You wandered into a new town, though I cannot say how long ago.
The first half of my tale comes from the man who freed you. Even I do not remember why you were bound—given our mutual ignorance we have no choice but to believe the account of Lord Musa of the House of Em:
Lord Musa had won a hard-fought alliance—one he could not afford to lose for the sake of anyone.
If that anyone were not from the House of Ath, he wouldn’t have taken the risk.
Musa ruled his land as its Lord. He had dealt with years of border skirmishes between himself and the rival Lords–and now petty Kings–and all before he could even begin talks of alliance. Let alone the time-consuming negotiations with the rival Lords to form his confederation. Even during negotiations, the rival Lords needed to vote on who the new King of their confederation would be. In the end, they had chosen Duad of the House of Ath. Duad the Dreaded, he’d been called while they warred.
But united, Lord Musa hoped their confederacy might stand a chance against the gray-eyed giant marching his army through Erehwon and Cayyor–a splinter branch belonging to the House of Orm, who ruled in Erehwon’s capital. He’d heard tales that the former King had thrown himself out a window, and left his Regal Sword behind for his half siblings: Amr, Gormund, and Clarissant.
But even with such a threat looming, Duad Ath did not seem like he wished to hold tight to this confederation. Perhaps the giant and his Housemen had bribed him. Perhaps he did not care. But Musa Em would not let his work go to waste. He would not let his position be wiped out by the giant with the army of Housemen in steel coats.
Musa Em still remembered Duad’s smile when they chose him as King. As sharp and curved as his dagger.
This same dagger would soon be at Musa Em’s throat if he was not careful. He had seen the thing that had slinked out of Ath’s expanse late at night during their weeks of negotiations. The beast was massive, such that it had nearly torn the roof clear from the holdfast’s entrance. And when he saw the thing lumbering forth, he decided he needed a killer.
To his satisfaction, one had come to their newfound confederation scant days ago.
* * *
Musa stole a visit to the killer, shrouded in a cloak that blustered in the wind as he stomped through the tall yellowed grass. He ran his fingers along the stone wall that sealed the killer inside as came upon the entrance. With a mighty heave, Musa pushed the large stone aside, setting the room alight with the moon’s glow.
He was upon the stranger. A woman from the south of Erehwon, by the look of her. They had confiscated her ringmail shirt along with the double-edged sword she had stolen from one of the sentries when she infiltrated their encampment. The prisoner had used the stolen sword to open another of Duad Ath’s soldiers from waist to throat when she was caught sneaking into the confederation mere nights ago.
It was you, Carth. You were the prisoner.
Presently, you were bound hand and foot by a length of iron fetters. When you saw Musa of the House of Em, you began to struggle, chains clanking He would say later that he regarded you as a taut body of barely-sheathed muscle. Musa watched you struggle until, breathless, you relented and looked up at your captor. You two surveyed each other. You half-hoped that he would try to tear your throat open and kick your skull. Such images had plagued your mind, of late. You could not tell if they were memories.
Smiling, Lord Musa crouched over you. “Would you like to live, outlander?” Musa asked.
You grunted, newfound interest unveiling behind your eyes.
“It will cost you.”
You simply stared.
“I want you to kill a man for me.”
“Duad Ath. The King of our new alliance—and his creature.”
If you were surprised, you did not show it. “I’ll need my blade,” you said. “And my mail.”
Musa nodded. “It will be done.”
“When will I be free?”
“Within the hour. Anyone who can be bribed has been. And those who couldn’t—they were otherwise dealt with.”
“I’ll want my bonds removed now,” you growled. “And I’ll have some food, too. Good food. Not the wretched gruel I’ve been served.”
“It will be arranged, outlander.”
“They call me Carth.”
He was silent for a moment. “It will be arranged.”
* * *
The blade you were given had belonged to Musa Em. It was surprisingly plain for a man who once vied for the throne back in Erehwon. A man who once called himself a King
You stalked through the tall grass that reaching up to your waist. You had a debt to repay.
