Fanning the Flames, Chapter Sixteen
By: Alluvian Est-Endrati
This story was originally submitted to Mythic!
The Breath of the Gods was strong on this evening, bringing with it the chill of oblivion. From the great north did it come, swirling down past the jagged peaks of this rough land, shining slightly now even in the dark with wondrous colors. Down into the valley was it driven, past rock and under tree till it swirled around a crudely built wooden wall. Long ago had the sun set in the west, for the days were shorter in these northern lands. Yet despite the great dark that surrounded them, on this night, the people of the village against the mountain were still active.
High into the night air a great fire leapt up, blazed to sudden glory by the cunning arts of the shaman. His morbid fetishes dangled about him as he threw a pinch of some ground stone into the fire. Sparkles of color could be seen for a moment before the flames rushed higher, bathing all around in a bright blue light. With a cackle of glee he motioned to the assembled crowd, who parted to let two figures walk past them and toward the shaman. One was a man, seemingly in the prime of his years save for a terrible scar along his right forearm. The person he helped forward was his mate, with the signs of having endured a long pregnancy.
"Poor woman, your troubles are nearly over. With the blessing of the gods this evening, your child shall be born. I have seen it with my own eyes as if it were already done, for the Great Eye has shown me what shall pass on this night!"
The two men eased the woman down upon a mat the shaman had already prepared. From him she took a scrap of leather wound many times about a stick. She had not ever given birth before, but had witnessed this ceremony many times. Pain she had endured, for it was a simple part of life in these lands, yet she was also afraid. The child moved inside of her and she cried out in pain, the sound of which was drowned out by a scream from one of the assembled villagers as a crude spear point thrust forth from his chest.
Inhuman shapes moved into the light and the people fell back before them. Some walked as men walk, yet with legs more resembling those of animals. Other had the heads of beasts, curved horns thrusting out above cruel faces. The leader of these creatures, beasts that would walk as men, was far stranger than anything most of the villagers had seen before. Like a bird it was, yet also like a man, great feathers of blue and gold sprouted from its body. Its head was long and beaked like that of a bird, yet when its mouth opened it was filled with terrible rows of jagged teeth. Numerous eyes peered out from the flesh of its skull and with a clawed hand it pointed toward the belly of the woman, who even now was midway through her labor.
"Give us the woman, her mate, and the child and the rest shall be spared."
The voice of the creature was still much like that of a man, yet it had a songlike quality. Seemingly without thinking many of the villagers moved, as if half asleep, to deliver the family unto the creatures. However the sing-song voice had little impact upon the mind of the shaman. With a great yell he drew upon the Breath of the Gods, and spoke one of the words of power he had long ago learned. A flash of blue light leapt from his eyes and washed over the villagers, who within mere moments were as themselves once again.
The voice of the newly made father rang out in the crisp night air, "While I yet draw breath, none shall take my own flesh and blood from me."
Death. With but a single word the beastmen charged forward, their crude weapons of wood and stone waving in the light from the fire. No longer surprised, the villagers too had taken up what arms they possessed. The battle looked to be ill for the poor inhabitants of the village by the mountain, if not for the final intervention by their shaman. The previous feat had drained him and long tired he had been already in preparation for the rituals that night. He allowed his lungs to breathe in new air, filling his soul with the Might of the Gods.
Strange energies crackled along the staff he bore, and into the fire he thrust its tip. With a single command the blue flames that had danced since his earlier miracle leapt to life. Strange creatures seemed to pour out from the flames, their bodies twisting and writhing as they took new shapes. From the mouths of some or the hands of others came shooting forth flames of unusual colors. These new creatures rushed forth with the speed of a flame rushing across dry kindling, burning the beastmen where they stood. Only a single survivor from their number made it away, for it seems that with the beak and feathers, some fell power had also gifted the singular leader of the once-mighty warband with wings.
Seeing the last of the beastmen flying away to the north, the shaman let go his hold on the creatures of flame he had called forth. The strain of wielding the power of the gods had been too much for him this time and as the color of the fire returned to normal he collapsed where he stood. As the great darkness enveloped him for the final time, he caught but a single last glimpse of the mortal world, that of a mother holding her living son. The sound of the child's first cry drove his spirit into the realm of the gods.
Once again the cold grip of winter fell upon the northern parts of the world, drowning the land in snow. Though shielded from the worst of the winter snows, the village by the mountain always suffered this time of year. The precious hours of daylight seemed to be too few to warm those who must go outside, away from the heat of their fires. It had been many years since the death of the previous shaman, yet the people were not without aid of sorts from the Gods.
The child that had been born on that fateful night so many years ago had grown into a young boy. Though still far from adulthood, even by the standards of this rough land, he had already begun to show a wisdom and intelligence greatly belying his age. A spark of curiosity had flared in the lad at a young age, with the telling of stories and the play of games with the other children. It was this curiosity that had led him earlier this year, into the hut of the former shaman.
Though the people of the village were largely uneducated, possessing no knowledge of writing or other greater tenants of civilization, they were far from being stupid. While the conveyance of words save by voice was unheard of, the use of pictograms and other drawings had long been employed by the people of these lands. It has been many years since anyone had dared to go inside, lest they draw down the wrath of the gods for meddling in their affairs. While afraid of what may have befallen him, the young lad's curiosity got the better of him.
The room lay exactly as it had been the night the shaman died, a single room with a may laid out next to the central fire pit. Strange objects, such as skulls and many interesting things were scattered about seemingly in a haphazard fashion. So many of these caught his eye that he could, at first, not decide what to examine. When his gaze passed over a very odd wooden chest, a tremor passed through him. The box was ancient, seemingly carved from a single piece of wood. Strange faces and gaping mouths leered out from it, which must surely have been daemonic warding to scare off the uninitiated.
