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  #1  
Unread 28th of August, 2008, 12:42
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·····Subchapter 11a- As the Snow Begins to Fall

Stillness. That's all there had been for the last few minutes. Stillness and the icy breath billowing out of both predators mouths. Karus continued to wait. He had been following the tracks for 15 minutes, waiting a few more wouldn't hurt. It had been a couple of days since he had had fresh meat, but moving to get a clear shot now would startle the beast. A light snow began to fall and a bitter, ice cold wind kicked in. Still neither moved. Stillness.

Finally the wolf ceased his sniffing and scanning and began to meander off again, slowly. Karus silently circled around from the wolf's side to his back and a clear opening in the trees. Karus notched his arrow and took aim, adjusting for the wind. Instantly the wolf became motionless again, as if a sudden realization had hit him. Karus let the arrow fly.
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Unread 4th of September, 2008, 02:19
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The arrow flies, its heavy tip tracing a smooth and straight path towards its target while its lighter end swaying in that ever so slight way that an arrow released from a bow does. Said sway, however, doesn't settle down the way it should before the arrow strikes home, but becomes pronounced as a slight change in the wind grabs the fletchings and pulls them into a widening circle. Instead of a killing blow, the arrow finds the edge of the wolf's shoulder blade, cutting deep and cracking bone with its force, but failing to penetrate to the heart.

Suddenly hobbled, the wolf squeals and whimpers in pain as it bolts from the sight of its injury.
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Unread 6th of December, 2008, 02:13
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Karus twists his mouth into a grimace and curses himself for the fool that he is. It was not a clean shot; it was not a clean kill. He is better than this. His aim is as true as the air is frigid. He’d once taken a pheasant in full flight from three hundred paces. How could he not manage to do this simple thing? Knock, draw, take a life, keep your own.

The wolf’s whimpers are a condemnation of himself. It is now lame, feebly trying to lick the matted red fur where the arrow juts out. Had he missed Karus could have waited and tried later or gone on to find easier game. But he had not missed. He had failed and now the burden rests on his shoulders to finish this. The creature deserves better than his careless shot. If he left now it might live out the day, but it could not run with its pack—wherever they might be—and would starve within a week.

The thought of a dozen or more of its packmates lurking nearby sets the small hairs on his neck on end. In his minds eye he sees them padding silently across the cold ground, their golden eyes holding no mercy. They tear him apart, feasting on his innards, bringing terrible vengeance. Wary, Karus glances over each shoulder. Nothing stirs save the breeze and the wolf’s labored breath.

It deserves better than this messy death. There is nobility, regality, wrapped inside of its stark nature. Karus moves between the trees, getting closer. Hearing his steps the wolf awkwardly spins around, holding its paw off the ground. Their eyes meet. A hunter knows a hunter. For a moment he is reminded of another time and another pack, but the memory is dispelled at the throaty growl from the wolf. It places its paw on the ground and hunches its head, baleful eyes glaring at him in defiance. He cannot save it. This is no hound to be nursed to health. It is a beast, and so is he.

Knock, draw, take a life, keep your own.
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Unread 9th of December, 2008, 16:02
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The knife in his hand moves with deft strokes well-practiced from an early age, slicing from the anus up to the breastbone. At five he had crouched in the snow with his father, watching him harvest the stag he had brought down. The sight of crimson on snow will forever be blazed into his memory. He had lost his nerve then, spilling his breakfast onto the ground. His father had laughed.

His hands are sure as they pull the stomach and guts and lay them on the ground. Fingers slick, he pulls the loose rectum out and drops it on the innards. One by one he discards or saves the organs. The lungs go. The heart stays, of course. He fetches a spare scrap of cloth from his bag and drapes it over a low hanging branch before hefting the carcass and laying it on top. Blood splashes down onto the ground and the meat steams into the open air. In this cold it should only take but a few hours for the meat to cool. The animal had not been big, but he could butcher it for more than a few meals.

Karus holds the heart in his hand and watches the wolf’s spirit, free of its mortal shackles, race into the ether. There is no gratitude in his eyes for none is owed. He pays obeisance to the rituals of his people out of respect for tradition and the hunter’s way. He kills to survive, unlike those monsters that plague his tribe. Oafish brutes, they kill for pleasure as often as they do out of need.