Your mail shirt rattled as you crept through the night toward Duad Ath’s holdfast. You had been told it would be the one with intricate patterns worked into the windows, shaped in strange ways so that the light filtered through forming odd shapes within. It was some script so bizarre that even man who saved you could not identify it.
An even better marker of the holdfast was the lion rampant emblazoned on a flag snapping over its edifice.
All the other homes were plain, yet when you came upon the holdfast, you realized that this one’s windows were not just strange–they were impractical. Most were crescent windows, with the occasional dash or complete circle, leading into more curves.
You stepped inside and saw that the moon filtering through the windows had formed some kind of bizarre moon-letter, or rune on the stone floor. You’d never seen it’s like before.
You adjusted your cloak about your shoulders and pulled your double-edged blade free from your belt.
You stepped inside.
A lightning bolt flashed behind your eyes and pain seared your forehead. The world around you shattered like so much glass. Then the shattered shards fell into some sort of bright-burning Never beneath you where the floor had once been. They fell and fell and fell, but you could discern no crash to mark an impact point. They simply fell so far that you failed to see them.
You thought you would fall, too, until rock knitted its way between the empty space and your feet, woven from the burning light beneath you and threading itself into spires of stone with a patchwork path interrupted by occasional tufts of grass and dirt. You could see new spires knitting themselves into existence, with dirt and roots under the rocks; sand and stone falling like an open sandbag into the Never, that did not empty or deflate.
You wondered if you should fear this thing–this Never. This account tells you that the woman Khalee mentioned it before. And for all you know this Never is a normal place that anyone can visit.
So you decided not to question it, and carried on.
You followed the path, and heard the vestiges of voices—a conversation.
“…Should have taken my warning! Should have left with your clan while you were still an King!” The voice came behind a bend of jagged stone, booming and towering.
“Your beast doesn’t frighten me,” said the voice of Lord Musa. “My interests remain here, Ath!”
“That murderer gives you good company! Oh, don’t look so shocked. Of course I know. There are many things here—even secrets—that make themselves known to me. I know that the peace you so strived for was won more by daggers in the night and whispered threats. And you wore the guise of protection from the giant’s army! And yet I was named King of our new alliance. It seems the others fear my beast more than your steel and threats. It must chafe, does it not?”
“I did not need to conjure some foul beast to secure my rule. I do not need to steal another’s body in order to confront an enemy! I never exploited a caste for greed and ambition. Do not shame me with such words when you gather taloned beasts and damascened steel to silence those who might dissent.”
“Would you kill me were I in my true body? Musa, I’m surprised at you! At least the outlander isn’t ashamed to bring her murderous acts to bare!”
You decided you’d heard enough of their arguing, and rounded the jagged rock to reveal yourself. The two men stood at arm’s length of each other, both pointing curved daggers at the other. But when they saw you, they lowered their arms an inch. When Duad Ath turned to you, you saw that his eyes were clouded in a milky haze. You assumed this was not Lord Duad, but the person whose body he inhabited.
“Then it is settled,” you growled. “We three are altogether scoundrels.”
Lord Duad of the House of Ath adjusted the collar of his tunic and swallowed saliva. “What shall become of me, then? May I yet keep my life?” You wondered why he did not flee this body. Was he trapped there?
Musa’s smile was as curved as his dagger. “Perhaps,” he said. “If you swear never to summon your beast, and stay away from this evil realm.” He gestured to the void of Never surrounding the three of them.
You laughed. “Since when does a King keep his promises? Come, let me cut his throat and end—”
“Silence,” Musa hissed. “I may yet end this without bloodshed. He stepped forward, but only just lowered his dagger. “Do we have a deal, Ath?”
“A cornered lion has few options,” Duad Ath muttered, staring at your blade, then at Musa’s dagger. He smiled, which struck you as unusual. Why would he smile in such a situation?
But then you heard something straggling down the sheer rock spire. It was a horrid desecration in the grotesque mockery of a human form. It a lumpy creature vaguely resembling a man had been all wrapped up in linen bandages. The lumps were were constantly moving beneath the linen. Every now and again one of the lumps would emerge from between two scraps of linen: red spiders, scuttling across the bandages and worming back inside another gap. Its many eyes were gray as chips of dirty ice. But the linen only had two pits for eyes. It made a clicking sound and leapt for Lord Musa.
