“No!” Shouted Claiomh, somewhat delirious from the loss of blood and large amounts of ice magic. “I was given a mission… and I will see it through!”
He dropped his claymore to the ground and painfully pulled the war scythe’s blade from his forearm. Without delay, he hurled the blade at Bevelehm’s retreating form and landed a hit on the Oarfish’s left leg, which caused him to stumble. Some nearby Head Guard archers noticed the commotion and peppered Bevelehm with arrows, which caused him to fall to his knees. Claiomh nodded to the archers in thanks and picked up his claymore. He walked over to the kneeling form of Bevelehm.
“D-damn it all,” Bevelehm cursed while coughing up blood. “I was supposed to be victorious here… and lead… such a privileged life…” He looked up at the enraged Claiomh standing in front of him. Bevelehm tried to strike Claiomh with his ice dagger, but the lieutenant knocked it out of his hand easily. “Alright… Alright, I am beaten. Just take me prisoner already.”
“No.” Claiomh replied flatly.
“What do you mean? You’re not going to take me prisoner? Then… what do you plan to do?” Realization slowly crossed the Oarfish’s face. His eyes widened in fear.
“I’m going to gut you like a fish,” Claiomh said savagely before plunging his claymore through Bevelehm’s chest so far that its tip came out of his back. After a few ragged coughs of blood, life left Bevelehm’s body. Claiomh retrieved his blade and watched the corpse of his foe fall to the ground like a fresh catch being flung from ship to dock.
With no energy left, Claiomh sat down and took a few deep breaths. He saw combat medics approaching and sighed with relief. His wounds were severe, but nothing immediate medical attention would not cure. As the medics began to tend to him and nearby soldiers he passed out from exhaustion, the last thing he heard was the sounding of a particularly loud bell, announcing the death of a warrior of renown.
Chapter 5: An Unknowing Guard
A man in dark blue armour sits upon a stone beneath Claiomh’s tree with a book open in front of him. He reads aloud, feeling each word’s meaning as he speaks them.
“The realm is as a bell and its parts: yoke, crown, head, shoulder, waist, sound rim, lip, mouth, clapper, and bead line. As each serves a function, they remain guarded by those sworn to them.” The armoured one looks up and notices a small wispy creature ambling closer. “Greetings, little friend, did you come to listen to me practice recitation of my order’s doctrine?” The frail and pale creature is a tangle of white wisps adorned with eyes, four stubby limbs, and a hungry beak. It pecks about the dull loam, searching for food. It pays little mind to the one in blue, though does look up on occasion when the man speaks.
Smiling to himself within his helmet, the seated one proceeded with his practice. “Yoke, being the highest part of bell and realm, symbolizes faith and all who keep faith in the eyes of the Lord. Bishops, cardinals, and clerics alike all shade under the strong leaves of the Yoke Guard.
“Crown, of blue blood and noble birth rests just below the divine yoke, leading man by example and presiding over mortal affairs. Kings, dukes, and princes alike all weather behind the strong walls of the Crown Guard.
“Head, leader of nations and commoners; steadfast in guiding the body on the proper course of action with aid from the divine and destined. Prime ministers, congressmen, and mayors alike all shelter within the strong shell of the Head Guard.” The reader then pauses as the small forager finishes scanning the area for food and moves on. The man watches as the critter scuttles away, ever-hungry in this desolate land. It makes him think of those he is tasked to aid. The cold wights and dreary revenants who he has vowed to guide, though he has not been very successful of late.
With a sigh, he continues reciting. “Shoulder, bearing a wealth of gold and land, privileges that may temp the weak-willed if not watched over closely. Court goers, physicians, and inheritors alike all lodge beneath the strong roof of the Shoulder Guard.
“Waist, the majority of bell and man, wide spans the metal and population that make up the masses. Blacksmiths, cobblers, and bakers alike all cover behind the strong shield of the Waist Guard.
“Sound Rim, the poor and unfortunate who dwell in squalor and sound out for aid from those who could feed and shelter them. Beggars, vagabonds, and drifters alike all rest within the strong arms of the Sound Rim Guard.” Here the man pauses and lifts his helmet’s visor to gaze at his surroundings. Threats upon these wide plains are easy to see and hear from afar, but his training reminds him to always stay vigilant. Enemies are not the only things he needs to keep his eyes peeled for, however, as there are people who need his help out there.
He drinks water from his canteen before continuing. “Lip, the edge, the sickly ones that death approaches from all angles and who seek either healing grace or quick release. Lepers, cripples, and the mentally unstable alike all seek refuge within the strong coils of the Lip Guard.
