Evil burns in colors sullen, Pilgrim.
Aye, Fellow Traveler. In the eyes of a wizard Evil smolders in colors dark and menacing. All life shimmers and glows. Trees. Flowers. The animals of the forest. The denizens of the watery deep. Dragons. Man. All life shimmers a color and a hue unique to its own. Even Magic, Pilgrim. Magic glows in colors unique to the brand of magic used.
I am the one called Roland. Roland of the High Crags. I am a warrior monk of the Bretan Way. My magic is Bretan. Here, in the snow capped peaks of the High Kanris, I have taken vows to protect the weak and the innocent from those which would feed upon their souls. Evil of any kind. My vows are unbending. I cannot flinch. I can not withdraw from the fight. I fight the noble fight. The fight that Evil must be confronted. Must be constantly sought out and defeated.
For the true believer knows, Pilgrim. Evil can never be destroyed. Only constrained in heavy chains if resolutely confronted.
So began this adventure on one bright moon lit night as I rode the warm updrafts rising into the night hair from forest floors below us. I and my good companion, a Huygens-bred Great Wing who called himself Cedric.
A Great Wing, friend, is a giant hawk. A powerful bird of prey found only among the snow capped peaks of the High Kanris. A bird, this Cedric, a hundred and eighty hands high. Roughly fifteen feet tall when wings folded and standing on clawed talons. A fierce warrior. Fearless and bold. With wings strong enough to carry me long distances over forest floor or mountain peak in this rugged land I call home. A great warrior in his own right–a partner who has agreed to stay at my side in my fight against both the Dragon and against Evil.
On this lonely night as we rode the moon beams over a nameless valley, the jagged black peaks of mountains towering over us and capped by snow gleaming bright and brilliant on moonlight, we both heard the eerie voice rising up from below calling for us.
Help, masters! Help this weary soul! Save me and my kinfolk from our tormentors!
Oh, please, oh great wizard. We beseech thee!
The pleading voice of a ghost, Pilgrim.
Aye, the dead doth speak. The night filled with wandering souls. Lost souls. Tormented souls. Sad souls. For one reason or another souls who will not step into the Netherworld and swim in the warm waters of the River of Time. This voice rising up to us as we sailed silently over a valley floor of ancient forests was a tormented soul–a soul wishing to journey into the Netherworld. But one kept here in the Outer Worlds by supernatural forces stronger than it.
Cedric, old friend, did not hesitate. With me strapped firmly in the saddle it dipped one mighty wing and circled above the forest floor, one great eye of his peering into the moon light night to find the source of this pleading lament. Eyeing something human eyes are incapable of seeing the great beast folded its wings and dived downward toward a small forest clearing.
With a powerful whoosh! of wings Cedric settled into the high grass of the small clearing. Folding his wings hesitantly it eyed the black forest encircling the clearing expecting some kind of trap to be sprung. Leaping from the saddle, the curved bronze hued blade of my ancient Dragon scimitar in hand, I too expected trouble. Moving away from my winged companion, the tall grass waving in the moonlight in my wake, sword in hand, I waited for our lamenting ghost to make its appearance.
She came, soon enough, floating across the tall grass in a meandering cloud of a million fireflies.
Master! Master, oh! You heard me! You heard my pleas! Thanks be to the to the gods.
Fireflies, millions of them, danced around us, rising and falling, in some kind of merry fugue. The Inner Eye within me, the third eye all wizards and those with magical powers possess and that gives them the power to see the auras of life, glowed with joy and relief. This Inner Eye of mine saw this ghostly entity was that of a child, a small child, a female long absent from the Outer Realms in physical form yet trapped in this world unable to move on.
“Calm yourself, child, and tell me why you speak of others and why you dwell in this valley still?”
I am called Rebecca, master. I and my kinfolk–parents, uncles, cousins, aunts and distant kin–settled in this valley many, many years hence. Far from others like us
we decided to build our homes here in peace, in solitude, in peace.
But soon after my birth a great evil came to us. A great evil disguised as a human.
One by one it began to take us. It stalked us all. Sank its bloody fangs into our souls and took our spirits from us. Even in death it holds us here, master.
We cannot leave this valley. We cannot enter the Netherworld. We have been here for a long, long time. So long some of us are beginning to fade into nothingness,
master! Can you help us? Can you free us from our tormentor? Oh, please, master!
Please help us!
I felt the child’s pain. I felt the faint menace yet reaching out with its cold gripping and holding onto her soul. I knew what had to be done. Yet the perils I knew were great. Great for me. Even more so for the child’s soul and those of her kin.
“I can journey to your time, child. I can find this evil sorcery and I can challenge it. But it is powerful, this magic. I cannot guarantee I can defeat it. If it defeats me, child, it will grow far stronger. Perhaps strong enough to leave this valley which keeps it trapped within.”