It was with reluctance that he set on this journey. As a man grown he could have been put to as good use felling any of the wretches that might try to turn their malice toward his people. Even as a child he had possessed a hawk’s eye. When they played games of skill involving thrown stones, he had rarely lost. At age twelve he had taken his first buck. By fourteen he was a regular with the hunters that foraged in the hinterlands.

“You’ll go home soon enough, son,” a familiar voice says behind him.

Karus turns around. It is his father. Dead for going on three years now, he moves with an awkward gait; his leg, arm and part of his chest are twisted and crushed from the massive blow that had felled him. In his life he had been a giant of a man, broad of shoulder and with iron thews, yet he had barely stood at the waist of the monster that had proved his equal. Karus had taken more after his mother in stature.

“Yes, da,” he says. It has been a week since he last saw his father and Karus had begun to think he would not see him again until he returned. “But what am I looking for?”

“Part of the ritual,” he says. His father half-walks and half-drags his bad leg. “You’ll know it when you find it. Don’t forget to burn or bury the remains. You don’t want a bear following the trail.”

“Yes, da,” he says, annoyed. It’s not his first hunt. He moves back to the tree and wipes his hands on a patch of the cloth jutting out from beneath the beast. Fetching his waterskin he splashes water on his hands and rubs them together.

“And a wolf? Couldn’t you have found better game?”

Karus clenches his jaw and gives his dead father a look. “D’you want to find me some?”

“Can’t,” his father says. “Not allowed. Make sure to let the meat cool thorough.”

Karus looks to the carcass hung on the branch, sweeping his hand toward it. He turns back. His father is gone. Scowling, Karus begins to fetch branches for a fire, stacking them in the crook of his arm.

The wolf’s corpse drips crimson tears. The wind rustles the branches. It’s almost like being home.
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Unread 31st of January, 2009, 02:09
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Hours later he has dumped the entrails into the fire, watching them sizzle and spit as the flames consume them with a greedy hunger. He had butchered the meat and made what use of the pelt that he could. Eyes periodically sweep the surroundings, vigilant for danger. Nothing stirs beneath the boughs of the forest. Karus is alone with no company but the heap of fur and flesh next to him. He talks to it.

“This whole thing is a fool’s errand,” he says. “With father passed, they want me gone as well.”

The pelt ignores him.

“What am I supposed to bring back? You? You wouldn’t even make cloak,” he says and spits on it. His face softens “I’m sorry. You deserve better. Thank you for feeding me. I’ll make good use of you.”

A piece of skewered meat rests just above the flames. The smell is intoxicating. His mouth waters and he fetches it from its place perhaps a little early and tears into it. It steams into the chill air. It burns his tongue.

“Where do you think I should go?” He sucks the remnants from his fingers. “South? I think south.”

He shoulders his possessions and kicks dirt over the fire, burying it alive. Taking a few steps he turns back and sees the fur still lying there.

“Well? Aren’t you coming?”

The pelt does not stir.

“Oh, very well,” he says. “I’ll carry you, but only for a little ways.”

He slings his companion across his back and the pair disappears beneath the boughs, heading south.
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Unread 6th of July, 2009, 14:29
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Three days later, an early snow squall caught him and the pelt. Monstrous steel clouds rolled in from the northwest and a bitter wind ran before them, the harbinger of the storm. As the first flakes of the white vanguard began to fall, Karus took refuge in a shallow cave. It was mercifully empty. The last thing he wanted was to stumble upon a bear that had not yet laid down for its winter sleep.

Squatting on his heels, Karus stuck his hands by the pitiful fire he built near the mouth of the cave. The pelt sat next to him in silence. Karus pulled a strip of meat from his rucksack and ate it cold, staring out as the heavens filled with a hundred thousand flakes of snow. They spun and danced on zephyrs, twirling madly and without purpose. It was beautiful.

The hinterlands stretched for leagues in every direction. It was home, but not home, to Karus. It felt like the woods and hills of his homeland without any of it being familiar. Despite this he still half expected to see his mother come around the corner. She did not. It was his father who came instead.