“Mouth, all those who have passed over the edge into the gaping maw of a bell’s underside and death; forever separated from the realm of man. Corpses, bones, and ash alike all dwell within the strong cloak of the Mouth Guard.”
As the armoured one reads the next part, his brow furrows in greater concentration. “Clapper, ringing on endlessly from the void under the bell, reminds all that beyond the veil of death linger those few unlucky trapped between worlds. Wights, spirits, and revenants alike all wander, seeking the strong words of the Clapper Guard.” His brow unfurrows before reading further.
“Bead Line, immortals who need not the aid of man but seek clairvoyance through the eyes of the lesser. Gods, devils, and other kin alike all pursue the strong minds of the Bead Line Guard.
“Guarded by the sworn, each part has a role to play in the grand scheme. The dutiful guards shield from their specified foes but never a foe not specified. Therefore each guard must perform their task with utmost valour so that there are no gaps in the wall of the realm, lest fiends find their way through and into our hearts.”
The armoured man closes the book and his eyes, thinking about what this passage means. He stands, tucks the book under his chest plate, and begins to pace, contemplating what words he would say to any wight, spirit, or revenant needing guidance. He looks at his own hands, gauntleted in azure armour. He looks up and sighs again. He leans on Claiomh’s tree, looking at the trunk and the branches above. He’s seen many trees like this in his travels. They differ from trees of the living world in that they are not single organisms that grow from one seed, but many different energies and auras that snag onto one another in these abysmal plains, often creating twisting forms like that of spectres in agony.
The armoured man looks at a particular vine on the trunk. He reaches out and examines it. “Gray worm vine…” he says, noticing that it is a rare and valuable vine, used for making ropes and other tools. He takes out his knife and begins to gather some of the vegetation.
As he collects the gray worm vines he pauses and notices two eyes staring out of the tree’s trunk. They’re hardly visible, mostly overgrown by vegetation, but the whites of the eyes persist, though the pupils are glazed over with a white film. What were once deep, oaken brown are now gray and dulled by death and time.
The azure knight steps back and ponders the meaning of the eyes peering out from the tree’s trunk. “How could such a thing occur?” He ponders as he steps closer, bringing his knife up to where the eyes are. He gently cuts away at the plant life around them and uncovers Claiomh’s sullen face.
The armoured man stares into Claiomh’s vacant eyes and feels the sad creep of pity in his gut. “This soul is wretched and doomed, one in most need of strong words,” the armoured man steps back and sits on a nearby rock. He takes out the small book once more from underneath his chest plate and begins. “The realm is as a bell and its parts…” he reads aloud, voice as clear and resonant as a bell itself.
Chapter 6: Erupting Rage
“You just won’t die, will you?” was the first thing Claiomh heard as he woke from a sore and dreadful slumber. He opened his eyes slowly and saw his captain sitting in the corner of the medical tent, hunched over in thought. His fingers were steepled and his eyes were focused angrily upon the lieutenant’s frail form.
“Were you expecting me to perish?” asked the swordsman with a hazy mind and mouth.
“Yes. And I have been doing so for the last six tasks that I’ve given you. You’re one tenacious bastard.” The captain stood and closed the linen panels around Claiomh’s hospital bed, obscuring them from sight. “It ends now. I’m sorry that I don’t have time to explain, but things are moving too quickly. You’re just a pawn that I need to sacrifice for a greater gambit.”
“You’re... assassinating me?” Claiomh asked, again through a mind plagued by fatigue and mental fog.
“No. You have to be important to get assassinated. I’m simply murdering you,” Rhongomiant explained as he drew a small dagger wreathed in frost and snow. His hand holding the dagger quivered slightly but was then stilled by the other. With swift and powerful purpose he drove the icy blade through Claiomh’s chest as he lay defenceless upon his hospital cot.
As the captain removed the dagger and hid it away upon his person, Claiomh clutched his abdomen in agony. “Traitor!” the swordsman exclaimed. He tried to rise from the bed, but the blood pooling out of his back and onto his cot had frozen. The ice magic from the dagger was also permeating his chest, freezing him from the inside, slowing his heart rate.
“Turning traitor to unjust leaders is a righteous act,” Rhongomiant reasoned. “You have naught to do with the politics involved. You’re a soldier, a great one at that. A true warrior of renown. I shall not see your likes for quite some time I think. Such a shame. Such a waste…” the captain hung his head and turned to go, but as he did so Claiomh felt a tremendous heat rise from within himself.