The Eye, it drew him to it. The lid of the box was carved to resemble a large eye, much like that of a bird. Surrounding it were strange symbols, much like the ones he had been shown by his father, marked onto ancient standing stones in the forest or onto the side of cliffs. As he had gazed upon it, he had received the quite disturbing impression that the eye was looking back at him. Partially to rid himself of the unpleasant sensation, he quickly lifted the lid off the box and stared in wonder at what lay within.
His parents and the other elder members of the village had often spoken of the strange rocks the shaman would seek out from the mountainside. A strange unearthly glow emanated from within the chest, little of the stone remained yet what still lay within was more than enough to counter the darkness of the dwelling. He remembered quite clearly reaching out to lay a trembling hand upon one of the stones, as well as that first vision that burned itself deep into his mind.
He found himself looking down upon the village as if from a great height. It was nighttime, yet a brilliant blue flame from within the village did much to banish the darkness. Down below him the houses and people of his home were illuminated by the blue light from the fire and he witnessed the arrival of the beastmen and their fate at the hands of the shaman. As he watched, unblinking he saw the winged creature take off from the village and fly north, toward the mountain. A pang of fear flared within him as several of the eyes of the creature had looked upon him, the twisted beak of the thing curving in what might have been considered a smile.
His gaze lingered on it and he saw its shape, oddly illuminated by the weird light from the strange moon. Its path was straight as an arrow, toward the great cave upon the side of the mountain. With the change of the light below as the blue flames shifted back to their normal hue, the vision faded from his mind.
Since that day, several things had changed. The first and most noticeable, certainly to the other denizens of the village at least, were his eyes. His pupils now seemed to any who cared to look, like tiny dancing blue flames. Much commotion existed in the village that day. Certainly he was punished, of course, for disturbing the home of the long-dead shaman. Yet the people seemed to think that his trespass had been a good omen, a sign from the gods that as his life had been spared by the death of the shaman he would one day soon carry on in his place.
The less noticeable change of course, was the one far more difficult for others to easily notice. Though little about him had changed physically, he could feel something strange at work inside his own mind. He began to understand things quicker, and was able to pick up on subtle bits of information that had previously gone unnoticed. However little could he think about this new change, for his thoughts were far too often drawn to that cave, high up the side of the mountain.
Sometimes at night, he felt as though something from that great height looked down upon him, the image that would always come to mind was that of the strange birdlike creature that had flown off to the mountain. He knew he would have to face the creature that had tried to take him at the moment of his birth. He must go to it lest it once again come to bring death to the people of the village.
Thus it was in the depths of winter, not long after the sun had set beyond the mountains, that he stole away. Bundled as he was against the cold he could still feel the chill in the night air. The snows lay deep about him, yet he pushed on, following a path that seemed to lay itself out before him in his mind. As he began his long trek up the mountain path, blessedly free of snow thanks to the nigh continuous winds, he thought he could hear the sound of mocking laughter coming from ahead.
The dark winds from the north, driven strong tonight by the breath of the gods, lashed out at a slight forum as it made its way up a mountain. Strange sounds could be heard upon the wind tonight. The cry of fell voices mingled with oddly familiar screams. Several times, the swirling winds threatened to scoop him up off the mountain, but clutching to the rocks he persevered until he could once again move onward. As he finally came to the mouth of the great cave the winds died down and a great silence fell about him.
Strange lights could be seen from within, shining off the strange crystals in the rocks. Stepping into the cave the young boy felt a sensation similar to one he had before, when he had been bathed in the odd light of the shaman's stones. Deeper into the cave he delved, past odd markings likely left long ago by the shamans of this region. Ahead of him he could hear the faint sound of what must be water, as well as the whispering of a strange voice.
He found what he sought in an odd cavern deep within the cave. A small waterfall came in from higher up in the rocks of the mountain, its flow cascading down over the oddly glowing crystals and into a large pool. Despite the constant influx of water, the surface of the pool was still and unmoving. Though the softly glowing crystals added somewhat to the illumination, it was the glorious radiance of light emanating from deep within the pool that drew his eyes downward. Looking into the depths he felt his vision drawn from his body once again.
Down deep into the water did his sight seem to go, then out of the mountain upon the northern face. The landscape became a blur about him as he was drawn far to the north. Allowing this vision to continue seemed only natural, yet a flash of intuition caused him to yank his eyes away from the pool. The sudden shock caused the whole chamber to warp and spin about him, dropping him to his knees. The light from the pool went dark, and from its surface erupted an all too familiar form.
"You were foolish to come here boy, dancing at the behest of the Master of Fate. Yet if you shall not serve in life than it shall be in death that your path shall be set."
The feathered beastman leapt toward him and he thrust himself backward away from the monster. Its claws gouged deep into the stone upon which he had been lying but a moment ago, the odd laughter of his enemy mixing with the sound of the falling water. The young boy scrambled about, looking for some means by which to defend himself. Yet the creature was faster than he could ever hope to have been. Its second attack did not miss its mark, claws easily tearing through the rough leathers and clothing and sinking deep into the flesh of his back.
Pain flared within him and he could feel that along with his lifeblood the claws of the creature were drawing out the very essence of his soul. Pain, one of the most primitive of emotions, drowned out the despair and hopelessness that threatened to swallow him. Hatred flared within him, blossoming into a white hot fire that seemed to burn within his mind. With a near instinctual effort he reached out his hand and touched the face of his assailant.
Fire erupted from the creature, bursting forth from deep inside with a mighty roar. The force of the explosion knocked him back, his head slamming into one of the crystalline structures of the cave, and for a time he knew no more. The first thing he became aware of as he woke was the familiar sound of water on crystal. Opening his eyes he looked out upon the chamber with the pool, upon a scene of carnage. Little was left intact of the creature, save for its beak, the rest of its body was burned and blasted almost beyond recognition.
Something else too caught his eye, some small trinket that caught a reflection of the light. He was careful as he stumbled forward, not wishing to fall into the strange pool. Lying near where the creatures hand had been, smeared in blood he was sure was his own, was a ring of metal. It was scaled like a lizard, and had set within it a single gem, one that looked much like an ever-open eye. The similarity between this and the chest of the former shaman was not lost on him and he eagerly snatched up his prize.