I will help you, master! I–we all–will help you find this dark magic and defeat it! This we promise!
“Return to you kin, child. Tell them I travel into the past. Tell them to remain silent upon my appearance. The evil that holds you need not know of my coming until I am already arrived.”
The fireflies, millions of them, reacted to my words. The swirled around us twice and then drifted away in a long weaving line in one direction of the dark forest pressing down upon us. Still gripping the ancient blade in my hand I turned and eyed my old friend.
“If we journey back to the child’s time and are caught forever there our souls will be consumed, old friend. We will never escape. You do not need to travel with me. Go you your way and I shall go mine.”
For an answer the giant war bird bent its thick neck down and, using its long hooked beak gently, pushed me hard backward, making me stumble back through the high grass two or three steps. From his mind I felt a hot retort of anger for me for even suggestion such an idea.
Grinning, feeling Cedric’s anger in my mind, I nodded and reached up with a gloved hand and slapped the war bird’s great hook beaked fondly. True friend and warrior he was. Through thick and thin. We would ride together in this battle.
“Very well, Cedric. Prepare yourself. The journey will be swift but cold. Colder than the fiercest of any winter’s breath we ever endured together.”
Stepping away from my feathered brother I lifted a gloved hand up over bowed head. Closing my eyes I began the process of focusing the Inner Eye. Into the Netherworld we had to enter together. Into that domain that was neither in the present nor in the past. Neither in the future nor in the minds of mortal man. But only after stepping into the Netherworld would Cedric and I be able to travel across the deep waters of the River of Time. Travel into the past. Into the far, far past.
First came the tingling, electrical charge of entering the Netherworld. A surge of wild exuberance–of overwhelming warmth and static electricity, sweeping across us. Stimulating very pore, ever nerve ending in our bodies with a sense of narcotic bliss. The smells–the sounds–the roar of the Netherworld almost overwhelmed our senses. But swiftly it swept past us–and then darkness engulfed us. Darkness yet the sensation of floating on calm waters of a wide river.
Indeed, the River of Time is a an endless river, Pilgrim. A deep, wide river that flows for eternity into the Past and for an eternity into the far Future. It never ends. It has no beginning. It goes on in both directions forever. Time limitless flows in this body of water. And it, like the Netherworld itself, is filled with souls passing across the dark waters, traveling in both directions at once.
But the calm waters began to get choppy. The smooth motion of riding in a boat changed to the hurling, undulating crash of a being tossed hither and yon in a ship riding the winds of a howling hurricane! Cold–cold far colder than the winds of the frigid northern glaciers–howled angrily in our ears. Buffeted and bruised we stood together enduring the journey. Winds howled. Screamed. Faintly carrying the voices of hundreds–thousands–millions of souls crying out to us we hurled past them.
And then . . . suddenly . . . . silence.
The smells of a high mountain valley. The soft touch of a mountain breeze playing across my cheeks. The smells of wild flowers and forests old in my nostrils. Opening my eyes I lifted my head and peered around me. Cedric stood exactly in the same place I saw him last. But, looking up at the stars I could see we had arrived. Arrived in this same valley as had recently being standing in. But in a far, far, more ancient time.
In the night wind I heard the faint echo of laughter and the sounds of a music. Sheathing the ancient blade I walked to my feathered friend and leapt into the saddle and strapped myself in. Cedric spread his wide, powerful wings and leapt high into the night sky. Wings strong and swift had us climbing swiftly into a starry, moon filled night. Banking sharply to the right it did not take us long to spy the small hamlet of simple log cabins setting beside a small river in a not too distant mountain clearing.
Life, Pilgrim. Remember I said Life glows with an aura all its own. Even ghosts have an aura. Life–in a different setting–yet living still. Unless, unless . . .
In the moonlight the cabins looked old and decrepit. The moon’s silver beams played across low roof lines and log walls. From chimneys columns of smoke lifted into the night sky while on the surface of the moving river, like glittering orbs of a thousand scintillating diamonds, moon beams played across its dark watery surface. Twice we circled the hamlet in silence, Cedric’s wings riding the night air like the master of the hunt he was. Pointing to a spot beside the river I said nothing. Nor had to. My old friend heard my thoughts. Twisting around quickly and folding his wings we dropped like a stone toward the river’s bank. Settling onto the river bank like avenging wraiths I leapt from my saddle and then patted the hardened yellow beak of the war bird gently.
“Stay alert, old friend. We hunt that which hunts us. Evil lurks in the night waiting to lunge at our throats.”