Such rage, as could not be comprehended by ones untouched by betrayal, rose within like the magma of a raging volcano. Claiomh began to emit a bright orange flame from his chest. He bled lava as his body burned away the ice magic that was freezing and trapping him. He roared a great sound that drew Rhongomiant’s attention and made the captain freeze in shock.
Claiomh rose like a revenant clad in a chest plate of fire and blood. Without hesitating, he wrapped both of his hands around the neck of Rhongomiant and began to strangle him. The surge of draconic forces within Claiomh gave him a mighty strength. One that his captain had not expected and could not counter. Claiomh then suddenly applied a great amount of force to the captain’s neck and deftly snapped his spine.
He released his former captain from his grip and watched the body fall to the floor. The flames flowing from his chest then began to cauterize the wounds. Soon he stopped bleeding, but the flames that earlier erupted from his body now burned the surroundings. Doctors and nurses began to scramble and panic as the sudden fire appeared within the middle of the medical tent.
Many lives were lost in that fire, but Claiomh persisted. His body, still breathing, was dragged from the rubble and was allowed time to recover in an isolated ward. When he had recovered enough to stand he was sentenced to death for the crime of arson. He was not given a trial or a chance to tell anyone what happened. The order came down from a general in the Head Guard. One who needed loyal soldiers out of the way.
Chapter 7: Words of Wind and Swords of Light
The words of the one in azure armour cause a breeze to begin stirring around Claiomh’s tree. The wind circulates and begins to pick off pieces of vegetation and debris that have been collected over the years. It takes a great while and great persistence but the azure one manages to rid Claiomh of all the detritus and plants that had snared him. All that is left trapping Claiomh is the husk-like corpse of the creature that had shrouded him with its body.
“Now that’s something you don’t see very often, ” the armoured one says, examining the corpse. “It looks like you made friends with a dyfiant fallow. One that was at the end of its life.” He then reaches out and gently touches the skeletal remains on the skull. Like a ripple emanating from the place he touches, the skeleton begins to slowly crumble into dust. Soon naught remains but a ring of ash upon the ground around Claiomh’s still form.
The one in azure armour scoops up the dust into a small pouch and then tucks it away. “The essence of such a rare creature could be useful”, the guard says before he turns his attention to Claiomh. He peers into the vacant, glassy eyes and tries to glean a way to retrieve the wits of such a pitiful soul. “What happened to you?” the azure one asks, baffled by how one could persist in such a state, undead or otherwise. “You must have been here for decades… Most in your predicament get consumed by the abysmal plain. In one way or another…” the armoured one trails off as he hears something approaching from behind him.
Closing in slowly and deliberately is a gollwyng. The hulking mass lumbers forward on two powerful legs coated in purplish ooze. Above the legs is a great spinal cord that runs perpendicular to them. This backbone is the origin of the purplish ooze, though closer to the vertebrae the thick slime is glowing pink. The spine extends behind the fiend into a long, broad tail. One meant to counterbalance the monster’s huge head. Extending up from the hips to a short, thick neck, the spine leads into a massive skull. This is not the logical skull of a living creature though. This is the gaping maw of a warped undead soul gone mad. Teeth hang down like hand-sized daggers, but there is no lower jaw to contain them. Unabashed they constantly angle towards new prey. Down from this maw, dripping more of the dark secretion comes a noise like a very deep rumbling. One that could hardly be considered a sound to mortal ears.
The gollwyng stomps forward, arcing its great head back, preparing to strike down the azure one. Hastily, he draws his mace but is unsure how much good it will do. As a Clapper Guard, his strength is in his words, not his battle prowess, but this would not be the first time he dances with fiends upon these plains. As the gollwyng swings its massive head downwards the azure one combat-rolls towards the monster’s left flank. The force of the attack embeds the beast’s teeth into the ground. For the moment it is stuck. The guard swings at the fiend’s leg, but all the force from his blows is absorbed by the dripping ooze.
“This won’t do me any good,” he states as he watches the gollwyng lift its head out of the newly formed crater. The beast does not turn towards him though, it instead looks at Claiomh’s still frame, clearly considering him an easier meal.