The injuries on his back were deep, yet they had clotted already with dried blood. He was weak, yet he dared not remain any longer in the cave. Before he left the room with the pool, something made him turn back. He walked to the long beak that lay upon the floor and picked it up, taking it with him. It was very long, for the creature had been quite large. The fires that had erupted to blast the thing seemed to have fused it shut, for his strength could not force it to again open. As a test he thrust it against the stone of the floor and was excited to see the tip of the beak cleave into the stone as easily as the creatures claws had.
Out from the cave he then headed, out into the wind that threatened to toss him again from the mountain. His strength had been drained by the encounter with the creature, but he used the beak as a sort of walking staff, thrusting it deep into the ground to secure his footing. Slowly he made his way back down toward the village, guided only by the light of moons and stars.
The young boy was exhausted beyond measure when he finally returned to the village. The sun had already begun to rise, but had not yet crested the mountains. His wounds were aching, yet his mind was clearer, and more focused than it had ever been. He found he was able to force his body to continue moving further on through the snow toward home despite his many injuries and exhaustion. It was when he tried to climb back over the wall though that his strength finally failed him. It was there, already deep asleep, that he was discovered.
His recovery took several days, during which he got to tell his story many times to an eager audience. The people of the village saw this as divine providence, by defeating the creature that had attacked the village all those years ago, he had proven his worth. In a makeshift ceremony he was proclaimed the new shaman of the village by the leader of the tribe. However, though his ears were better than they had been, he found he could sort out and distinguish much more within his own mind. He heard the whispered conversations, the doubts, the fears.
With the help of his father he was soon moved entirely into the hut of the old shaman. There was much he had to learn, with no guide save the stories and tales the people had of what the shaman and those before him had accomplished. He dove into this new life eagerly, yearning to finally understand the previously 'forbidden' knowledge that he may uncover.
Winter was gone and the spring thaw come before he had made any real progress. The mixture and use of strange herbs, roots and other things for medicine had come easily, his skill at which had done much to put to rest the fears and worries of many of the villagers. The Gods were given many thanks for the 'miracles' he performed and for the moment it was enough. He was content to live and learn, figuring out what he could from the scraps of information that were available.
His greatest achievements came in wielding the power of the Gods to aid the people, doing much to ward off ill fortune, and to protect and guide the people. In one matter alone had he utterly failed, that of divining the future. He had been wary of the Great Eye and of trying to communicate with the Gods. Some small part of him always felt it was not yet time to call down the attentions of the gods. However this day could not be postponed forever, and thus it was in the spring that the chief of the tribe called him to his hut.
"Boy, the snow melts and the sun once again shines upon us as it should. We have you to thank for so many of us making it through the winter. Now that the paths and passes are once again open, the time is come for the hunters among us to do their duty. You must go with them and guide them, show them the way to a proper hunt so the Gods will not be offended."
There was little he could do or say, so he prepared himself for the journey. Every year with the coming of spring, the first sacred hunts of the people of this region were held, when after a long winter the people would gather together to celebrate their good fortune. If their village and their tribe were to hope to prosper in this coming year, they must hunt well to please the Gods. In this matter the shamans were necessary to interpret the signs properly to know if a good kill could be made.
In the past years, their tribe had fared poorly for they possessed no shaman to guide them. Their hunts had been poor, and the other tribes had looked upon them with an ill favor. Within a matter of days he was prepared to join the hunters. His dreams of late had been disturbed. In them he found himself out on a great plain between the mountains, alone. From a great distance the sound of a blowing horn could be heard and the snarl of wolves and dogs. In the dream, terror forced him to flee the unknown huntsman who sought him as prey.
He took some small comfort however in that his father would be with him. The other hunters he knew well, as he knew everyone in the village of course, but more and more he felt as if he was being distanced from everyone he knew by his new abilities. With the noonday sun they set off, heading south and east along the valley towards the best hunting grounds the people of the village knew of. Though still a boy by the standards of his people, he had grown over the winter and was able to keep up with the hunters as they trod through the melting snow.
That night as he lay under his blanket of furs under the clear sky, he cast his mind adrift. With his meal that evening he had ground up a small amount of the precious stone he had taken from the wooden box and its effects were quickly thrust upon him. Sleep claimed him quickly and with a great effort he cast his mind forth into the realm of dreams. Visions of fire and death assaulted him, of the snarling of bestial faces and the clash of metal. He saw his father locked in battle with a strangely armored warrior. His dreams were troubled that night and in the morning he had little advice to offer to the hunters.
However as they passed into the next valley later in the day, one of the fragments from one of his dreams came back to him. Pointing towards the east he directed the hunting party toward something barely remembered. The trees here were thick and darkness still clung beneath the branches, yet sign was quickly found of animal life. The tracks of a bear were discovered, a good omen to the people. Scouting about they found where it had traveled, its fur-clad bulk feasting upon fish caught from a nearby stream.
Hope swelled within him that day, for the prize of the bear was soon enough won. The hunters proved their great skill at taking down the animal with little effort, their bows and spears being more than a match for the creature. Two full days they spent at the site, skinning the animal, roasting the meat and preparing all they could to carry back to the village. The skull of the bear was kept to present at the great meeting of the tribes, as a sign that their luck had once again made a turn for the better.
Yet every night of that trip the same dreams came back again and again. The hunters coming from beyond the mountains to the north, bringing with them fire and death. With every glimpse, these visions became clearer until the screams of the dead seemed to echo inside of him. He found little pleasure in the grand welcome they received upon their return for he knew he saw a vision of a future that was soon to unfold.