One last slap on the Great Wing’s beak and I started walking down a well trodden path toward the one building in the hamlet which light filtered through windows and into the night. From this low slung, long building came the sounds of laughter and music. The laughter of adults mingled with the squeals of children. Aye, Pilgrim. On first blush the warmth of the light, the sound of music and much laughter emanating from within this old inn, should have warmed my heart. All seemed well. All seemed as it should. Yet the Inner Eye I possessed told me otherwise. I knew, Pilgrim. I knew Evil hoary and ancient nestled within. And it was waiting for me to step unsuspectingly into its elaborate trap.
Ducking my head to slip under the low roof line I opened the inn’s door and stepped into the brightly lit interior. Closing the rough wooden plank door behind me I gazed at those who gazed at me and nodded. Twenty souls sat around long tables on roughly hewn benches or stood leaning against a long bar which stretched the width of the building to my left. Farmers. Woodsmen. Children of all ages. Warriors wearing habiliments and weapons unfamiliar to me. Merchants in outrageously colorful apparel. All sat or stood silently and stared at me with frozen smiles pressed upon their lips.
Souls captured and consumed by the Evil which hid itself somewhere in this room. Captured long, long ago in a far away past and held in psychic servitude all these years in this valley of the damned. Ghosts who’s auras told me they screamed in silent agony yet danced at the whim of that which held them so tightly in his grip.
“Master, thank the gods!” Rebecca’s happy voice came to me as she ran with face smiling and eyes dancing in joy to me. “The terrible thing which had imprisoned us all these years has fled! Fled the moment he felt your presence about the hamlet as you and your giant bird circled in the night. Thank you, master! Thank you! We are free, finally free!”
Tiny little hands gripped my calloused, hardened hand and pressed it against her cheek for a moment and then turned and pulled me deeper into the room. Several of the ancient warriors from lands I knew not approached me with smiling faces and heartily pounded me on my back and expressed their gratitude. An old patriarch, with thick white beard and long white air falling to his wide shoulders, rose from one of the benches and walked to the bar. Pouring something black and strange into a large stone cut, smiling like the grateful head of a large family, he turned and offered me the cup.
“Drink, wizard. Drink! Tonight we will celebrate our release from hell’s grasp. Tomorrow we will journey into the Netherworld and swim in the warm waters of eternity. Drink, kind sir. Drink and let us hear you tell us how great of a wizard you are!”
Evil’s black heart pounded with rhythmic assuredness my ears. Encircling me were the smiling of the ghosts many–their auras twisting and squirming and screaming in silent horror as they knew what was to come next yet powerless to prevent it. Smiling sadly, staring down at the dark fluid that was neither wine nor water, I felt the pain of the many–and the arrogant confidence of the Evil One–and knew what I had to do.
With a flick of the wrist I tossed the black liquid from the cup. It arched away from me in a long graceful curve and eventually splashed onto the rough planked wooden floor of the inn. The moment it touched the flooring it began hissing its killing acid bite and burrowed deep into the ancient wood.
“Your tricks will not deceive me, Ancient One. I feel your presence here. I know you hold these souls in a grip of servitude. Enough with this subterfuge. Release those who have served you for so long and allow them to enter The Netherworld.”
Like a black tidal wave of raw emotion I felt the presence of the Ancient One recoil from me, its ancient soul quivering with hot anger as it moved away. Most of the souls encircling me took a step back from me as well. But two–two warriors from ancient lands long forgotten–reacted differently. Rage and anger filled their faces as they unsheathed the straight blades of ancient weapons and leapt at me. Like magic Helshvingar was in my hand. Steel met flashing steel in deadly play and rang out like ancient chimes in a constant clang of a maleficent symphony.
The ancient Dragon scimitar I carried strapped to my side always. A curved blade of steel forged by the gods themselves. Steel. Yet not steel. Blue, like fine forged steel, it was not. No. This blade had a faint bronze hue to it that seemed to glow whenever released from its sheath. Down the length of the blade, on both sides, were some kind of old and forgotten script. No one knew what it said. But the blade’s name was of Dragon tongue. From an old, almost forgotten dialect.
The Killer of All Evil.
We fought, the three of us, in a fierce encounter of murderous intent. Our swords rain down in slashing blows met by counter strokes of equal fury. The din of battle, the dance of three warriors, moved across the floor of the ancient inn in a destructive soiree. Chairs were overturned. Tables were smashed and splintered. The two warriors of old–ancient yet not ancient–fought like madmen. In their eyes and on their faces were portraits of the rage and black murderous intent of the Ancient One himself. Deep, deep underneath the controlling grasp of the Ancient One I could feel the souls of the two men crying out in anguish. They were trapped. Helpless. They screamed in despair and pleaded for me to somehow release them from their bondage. Faintly–like voices heard in a breeze from far away–I heard their pleas.
Grimly I doubled my efforts to save them from their damned eternity.