“No! Leave him be, foul beast!” yells the guard, charging the gollwyng fearlessly. The gollwyng seems to be peering into Claiomh’s eyes. It then begins to deeply inhale, pulling the air into its cavernous skull. It is beginning to consume Claiomh’s remaining essence. “Back, monster!” the guard cries as he strikes the gollwyng’s skull with an upward arching swing of his mace. The underside, where the mace hits, does not have as thick a layer of ooze as the legs, therefore this attack is more successful. Though, an undead fiend of this size and nature does not fall easily. The beast is stunned briefly by the blow, allowing the guard to place himself between the monster and Claiomh’s body. “This is my charge. I am tending to him and you may not dine upon his remaining essence!” he shouts at the monster defiantly. He then lets out a great and proud roar. One ringing with the duty of a Clapper Guard and the force of a draconic soul.
It is this noise that causes Claiomh to blink. The first movement his body makes in decades. After the first blink comes a second. And then a third. Soon his vision returns and the first thing he witnesses in a very long time is the Clapper Guard duelling a hideous and gargantuan monster.
Roused by the sight of battle he begins to move his limbs. Stiff they were with years of disuse, but slowly he regains control. The guard is drawing the gollwyng’s attention as much as he can, but alone he is struggling to maintain the upper hand. As Claiomh stretches and flexes he notices something glowing upon the belt of the azure one. The small pouch that contains the dust of the dyfiant fallow that had sheltered Claiomh glows before his eyes, but his alone. Over his statuesque stay upon the abysmal plains, he had bonded with the creature. Their bodies and souls tangled amongst the debris and vegetation of these near-empty wilds. The dust is calling out like it is part of him.
He ambles towards the guard, who has just dodged another crater-creating head bash from the gollwyng and calls out, “Hand me that pouch.”
The guard turns and jumps as he notices Claiomh. “You can move! You can speak!” He exclaims in surprise.
“No time for discussion, hand me that pouch!” Claiomh insists, his senses and wits returning.
The guard nods and tosses him the pouch full of dust. “I don’t know what you’re up to, but I hope it can help us deal with this fiend.”
Claiomh knows not what he is up to either; he is merely propelled by instinct and a desire to be whole once more. He opens the pouch and sticks his right hand inside, burrowing it into the powder. Immediately, the glowing grows brighter and turns a vivid green. As Claiomh pulls out of the bag, he notices something emerging in addition to his hand. He draws a vivid, glowing claymore that slices the bag open as he extends his arm. The dust that scatters is immediately sucked into the glowing blade. The air around the sword begins to warp with heat.
“A blade…of green fire? What are you?” asks the guard in awe. He has never seen such a thing in all his time on these vast plains.
The gollwyng standing behind the guard has raised its head once more and looks towards the two men in hunger. Claiomh, feeling a power rising within his chest, steps between the guard and the gollwyng. As the sensation reaches its apex he lets out a furious roar. While he emits the sound he feels a fire within begin to spread. From the scar, given to him by Rhongomiant, springs again a geyser of flames, though this time they have no wound to exit from. Instead, they find their way to his eyes. From the corners, they weep burning blood, but green instead of orange.
“Fire from within… I see.” The guard nods in realization. “Like I, your soul is linked to our ancestors quite strongly. But there’s more… that dyfiant fallow… must have done something to you as you were bound here together.”
“Cursed or gifted, I care not,” Claiomh says as the gollwyng approaches. “My only concern now is defeating this foe.”
The gollwyng charges and swings its head down at Claiomh as it has tried to do numerous times to the guard. This time though, its target does not dodge. Claiomh thrusts his claymore with all of his might into the skull of the gollwyng as it attacks. The force of the swinging head impales itself upon the burning green sword, but the momentum carries on, plowing Claiomh into the ground in the process.
“Reckless fool!” accuses the guard in shock before rushing to Claiomh’s aid. With a tremendous effort, he lifts the head of the gollwyng up high enough for Claiomh to drag himself out of the crater. “If you weren’t already dead, you would have been after that,” speaks the azure one, dropping the skull as he observes the gollwyng to see if it is still a threat.
Claiomh rises without assistance and stares at the beast as well. It does not move. After a few moments, the bright pink glowing of its spine subsides and the ooze stops flowing forth. The remaining slime forms puddles on the ground and in the craters left behind by the fiend’s rampage. Small and ethereal creatures begin approaching the bones and puddles, drawn by the energy given off by the foul remnants.
“Mighty gollwyng slayer, a fellow of dyfiant fallows, and an heir to draconic souls. Your resume could get you into any of the Guard Ranks you desire, undead or not,” acknowledges the blue one.