In a great open plain between the mountains to the north and the southern sea, did the many tribes of the region gather. Some came from quite far, using crude boats to ply their way along the coast till they could beach them nearby. Old feuds existed between many tribes, yet it was considered taboo to break the peace of the gathering. To relieve the tensions many games and contests were held: Who could drink the most, who could throw an axe the furthest, or who could carry the heaviest stone.
With every tribe too came their shamans and their tales and worship of many strange gods. Despite the peace of the gathering, many of the tribes camped quite a distance from those they knew to be enemies. Mistakes had been known to happen and apologies and offerings to the tribe could not bring back the dead. Though every year he had come with his own people to this gathering, this was the first time he was here as anyone of importance.
It was in the second day of the gathering that the messenger came for him, bidding him come to the great meeting of the shamans of the gathered tribes. Though he had seen the shamans of other tribes before, never had he met any of them nor known anyone other than himself who could feel the breath of the gods. With his ornate staff, fashioned more properly now from the beak he had claimed upon the mountain, he went forth alone into the great gathering for the first time.
Odd looks were given him, for never before had anyone in these lands seen one so young take up the mantle of shaman. While the people he came from were remarkably free of the markings of the Gods, it was here in the great gathering that he could see all those who had been marked by the powers. One man he had only seen from afar before, known well for his great strength, had skin with a red hue and a pair of curled horns growing from his skull. Few were as remarkable as that one, yet so many bore the touch, that the young shaman wondered about the strange beastmen that prowled through the dark forests and lonely places of the world.
Ahead of him he saw where the shamans had already begun to gather about a great monolith of stone that had stood here since the elder days. It had long been carved and marked with the symbols of the Gods, many of which the young shaman would only now see for the first time. A power seemed to emanate from the monolith, and many of the symbols that were strange and foreign to him, bore with them a familiarity that unsettled him. His curiosity as to their nature made him stay, standing silent as they all waited.
The sun had moved but a bit in the sky before the eldest among them, known for many seasons now as the voice of the Gods, stepped forth to address them.
"With the death of the old year, the new had sprouted forth and now grows. Like it our number again has grown, seeing the first so young who could be considered one of us, now here before us for the first time. Step up boy and let us hear of your tale."
A sense of dread began to fill him as he stepped up to take the spot indicated, and began to weave his story. Long practice before his own people had the words tumbling from his lips with barely a thought, giving his mind time to spare, and to study the assembled shamans who listened. Some nodded their heads and muttered to one another bits of their own past history, others feigned boredom but listened intently in their own fashion. Two however looked upon him with icy stares.
When he retook his place, he paid little attention to what the eldest among them had to say. Responding when he should as if by instinct he joined in with them to praise the Gods and all of the gifts that had been bestowed upon them. Soon enough the ritual was over and they all turned their backs to the stone, and headed their separate ways. Later some of them again would come here, to offer up the gifts their tribe had brought to honor the Gods. The time was not yet for him to be here so the young shaman left, only to have a hand grab hold of his arm.
"Wait lad, we would have a word with you."
Not surprising in the least he found himself face to face with the two who had paid such keen interest to him from earlier. The markings upon their staves and about them identified them as warrior priests of the father of battles. Unlike the shamans of other gods who worked miracles, he had heard that those like these two sanctified themselves upon the battlefield, in the blood of their enemies.
"What do you want?"
"Well you see, we don't right believe what all you said was true. We figure you made it all up and we think you need to prove yourself."
He could tell from their words that they did not speak the truth, yet there was little he could do. None he could see nearby would aid him against another shaman, even if they had known him. Yanking his arm free he clutched tightly to his staff, its weight somehow comforting to him.
"Come with us lad, this will not take long at all."
With no choice but to follow, he trudged off along with them back to their camp. Their tribe seemed to be one of those that often raided upon the others, taking by force what others had hard worked to earn for themselves. He could sense from among their number a barely constrained hatred. To one of their number was he taken and presented a crude sword of iron.
"Take this and we shall see what sort of stuff you are made of!"
The weapon was thrust at him and he awkwardly clutched at it, having difficulty lifting the weight of the weapons tip above the ground. One of the warriors of the tribe came forward, an axe ready in either hand. Laughter was heard from all about as everyone saw how weak the young one was.
"What is the matter runt, ain't ever held a sword before? Well let's see what all you got in ya."
The warrior advanced, and out flicked one of the axes before he had a chance to react. The crude blade was sharp and it tore through his clothing and scored a mark along his chest. He awkwardly took the sword in both hands, letting his staff fall to the ground. The second blow came slow, as if he was being tested, and he was able to move the sword to block it. The strength of the blow jarred up into his arms, unfamiliar as they were to such use. Sensing his weakness the warrior began to press him, each attack becoming fiercer than the last.
Quick wits were all that saved him at first, turning the weapon this way and that to try to deflect the blows. Not all of his efforts however could divert all of the sharp metal that threatened to rain down upon him. The satisfaction of ever blow he deflected or dodged began to build within him. In his mind he started to feel as though this was a game and a smile started to spread across his face. He laughed even as the axe cut into him again, his blood adding another stain upon the metal.
The feelings of pleasure he felt pushed him to do something reckless. Up until now he had done little save defend himself, now he moved forwards to attack. His opponent was surprised as the tip of the sword blade slipped past where he had thought it should have been and pierced his side for the first time in the fight. With a howl of anger the warrior wielding the two axes dropped all pretense of toying with the young boy and swung his weapons intending to finish the runt off.
The ear-splitting ring of metal upon metal was heard as the weapon of another was thrust expertly in the way. The red skinned warrior had arrived in time to save the young boy. The weapons turned from their course, a single blow from the man's fist was enough to knock the other warrior upon the ground.
"By Khorne, when the time for bloodshed has come I will spill it myself. Cross me again and it shall be yours that stains my weapons, a pathetic offering none the less. You. Boy. Run along now, this is not your place."
Dropping the sword, the young shaman bent down to take up again his staff. The feeling of holding a sword in his hands for the first time lingered with him, as well as the thrill it had brought to him to strike out with it. Upon his return to the camp of his people, he hid his wounds from the others choosing to treat them himself. His thoughts turned to his unlikely savior many times that day, and of the God of Battles he had invoked the name of.