He still bore all the wounds he took with him to the other side but none of the blood. His leg dragged without leaving any trail in the light dusting of snow scattered across the branches and leaves. Even in death he was a commanding figure. He towered over his still living son and Karus fought the old urge to quail or risk his wrath.

“No reason to be hiding from the storm,” his father said. “It’ll pass soon.”

“Aye,” Karus said. “But it’ll be dark soon enough. Here’s a good a place to sleep as any.”

“But you’re close, son.”

Karus’ eyes narrowed. His father had previously refused to give him even the slightest morsel of information about his journey and goal. This sudden change of fortune had the young man suspicious of his father’s intentions.

“Close to what, da?”

His father wagged a thick finger. “That’d be telling.”

Karus scowled and took a stick and roughly prodded the fire. “I’m getting pretty tired of this.”

But his father was gone.

“Damn him,” Karus said, looking down at the pelt. He laid another couple sticks on the flames and fanned it with his breath. His thick cloak was drawn tightly around him. “I can’t wait to go home.”

Suddenly he was struck by the memory of the first girl he had lain with. He had been years of age and had returned from a particularly successful hunt for the autumn harvest. Their party had all returned with a deer slung over their shoulders. At the festival he had grown drunk on mead and he and a freckled girl named Amity had stolen away into the woods nearby with a pair of furs. Beneath the October moon they had awkwardly fumbled with each other’s bodies. He had not gotten her with child, but thinking back, Karus would have been all right if he had. She would have made a good wife.

Amity had died that winter from a raid by the savage giants that tormented his people. Karus’ mouth curls with loathing for the devils. That debt was still unpaid and when Karus returned he planned to collect.

The world grew darker. Karus and the pelt huddled by the fire. Lost in memories of the past, they waited out the storm.

Last edited by Cadrius; 7th of July, 2009 at 00:26. Reason: My earlier edit apparently didn't take. Fixing that now.
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Unread 20th of July, 2009, 15:31
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His boots crunch through the fine dusting of snow that coats the dirt and leaves. His breath steams in the air. The pelt is there with him, draped over his shoulders. The snow will not last. It is too soon for the winter court to reign. Already he can feel the morning sun warming the air. Lord October will not stand this transgression. By noon all will be brown and orange and red and yellow again. Autumn will hold the world in its grasp once more.

Karus finds his step quickening. He feels the first slick of sweat on his back and belly against his tunic as he pushes himself harder. Now he understands what his father meant. He can feel it. It calls to his blood, singing in his veins. The search will be over. He will return to his village as a man. At last, the son of Brom will be paid the respect he is due. This will prove his worth beyond all reproach. Perhaps it will even help them scourge their ancient enemies from the land.

Visions of being made chieftain float through his mind. He ruled with a firm, yet fair fist. With the giants gone from the earth his people were free to grow and prosper. They started small, improving the wooden palisades and longhouses. As trade opened up a mighty keep was erected. A new power rose in the north and Karus was there to lead them to such heights they had never dreamed before. Eventually he was made king, first of his name, and founded a noble lineage with his beautiful wife—a woman who was believed to carry the blood of an almost dead line of sorcerers. His progeny were both powerful and bright, boys and girls who were destined to rule. Bards penned verses to honor him. Statues were built. A golden age settled across the world.

He comes out of his reverie as a ruined manse looms in his view. The walls, once proud, have been laid low by father time’s wizened fingers. He marvels that all things in this world fight against the slow, inexorable entropy. Time is loaned, we are mighty, and then we are cruelly worn down and crushed. In this all things must obey. This home is no exception.

Brackish water pools across the ground. He stares at the moss and sticks and dark water, wondering if a madman built these walls of stone in a swamp or if the swamp had arisen to drag this manor into its black depths. It is colder here and smells of blight. His nose wrinkles. The pelt hates it too.

“I know,” he says, “but this is where I must go.”

Careful, he strings his bow and puts an arrow to the heartwood. His steps are measured and soft, avoiding the cold, sucking mud with a practiced ease. He is the hunter once more, and this time his aim will not stray. He leans against the lee of a crumbling column and peeks his head around the edge. Nothing stirs in the ruined arches and courtyard. Yet he knows it lies within. The pull is stronger now; the voice is louder.