But you threw himself in front of the former King. The gremlin collided with you and the two of you tumbled and growled, its blade whirling
Musa watched in muted horror. “You put your life in front of mine? You would battle the Swarm?”
I assume that’s it’s name. But do me a favor, Carth, and don’t ask anyone about it. I doubt anyone will believe you.
Unless I’m lying.
“I pay my debts,” you responded. You and the Swarm parted, and you stumbled into Lord Musa.
“Then let us be sure you do it right,” said Lord Musa, shoving you forward. “Best of luck, outlander. I must away. We’ll meet again.”
Your shoulders were throbbing and you could feel your heartbeat in the back of your neck. You could not let the beast touch either Musa or Duad.I’ve been told from others that the Swarm are called upon by malevolent men, and will often strike deals with folk outside of the Never in exchange for power and realms merged.
Perhaps the giant warring ever southwards came from this place too. Maybe…
The beast pinned you to the ground and you two struggled for three heartbeats before you tore yourself free, cutting one of the beast’s hands off and rolling to the side as it wailed a spider’s wail a thousand times over. The linen hand unraveled, and inside were only dead spiders.
Your cloak was heavy on your shoulders. There was a great thrashing of limbs as you tried to sneak your steel past the Swarm’s defenses. But even one-handed the beast was formidable, swinging in a storm of sword and fury.
You two were in a battle-frenzy. You caught and slashed and swung at each other. You heaved labored breaths, shoulders rising. Once during your battle, the Swarm nearly backed you off the edge of the rock and down into the bright Never glowing downwards forever below you. It tried to envelope you, but you danced away, lashing it with your sword. Breathless, you thrust forward, burying his blade in the beast’s belly. The Swarm’s linen opened, bleeding dead spiders as it sank to one knee. You circled the beast and with a heavy kick, smote the gremlin into the burning Never below.
You turned to address the two men, but Musa Em had long since fled, and Duad Ath was on his knees, uttering pleas for mercy. His gray eyes had returned to him. “I don’t know how I got here. I’m an innocent traveler! I swear on God’s bloody nails!”
But you could only distantly hear him. You were battered and you could feel a pain in every limb of your body. You saw something in the burning sky–an image of some sword, shined and castle-forged. Its gleam caught your eye. A mailed fist was slashing with it, and the image bit into the Never, tearing apart the Never’s seams.
There was a flash from the sky and fingers of argent were whispering through the Never, snatching up foul pieces of it and carrying them off to even fouler places, gray things like rotten dead without mass. Specters of moonlight sifted through the realm, until every piece was carried away, and you were within Duad Ath’s expansive holdfast once more.
You had not seen Ath himself carried away by the specter–leastways the body he inhabited–but he was not with you when you returned to the hut. Nor was Musa Em, and you were unaware if the men could have exited while the strange letter was still filtered in the tent by moonlight.
You did not bother to ponder whether or not the two had been snatched up by the specters. You could not find Ath within the hut. You resolved that he had paid your debt to Lord Musa —even if the House of Em was not around to enjoy it. You tired of their petty quarrels, elsewise. There were other places and other travels for a southron wanderer.
But as you fled, you heard noises down the path, and you were forced into wild, ragged wilderness. A smell of brine echoed in your nostril and the back of your throat. You could hear booming voices and clanking armor and swords. You had no idea how far they were from you. You had to get away. Men from the Houses of Em and Ath were scurrying behind you.
But as you got your footing to flee, you heard noises down the path. you were forced into wild, ragged wilderness. A smell of brine echoed in your nostrils and the back of your throat. The hills had risen as you had walked here and I hadn’t noticed. If I had noticed a second later, I would’ve fallen off a cliff-side into the depths below.
But when you turned there was a flurry of steel and spears. There were Housemen all about you, afoot and on horseback. Something crashed into your head and lightning cracked inside your skull. The ground rushed up to meet you. You manage to once again push up to your knees, groaning and drooling red drool.