Khorne. When he thought upon the name, scenes of endless bloodshed and conflict filled his mind. His dreams were troubled that night as he tried to sleep, continuously hounded by the braying of horns and the clashing of metal. However something tonight was different, the clarity of the living dream was far greater than ever before. An inhuman sense of wrath and hatred for all living things swept him up and bore him through the massacre, witness to the offerings that were being heaped high upon the altar of battle.
He awoke in a cold sweat to hear, piercing through the silent air that night, the sound of horns blowing to the north.
Other than the blowing horns of the onrushing horde, but a single cry could be heard over the screams.
"Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne!"
Stumbling in the darkness of his tent, the young shaman fell out through the flap, and barely missed getting trampled under the hooves of a charging horse. Turning he saw before his eyes the vision from his dream. With flames spreading through their encampment, he saw his father fighting sword to sword with the armored warrior. The strange blade the assailant bore glowed oddly and sparks flew whenever the two weapons met. Knowing what was to come he threw himself to his feet, and staff in hand, ran toward the pair of combatants.
Another of the murderous host stood in the way however, having just finished dispatching one of the others from the village. Turning toward him the warrior charged, and swung his axe. By reflex the young boy held up his staff shield himself. With a sound like metal grinding against stone, the blow was deflected in a shower of blue sparks. Opening his eyes, he remembered the ease with which the beak had pushed deep into the stone of the mountain. Drawing back he thrust it at the warrior much as one would strike with a spear.
The crude metal plates sparked as the beak pierced through them and deep into the chest of the warrior. The weight of his dead body tore the staff from the boy's hands, and he hurriedly pulled it free lest someone else attack him while he was defenseless. Hearing his fathers scream jerked his head back towards the nearby fight. The warrior from the north had cut through his father's blade with a mighty stroke, cutting far past and into the much softer meats beyond. With a bone-shattering twist the warrior freed his blade, the body of his father sliding from it to the ground.
He ran at the warrior screaming, holding the staff out before him to use again like a spear. The armored man turned, but not nearly in time, for the point of the beak struck true into the side of the hideously ornate metal. With a terrible snap the staff broke, its point turned by the armor of the warrior.
A gauntleted hand reached for him, yanking the boy off his feet and lifting him effortlessly into the air. His face was brought level with that of the warrior and he could see two bloodstained eyes looking out at him from within the helmet. A deep booming voice issued from within the helmet.
"You have spirit lad, though little sense. Bend knee to me, swear your life in service to Khorne and you shall live... at least for a while."
The sight of his father's blood splattered upon the armor of the warrior brought forth a terrible anger in the young boy, which was clearly noticed by the hulking warrior.
"You hate me, don'cha lad? Hate can make you strong, draw on it, let it consume you and power shall be yours! Now answer quickly, Khorne is a hungry God and there is still fighting to be done."
Wrath flared white hot within him, the power the warrior spoke of indeed within his grasp. Once again he reached out with his hand, laying it upon the helmet of the warrior. Once again the white hot flames burst forth in a scream of tortured metal being ripped asunder. The gauntlet of the dying warrior held him fast and close, the flames and the explosion bathing everything around him in white light, which was then swallowed by the great dark.
When he came to, there was a great pain in his side and a heavy weight upon him. Moving carefully, for he still heard the sound of battle nearby, he saw that the armored fist and arm of the great warrior lay across him. One of its spikes had driven itself deep into his side, tearing through flesh and grinding against the bone of his hip. With a yell of pain he wrenched it free and cast the dead weight off of him. Nothing else remained of the warrior and his armor, little sign indeed he had ever existed save the arm, the sword, and the body of his father.
He approached the mangled remains with tears blotting out his vision, his voice too trembling to more than whimper. A great wound had been torn in the body, a far greater wound that had brought a swift death. None of his power, none of it was any help to him now. He had not been able to save his father from his fate, and he had not been able to kill the warrior in time. His tears dried for the moment, he took up the sword of the warrior he had destroyed.
It was an impressive weapon, wrought from strange metals and with strange symbols upon it. A power seemed to flow from the blade into himself, giving him the strength to lift it easily in but a single hand. Within the metal he could feel another presence, one that hungered for blood and death. Death. He yet lived. As did the horde that had come from the north. At last, in his rage words came to him.
"I swear father, that whatever else this night brings I shall pile high the bodies of those like him. They shall pay for what they have taken from me!"
His shout to the sky was echoed by a roar from the blade he now bore. With a flash of anger he grabbed the symbol of the bloody god and wrenched it free from the blade. Blood poured out from wounds that opened on his hand, or perhaps some of it came from the wound that he had opened in the living blade. No matter. Tossing the molten piece of metal aside he set off into the night to find those who had wronged him.
As both son and shaman he stood over the burial site of his father, placed alongside where so many of the others from the village had died over the years. A simple pile of stones was all that marked where a body had been laid to rest. Nine of his people had been slaughtered in the massacre, four others crippled, and many wounded. After the fighting had come to an end, they had taken back their dead, not wishing to leave their fates in the hands of strangers. With his father he had buried the shattered remains of the sword used that night, its blade finally chipped and broken, the force within finding peace in death at the hands of its last wielder.
Time marched on in the village by the mountain, and with every passing season he felt his power growing. Little did the Gods reveal to him in visions, though he had long since learned to cast his eye far a field when dreaming or meditating upon the simple fire within his dwelling. New children were birthed that year, and for the first time a fine harvest was taken from the simple fields the people had sown. The growing seasons here was so short, they had to make the most of it lest they perish come winter.