Their swordplay was good for warriors ancient. I felt the Ancient One’s expertise in the way he forced his bonded slaves to fight. But they fought in a style of swordplay far more simple in structure than what a Bretan warrior-monk is taught. I noticed the rudimentary styles of both immediately and waited for the moment to strike. It came after the fifteenth stroke of the sword when one of the warriors lost his footing and stumbled to one side a half step. Like the strike of a viper’s bloody fangs Helshvingar slid in underneath the warrior’s blade and slashed across the warrior’s upper waist.
The moment Helshvingar’s magical blade touched the ghost’s torso a violent transformation took place. A cloud of black vapor blurred the image of the stricken warrior and hissed loudly up and away from the warrior. The clatter of the warrior’s ancient steel blade falling to the inn’s floor was masked as the scream of a thousand banshees filled our minds and souls with squeals of pain and anger. But the soul of the warrior–the soul of an honorable foe so long held in bondage– lifted above me glowing in the brilliance of bright white. As the newly released spirit lifted up and away from me, on the warrior’s face was the visage of a man suddenly freed from bondage and joyous in his new found freedom. The soul of the warrior rose rapidly, and just before it disappeared through the inn’s rough timbered ceiling above us, a hand waved at me–a gesture of gratitude from a soul who, for centuries, knew nothing but grief and torment and despair.
Waving farewell I smiled. And turned to face the entities who stood facing me in some lifeless facade of existence, lifting the curved, bronzed hued blade of Helshvingar up in the process.
“You cannot win this fight, Old One. This is the blade of the gods. Forged by the immortals to cut the bonds you hold over others. Forged to suck you into the blade itself and imprison you for the rest of eternity. As long as the blade and I act as one our combined magic will defeat you. Release those who you yet control, Old One. Release them and face the fate that is in store for you.”
From the Ancient One I felt pain and disbelief. Never before in its long existence had something like this ever happened to him. For a moment or two I felt the black presence of the Evil One quivering in indecision. My Inner Eye saw the Ancient One’s black vapor filling the room recoiling, twisting, contracting. And then, in the blinking of an eye, it made a decision! Again the screams of a thousand banshees filled the inn with a noise that almost was beyond endurance. From the forms of the remaining souls yet in the inn clouds of black vapor lifted from them and congealed into the main vaporous body of the Ancient One.
With a thundering roar the Ancient One ripped open the inn’s roof and began ascending rapidly into the moonlit night. Fleeing from me and from the power of Helshvingar as rapidly as it could. Turning, throwing open the inn’s door, I ran for the black form of Cedric waiting for me at the river’s edge. The giant war bird had its beaked head lifted upward, screeching its war cry, as it watched the Ancient One flying away. With a bounding leap I hurled myself up into my old friend’s saddle. The moment I landed in the old leather Cedric spread its dark wings and bounded into to the air. So rapid was my old friend’s ascent into the night air I was almost hurled from the saddle itself. But somehow I strapped myself in still gripping Helshvingar in one hand.
The vaporous cloud of the Ancient One twisted and dove and climbed in its mindless haste to elude us. But riding the moonlit night’s air currents is the domain of a Great Wing. No entity–not even ancient horrors from the depth of The Netherworld itself–can dominate the skies like a Great Wing! For every move the Ancient One tried in his efforts to elude us Cedric had a counter. Through the night air we hurled recklessly!
But in the end–in the end–Cedric positioned himself over the long, snake-like vaporous body of the Ancient One. And I . . . I gripping with both hands the blade of Helshvingar . . leapt from saddle into the night air and into the depths of the vaporous cloud of this ancient evil itself.
A half hour later we returned to the long forgotten high mountain valley and settled gently into the tall grass on the spot where we first met the child Rebecca. Jumping from the saddle to stand beside my old friend we stood silently . . . expectantly . . .and waited.
She came again, the child Rebecca, in a cloud of a million beautifully bright fireflies. Drifting across the valley floor in a swarm of flickering light. As she approached we saw her take the ghostly form of a child. Each tiny firefly becoming an integral part of the child’s image as she approached and began to ascend into the night.
She said nothing to us. Yet as her ghostly image rose on the waves of moonbeams she lifted a hand up and waved goodbye. And in our souls we felt the wash of an overwhelming sense of freedom and longing drench us in tears of relief and gratitude.
B.R. Stateham writes fantasy, noir, and hard boiled. His fantasy series, Roland of the High Crags has been re-issued by Trestle Press and is available as a download for any e-reader. Also from Trestle Press are his short story collections bundled together in a series called Call Me Smitty. If you like a steely-eyed, coldly efficient hit-man, you’ll love the Smitty stories.
You’ll find more about the author in his blog spot In The Dark Mind of B.R. Stateham at www.noirtaketurner-frank.blogspot.com