“You think she’s a royal?” a man was talking to the others. “No, she’s got black hair. Royals have yellow hair. But look at that beauty—” You were pulled up by it. “That’s wonderful, little one.”
“Don’t touch me!” You reached for your blade.
The man’s boot smacked into your face sending you back to the ground. You crawled forward, away from the man. You were being herded, you realized. You looked back and saw a pair of boots, dusty from years on the road, worn parchment-thin underneath.
You swallowed the fear of the big man and kept crawling. But he followed you down the path, slowly as if you were a wounded pup and he needed a pelt.
“Get up, girl!” he said, kicking you down.
“I’m trying!” you said. That got you the butt of a spear to the head again.
He hauled you up by your collar and half dragged you on the march. “Not trying hard enough, girl.”
“Leave it be, Albarran,” said another man as he came upon the encampment.
Albarran had a wolf sewn onto the tunic he wore over his armor. The same one carved onto the end of his sword. Everyone had that wolf on their tunics and on their swords. Was this the fabled House of Orm.
They stared at you, seeing a girl beaten by some creature they most like thought was a myth. A girl with a sword at her hip. You were not a sight they often saw. You hated them. Hated the Housemen and the Kings vying for the control. You wished the waves would rise up to drown them all.
“Kneel, girl.” you were sent sprawling again and this time felt no need to rise. Each battered breath rattled in your throat. You tasted salt.
“And who is this?” came a booming voice louder and lower than thunder. He held up a hand as wide as your chest.
Distantly, you addressed the voice that reminded you of giants. Gods among men. “Ysbaden?”
The big man boomed out laughter. “She’s a reader, this one! Heh. The girl knows of my Father.”
“Found her crawling from the sea, your Grace,” Albarran said.
“The Nailed God sends us strange things, do they not?” the huge man said. “Are you a sea monster, little girl? A little sea monster?
“N-no. I’m not a girl,” you said. You thought you were a woman grown. Not a little girl too childish for this world.
“Not a girl? Then what are you? A warrior?” His voice softened, then; “No…I agree. You’re not a girl. You’re not much of anything, are you? Gaze upon your betters, little Nothing.”
Slowly, you raised your head and saw two huge boots capped with worn steel. Then two legs as large as a ship’s mast. His chainmail cinched at his waist by a belt twice as wide as your palm that stuffed with swords that looked like long knives pinned against his large body. His chainmail was shoddy and stretched thin over his huge chest, rusted in places like an old man’s liver spots. His fingers were crusted with rings that winked in the moonlight. The man regarded you with one gray eye like a chip of dirty ice, the other white and milky and blind. Those eyes were the only thing you could make out on his face. The rest was a thick white shock of hair and beard, with two mismatched, beady eyes poking through.
“Well?” said the man. “Give me your advice, little one. Be as a mentor is to a King.” He squatted down so you could feel his hot breath turning moist on your face. “Do you think I can become King?”
“Yes,” you said. It wasn’t a lie.
“Crom-cil-Orm, King of Erehwon. It sounds as sweet as wine does it not?” His men were quick to agree, nodding their assent. “I don’t know why the other Kings oppose me. I am a giant, and one with an army. I even sent the Kings messengers to accept their surrender. They were to meet right here. But their brutes killed them rather than surrender a war they can’t win. I will rule the land. I have a blood oath. What do they have?”
You were silent. He seemed to enjoy talking, and you decided it was best to let him continue.
“Doubtless, you understand their folly in opposing me. I am a giant! And who can oppose giants?”
You remained silent, said nothing, and King Crom-cil-Orm picked you up by your neck. “Do you have a name, child?”
You said nothing.
“All right then, keep your silence.”
You did, thinking inwardly: Carth. Your name is Carth. You knew that no matter what happened, you could not forget your name.
But you kept your silence. You kept your hatred, too; held tight to your anger and drank in your venom. These things were not good things, but at least they were yours.
The two men seized you from behind. “Take the child to the dwarf. Let him decide what is to be done with this one.”
Albarran’s pommel came down on you, and everything turned to darkness.