As the world turned, winter was once again upon them, and with it came the raiders. Lead by the two warrior priests he had met earlier that year, the would-be assailants instead found themselves trapped and ambushed. He had foreseen their coming, watched their passage through the lands and had planned and waited. Their deaths brought little joy to him, though the villagers heralded it as a great victory. That winter he learned little, for what was there new to discover in such isolation? His mind was starved for new information, his powers had grown but he barely knew their use.
Winter again turned to spring, and he went forth again with the hunters of the tribe, aiding them in bringing back the first sacred kill of the year. Though he did not look forward to the great gathering this year, for he knew there would again be trouble, he was driven to go. Certainly the shamans of the other tribes may have something they could teach him? He must simply convince them to teach him what they knew. Soon enough he and his people sent out to the great plain for the gathering.
Everyone could tell that this year would be different, there was a strange feeling in the air, one that all of his people could sense. When they came out upon the field of the gathering, they saw what had changed. Once again all the tribes from near and far had come to the gathering, but so too had strangers from a far distant land. Leaving the people of his village behind to set up their encampment, he walked alongside the chief of the tribe as they went to see who these odd people were.
They were shorter than the people of these lands, nearly the height of children. However they had the physique of grown men and long beards. They wore strangely made armor, elegant far beyond the skill of any man. The strangers were talking and laughing, trading small amounts of tools and crafted goods for foodstuffs and raw materials. They spoke an odd language among themselves, something no-one from among the local tribes seemed to understand. However a few of their number spoke well the language of men, and it were they who engaged in the trading and bartering among the gathered peoples.
All of the young man's thoughts about learning from the shamans was cast aside for the moment as a new feast of information was presented to him. He spent much of that first day in conversation with several of these stout men, hearing tales of their distant homes beneath the far eastern mountains and learning of other human lands much further to the south, beyond the sea. It was late in the first day of the gathering, and he had long since missed the first meeting of the shamans when a cry went up from among the visitors.
Both he and his newfound friend went to see what the matter was, and they came upon a scuffle that had broken out among several of the newcomers and a few members of one of the more northern tribes.
"Friend, tell me, what is the matter?"
"Ye see lad, they saw sometin right off upon that one there. Said he had scales or somethin grown on his skin. Some kind of rubbish if ye ask me, gime a moment and I'll see what's a brewing."
The conversation among the newcomers got quite heated and soon weapons that had long lain close at hand were held, ready to be used. Many members of a great many of the tribes had come to see what had caused the commotion and it was their arrival that broke the uneasy calm. A great roar and a cry went up from the newcomers, several who pointed strange looking devices at the assembled tribesmen. One he saw was leaved with his own head and it was only the sudden flash of insight that drove him to the ground. A sound like thunder came from nearby and screams once again split the air of the gathering.
The visitors had attacked them! He rose angrily to his feat only to have to leap aside to avoid being cut in two by one of them wielding a mighty two handed axe. Still ill at ease with weapons, despite having had nearly a year of practice, he instead drew upon the talents he was most comfortable with. The breath of the Gods filled him and into each of his hands there appeared balls of flame. These he tossed among the ranks of the enemy, causing great explosions that tumbled the short men about like water splashed up by a great rock. The newcomers were terribly violent and determined fighters, yet he was able to persuade his chief to help him capture a few of them alive. The sudden breakdown between what had seemed to be friends disturbed him, not knowing the why of it drove all other thought aside for the moment.
In the end the last of the newcomers were offered up to the Gods as a sacrifice, their blood spilt in the hopes of warding away such an unfortunate occupancy from ever happening again. The young shaman's original plans from that year long abandoned, for far too much had occurred for him to want to speak with those primitive fools again. From the short manling he had learned that the true Gods were feared and hated elsewhere in the world, considered evil and the followers of whom were usually slain on sight. All this and more did he learn, but it was of a single thing that the creature had spoken that now occupied his waking mind.
Books. Words written down, the knowledge in them preserved for future generations. Yet he knew not how to read and judging from the reaction the strange men had given when they learned of the nature of his people and their beliefs, he knew they would not teach him of books and the information within them. Only one route lay open, only one path could he hope to take to reveal to him what he must now do. He must beseech the Gods to grant him a vision, calling upon the Great Eye known of to his people. For the first time since he had tucked it away in his hut so long ago, he thought of the strange ring he had won from the beastman in the cave.
When the great gathering was over that year he and his people returned to their homes with a great store of wealth. Because of his heroic actions in aiding to defeat the newcomers, his people got a great share in the wealth the short man-things had brought with them. Tools made of hard metal, finely crafted weapons and bits of armor that, though far too small, could be used to protect vital spots. The most precious prize however was one the young boy had stolen from the treasures of the visitors shortly after the battle. One of the prisoners the chieftain had helped him encourage to talk had finally spilled the secret of the strange object.
He had called it a map.
The ring felt cold upon his finger, as it was drawing forth the heat from his hand. When he had touched it again he had felt something through it, a connection. Like with the sword he had used long ago, yet different. Calming his beating heart the young shaman focused his mind as he often did before trying to call forth the visions of what were to come. In his mind's eye he thought of the ring and of whatever lay beyond it, reaching out with the tendrils of thought into the great dark beyond.
Something was happening; once again he felt his vision drawn elsewhere by forces he could not control. Far to the north, past the mountains and lands he had heard about. Great fields of ice shot past and lapping waters of the northern sea before land once again was seen. Faster and faster and ever further north, with only glimpses caught of the twisted landscape below. Ahead a great dark radiance shrouded his vision and he could hear himself screaming, calling to anyone to help him, but it was too late. Through the great gates did his minds eye pass, into a realm of absolute chaos.
Gasping for air he looked around himself. He stood at the edge of a great cliff, plunging away into an infinite darkness behind him. Before him lay a twisted landscape, torn from nightmares and dreams, yet real. He did not know how he had left his hut, yet he knew he stood upon the outer realm of one of the gods. A great forest of strange trees stood before him, changing and shifting. Occasionally a new one would burst forth from the ground, reaching for the air and sky, clawing at its neighbors to pull itself higher. Leering faces and gaping mouths, hands and worse things for limbs groped and stretched. The trees tore at one another, slaughtering their fellows in an orgy of self preservation. It was through this nightmare he must pass, for no path lay behind him.