“Guard Ranks…” Claiomh repeats as he clutches his head, remembering betrayal and destruction. His mind begins to slip once more, but this time stops as he feels something upon his shoulder. He looks up and notices the Clapper Guard placing a caring hand upon him.
“Whatever past troubles have scarred you are long gone, friend. Dwell not on them, lest you return to a wretched state,” the azure advises before removing his hand from Claiomh’s shoulder and extending it in front of himself. “I am Brysgyll. I guard the Clapper of the realm and serve the unfortunate undead.” However, after a beat, he seems to realize something. “No offence,” he adds hastily.
“None taken,” Claiomh replies as he grasps Brysgyll’s hand and shakes it. “I am…” he pauses, trying to recall who he is. It takes him a moment, but he soon remembers. “…I am Claiomh Solais of the Head Guard. Or rather… formally of the Head Guard, I should say.”
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Claiomh,” Brysgyll replies. He then lets out a deep sigh and releases Claiomh’s hand, “I’ve been on these plains too long. I think that it’s best if I return to my guard headquarters to regroup and rest.” He then looks out to the dull horizon for a few moments before returning his gaze to Claiomh. “You could join me if you like. Not as indoctrination into any Guard Ranks, but if you need a place to go.”
Claiomh looks at Brysgyll, and then down at himself. His body is an ashen husk. Scales gray and dull with limbs that could stay motionless for years at a time. He then realizes that his eyes have stopped bleeding and notices the streaks of vibrant green left by his bloody tears upon his chest. His entire torso, tattered clothes and all, are stained with ash and blood. In his right hand, the glowing claymore that had formed from the dust was returning to its original form of particulate matter. However, It does not blow away but floats gently towards the arm that held it. The glowing dust adheres to Claiomh’s right forearm, bespeckling his gray scales with many vibrant green dots.
“Fascinating,” Brysgyll comments as he examines the glowing dust.
Claiomh then acknowledges that Brysgyll had invited him to stay at a guard headquarters and replies, “Thank you, but I do not think that I would be welcome there. I’m no longer… like others. I also have no purpose, nor goals. I should continue to wander the plains...”
“We’re each responsible for choosing our paths. Mine leads me to the north, and I fear the trip may not be easy. If it’s a purpose you seek, what if I hire you? As an escort to help me reach the Clapper Guard headquarters,” Brysgyll offers. “You’d be free to do whatever you want after we reach our destination. I’m not sure what kind of payment you would accept, but I’m certain we could come to an agreement. Gold, a job, a place to stay, or other things can be provided as compensation,” he continues while gesturing towards his path northward.
“Compensation…” Claiomh repeats. He ponders what he could want. He cannot go back to being a guard, knowing how corrupt their ranks could be. What could he spend gold on now that he did not need food, drink, or shelter? He did not even feel the other needs of the living, now that he has time to reflect. “I need knowledge… of what I am. Of the undead and these plains,” he finally says.
“The Clapper Guard headquarters has a library. One full of books about the undead and the abysmal plains. As payment for escorting me, you could request a library card that grants access to these books,” Brysgyll suggests.
“Then lead on. I know not what other horrors lurk these plains, but you have my word that I will do my best to defend you from them,” Claiomh then salutes the guard before him. He is not entirely sure why, but it feels appropriate.
“Splendid. Let us be off then, these pools of ichor are starting to draw larger presences,” Brysgyll indicates as the empty plains around them are starting to become less so. Larger creatures, most about knee-height and almost opaque in colouring, are beginning to approach the pools to feed upon the energy emanating from them.
Claiomh nods and follows Brysgyll as he leads the way. They walk for a few minutes until they reach the top of a small hill to the northwest. In the distance they see the plains, pocked by shallow and wide craters, stretching northward to the base of a mountain some hundreds of kilometres away. “We’re heading towards the mountain, but not all the way. Once we get fifty or so kilometres north of here we should come across something that will point us in a more specific direction,” the guard explains. “Any questions or concerns?”
“None,” is all Claiomh says as he begins marching down the hill’s northern slope without waiting for his companion.
Brysgyll sighs, “this is going to be an interesting trip.” He then takes a deep breath and follows his escort.
Northward they go, into the crater-marked stretch of the abysmal plains. The path before them is shrouded in a low hanging mist beneath a gray sky. Though, Claiomh’s glowing green arm and Brysgyll’s azure armour colour any path they walk. Together, they march to their destination while forging the path themselves.
Thank you for reading Burning Blood!
This story, and many others, will be in my upcoming short story collection titled Unusual Tales for the Curious Mind