Stepping forward, he reached out and ripped the dead claw-like limb off of one of the recently dead trees. It was hard, like wood or stone, yet felt as light as cloth. With his approach, the trees grasped at him, attacking as if some great need drove them to try and rend his flesh from bone. With his staff he beat away their grasping hands, though not without great cost to himself. All the while a whispering voice came to him, taunting him and cursing him, while at the same time praising him for his valiant efforts. A thousand times a thousand voices did he hear and yet only one. Much as the trees tried to rend and tear at his body, the voices tore at his mind, ripping apart at his sanity and his very being. He could feel himself losing. With each blow he was getting weaker and weaker, and there was no end to the forest in sight.
One voice among the multitude came clearly to his mind.
"Do not give into despair while there is yet hope."
The voice rang clear in his mind like the chime of crystal, dispersing the other voices to little else save a distant murmur. The trees withdrew from him, as if they sensed a change in their chosen prey. All grew quiet in the veil for a moment, and then another sound was heard, like the rushing of some distant wind through the trees. Once again did the forest strived terribly against itself, yet this time they clawed at the ground in an attempt to bury themselves, fear of some unknown horror written in their actions, and shown upon the wretched faces.
Yet it was too late. For through their midst did the creatures come, burning all before them. Twisted creations they were, horrible and strange, yet familiar. Thinking back he recalled what he had heard the old shaman shout forth on that fateful night of his birth. The breath of the gods was strong here, and when he spoke that word of power, it reverberated across the land like a wave upon the sea. By his will alone he directed the daemons to burn him a path clear of the forest, and it was done. The flames licked and scorched the trees, and he walked upon their ashes. The crunch of blackened limb was much like that of breaking bones beneath booted feet.
Beyond the trees lay a great sky, filled with strange clouds and fierce winds. Many paths, stairs and islands moved throughout this great void, and terrible creatures strived and fought. With little more than a thought, he loosed his hold upon the creatures, sending them back to their wanton destruction. With no obvious sign of where to go, he chose a stair that lead up into the sky and began his climb.
It seemed mere moments later, yet he stood far above where he had just been, yet before him laid a great fortress of terrible dimension. Shrill voices were in the air. To and fro did the servants and slaves of the Gods move. There were thousands of apertures from which movement could be seen, and yet a single door. To this he walked upon a road of scales that shifted as he walked. With every step forward the fortress seemed to recede into the distance, taunting him with its presence. Turning to face the other way he saw an identical fortress, yet as he tried to walk toward that, no closer to it could he reach. Turning again to walk toward the stair, he found himself at the gate of the fortress, its great opening yawning already above him.
Within, lay a great hall and a mighty throne upon which sat the lord of the castle. Much like a man was its form, save great fleshy wings shrouded in many lights spread from its back. Four arms ending in claws came from its torso and its legs closely resembled those of a horse yet ended in spikes of metal. Where a head should be, instead lay a single, great, terrible eye. It turned forever this way and that, looking for a moment here and there upon those congregated before the throne, yet always staring out into the realm beyond.
The voices of the others here were raised in a flurry of voices, each begging, pleading or demanding the attention of the lord upon the throne. Some seemed to get what they sought when the eye touched upon them, others simply vanished. Yet for every one that left another came to take their place. Knowing little else he could do, he raised his own voice among the multitude, clamoring to be heard.
"My Lord, I seek your aid!"
The great eye flicked past him to a woman standing nearby, human yet not, devolved into a terrible mass of flesh that gibbered from dozens of mouths.
"I beseech thee Eye of Fate, hear my call!"
His voice was lost among the thousands, it was only through chance itself it seemed that it may fall upon him. In his own mind he knew he could wait here a hundred years, and not be noticed. Seeing the great eye turn again, toward someone standing near him he rushed forward and shoved the person out of the way as the eye settled upon that spot.
As he looked up he could feel the gaze of the lord of the castle moving through him. From the being upon the throne radiated a great sense of amusement. He now knew that he had done well to please his lord, taking the opportunity that had presented itself. He spared a small glance to see what had become of the person he had displaced and saw nothing.
"Such is the way among those who seek the favor of the gods. For one to rise, often another must fall. I have seen what you desire in your innermost heart. First though you must go south, into the lands where the men are weak and soft. There you will find your path."
He tried to speak, to ask the lord of the castle something more but the eye had already moved on. Turning from the chamber he was angered at how casually he had been brushed off, even by so mighty a being as the Great Eye. One day perhaps he too would fall in his own time, for another to be so exalted.
Out of the castle did his path take him, and with every step new possibilities and new paths seemed to open up before him. Strange desires flooded his senses and he knew he dared not remain much longer in this realm lest he never escape. Running, he made his way to a stair, any stair, and flung himself down it. It was not the forest he reached yet he did not care, for he could feel the life he possessed slipping away with each passing breath. He had lived so far by the sufferance of the Gods, yet now they had cast him aside to see if he would rise up to meet the challenges or fail and fall forever.
He went past creatures, strange eldritch monuments, and much more until at last he again stood at the edge of the great cliff. Nothing beyond its edge could be seen. As far as he looked in either direction there was nothing. Oblivion. The Great Dark opened wide before him and into it he leapt.
With a strangled cry he fell forward into the embers of the fire. It had burned low in the night as he had sat before it, yet its coals still burned his face and hands as he pushed himself out of it. He tore off the ring upon his finger, and flung it into the fire, to watch it twist and hiss with the coals. It was not just his flesh that had been seared for other terrible things had been burned into his mind. The mortal mind is not meant to witness such things as he had and be unaffected. As the memories flooded back into him with crystal clarity he fell upon the floor, frothing at the mouth and twitching like a man near death.
He would have certainly died had not one of the other villagers come in to see what the cry had been about. He did not know for how long he raved and raged, speaking terrible things or chanting in strange languages not before heard by human ears. It was much later that he regained his mind and control over his body. Upon a soft bed of furs he lay, looking up at the familiar face of his mother. Lines of worry etched her face, and in what seemed like the first time in a long time he spoke. His voice was weak from his long illness, yet in the silence of the room it could be clearly heard.
"Do not cry mother, I will bring him back."
Even if he had wanted to he could not have left the village by the mountain immediately. Among other things he was still terribly weak from his long illness, one of both the body and the mind, which had held him in its terrible grip for nearly a season. Regaining the strength to walk and to perform even simple activities took many days, and it was not until well into summer that he once again felt physically whole. Even though he still bore the visible marks from the fire and from the ravages of the illness, the most terrible of wounds were those no one could see. His own mind had become alien to him, strange memories and dreams assailed him even while awake.
Learning to still his mind, lest he slip again into the terrible state in which he had so long lain, took away from him more precious time. It was not all wasted however, for as the year passed he selected from among the young men in the village his successor, to whom he began to pass the knowledge, and wisdom he had gained thus far. With the coming of winter, he felt reasonably confident in himself once again, yet a great worry still plagued him. Within his mind now rested such wicked and terrible knowledge, ways to utilize the might of the Gods in ways he had not before even dreamt of. To his own mind much of the knowledge seemed deathly dangerous to even attempt, yet another little part whispered to him, saying that nothing could ever be gained without risk.
The winter passed much as many had before and with every passing day his strength of body and mind seemed to increase. Though still simply a boy by age, he now found himself grown like a man. The villagers marveled at the transformation he had undergone and to his immense satisfaction none whispered, or dared to perhaps, any doubts as to his ability. Indeed he had been marked by the Gods, though thankfully only the tiny sparks of blue flame in his eyes would serve to give away his true fealty to the true Gods of the north. As winter slowly changed into spring, he informed the chief of the tribe as to his intentions.
The elder warrior was a wise man, though he knew he could try to keep the young man from leaving, instead he hailed his decision as the correct one and advised him in what he knew of the lands that might lie along his path. With the spring thaw he bid farewell to his mother, and to the people he had dwelt among his entire life. With promises to return that echoed true, thankfully even to his own ears, he turned his back to the north and made his way toward the sea.
The safest route was not the quickest, for that would take him far out of his way, and it may be long into summer or perhaps even fall or winter before he reached the lands of the south. Instead he chose to travel along the coast. If at all possible beg a ride upon one of the boats of another tribe to shorten his journey. Days passed with little to demark them save he awoke each morning in a different place. Food was plentiful for he had packed much, and had long ago learned what could be foraged from the wild. Even some small animals were prey to his hunger at times.
Thus it was still early in the spring, with the ice still hard upon the peaks, and the snow still upon the ground that he came to the great sea. He had heard of it before, and seen glimpses of it from the uplands every year on the way to the gathering, but the scope of it was immense. It was as he stood there, taking in his first sight of such an immense span of water, that his carelessness got the better of him. He neither heard nor sensed the creatures sneaking up upon him and it was not until the first scream of a high-pitched war cry, and the first thrust of a spear that he knew he was in trouble.
Goblins! He had heard of them often, but they had never plagued the valley by the mountain. Though much more skilled a combatant that he was a year ago, their numbers were too many. The small satisfaction of having slain four of them before they bore him to the ground was little consolation for his own stupidity. Holding him down, several of the green skinned creatures drew their knives. Only a few avenues of escape still lay with him. Most of the powers he knew well and had drawn on before would have been little use bound as he was. Even much of the strange knowledge he now possessed was useless as such, yet two options were still possible.
Feeling the first slice of his flesh being stripped he made use of the one part of his body they had done little to immobilize. The power of the Gods rushed through him as he spoke the words etched into his mind. A great flash of light flared, causing the creatures to fall back clutching at their eyes. Reclaiming the weapon that had been taken from him he was able to dispatch several more of the creatures before they knew what had happened. Their numbers were still greater, yet now he was prepared for them. With a look of contempt he hurled a ball of fire into their midst and watched as the flame erupted, burning and tearing them apart. The few who survived ran off screaming, leaving him at peace.
Checking to see that his wounds were not too serious he gathered his things up again and took what he wished from what had been left by the goblins. Most of it was useless junk, but a metal knife with a wickedly curved blade was now his. Deciding to err now on the side of caution he quickly made his way further east along the coast, hoping to put some distance between himself and wherever the goblins had come from. By the time the sun began to set in the west, far later than he was used to in the sheltered valley, he had come across a small spot, hidden enough for a camp, and sheltered from the wind.
Many days passed in this fashion, traveling along the coast of the sea, sometimes north and other times south, yet always further east. Several small settlements had he passed, not liking the look of the people there. From one the stench of rotting meats had wafted to him on the breeze belonged to those he knew to be eaters of human flesh. Soon enough he had passed beyond the lands of which the chieftain had told him and it was then he came upon the great village. It was unlike any he had ever seen before or had ever heard described. It was protected upon either side by sheer rocky cliffs that no force could hope to assail and beyond it lay the sea.
Though an easy route lay up toward it, a wall had been built. Not like the crude wooden things of which he was accustomed, but a wall of stone. Several times the height of a man it stood, and from cliff to cliff did it run. In the center a gate stood, a great gate of logs lashed together by rope. Part of his mind warned him not to stop, yet the other part, which which drove him ever forward to learn new things caused him to walk down the path toward the settlement. A banner flew above the gate. He soon saw, much like those used by some tribes that marched to war. A blue field of cloth with violet edges. In the center of which was an embarrassing sight, that of several women cavorting, and arranged to depict the symbol of one of the gods of the north.
Here it was proclaimed for all to see, lay those who worshipped the most beautiful and seductive of gods, Slaanesh the Dark Prince.