Karus steps around the column and goes to seize his destiny.
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Unread 5th of January, 2010, 01:56
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Within this palace of the damned the witch sits upon her blackened throne. Scorched bone forms her seat where she commands the shambling servants he has spied trudging to and fro outside the haunted, twisted estate. Karus cannot discern if these thralls are living or dead. They move with purpose, attending to what mad tasks she has set for them, but they do not stop to speak. The young man’s brow furrows, wishing he could discern how to deal with such foes.

Time is short. This dire business must be attended swiftly. He cannot allow the witch to speak. Her sorceries will ensnare his will and bind him to her like the other servants. She is an oath-breaker like the rest of her kind. She has forsaken the natural laws of man and bargained with the devils and evil spirits of the world. The very thought causes bile to creep at the back of his throat. Here is a wicked one that must be purged from these lands. Surely there is some nameless hamlet nearby that is plagued by her machinations. Retrieving the relic from her manse will benefit his people, but her demise will surely help them too. Perhaps it is here, and not his village, where the true legend of Karus is born.

The pelt cautions him not keep from avarice. His father Brom whispers tales of greater glory.

Now is the time to be as still as a frozen winter morn. His village would grow like that, during the chilling depths conjured near the solstice. All would be curled inside the longhouse or small huts. Heaped beneath furs and huddled together for warmth, nothing would stir. It would appear that the world itself had frozen save for the faint wisps of smoke trailing up into the ether.

Now Karus forces himself to be perfectly still, crouched at the side of a corner of a ruined column near the entrance, his eyes watching the nearest shuffling monster as it makes its mindless rounds. He even wills his heart to slow in its pace until there is enough time between beats to loose. This is key. There is no time for misses. No room for sloppy kills like with the wolf. He must be precise. He must be perfect.

Knock, draw, loose.

The first automaton stiffens suddenly and then falls to the ground a hundred paces distant. The arrow hit it in the back, driving its way through its black heart. It makes not a sound but clutches weakly at the fletching and shaft before growing still. Karus is grimly encouraged by this. They wore no armor and were capable of being felled by mortal arms and means.

His eyes scan the perimeter of the walls that are slowly losing their battle to the siegeing bog. Here and there the swamp has broken through and muck lurks, but in other places it holds fast fighting to the last of the stone’s power. No other minions lurk in sight. Karus moves into action and pads along the outside of the wall, hunched low, until he reaches the fallen foe. Lightly, he vaults over the top and inspects the still creature.

It was once a man, and still bears the tattered garb of one. But in place of the crimson of lifesblood there is a black viscous substance seeping on the ground. Karus is careful not to let it so much as touch his mud-spackled boots. The work of these monsters is foul business and the slightest touch can ruin a man. So he is cautious but quick when he seizes the thing’s arm and drags it back over the wall. He is still uncertain as to their intelligence but he will take no chances. Vainglory will not fell him this day. Karus drags the monster into a thicket. These can be burned later to purge the earth of their impurities.

A few moments later, another creature jerks and falls, an arrow piercing its throat. Karus disposes of it as with the first, growing increasingly wary that a hue and cry will be raised once these are noticed missing. He counts himself blessed that the witch cannot see through their eyes and is yet blind to his approach. He has heard of the oath-breakers whose vision can pierce both flesh and stone. Perhaps she waits for him now, lurking within the crumbling walls. His resolve is unwavering. She will find this son of the north to be no easy prey.

Fleet is his stride as he lands back within the grounds of the manse and races toward the building itself. He stops at the corner of another wall, an arrow pressed against the heartwood and his head peaking around the corner, looking out onto the front expanse. It is a twisted mockery of how a man should live. The vague pieces are there—here, a stable and barn, there a waterwheel and a mill. But they are rotten and still. No water turns the wheel. There are no steeds within the stable. It is a blasphemous imitation of life.

Even Death herself longs to be alive.

The front doors have rotted off their hinges and have been cast aside. A foul smell wafts into his nose from deep within and he can hear the whispers of the lost souls claimed by the witch. They gibber and babble, driven mad by the long years of torture and imprisonment. Karus knows only a little of the black arts, but he suspects the witch has struck a bargain: damned souls for eternal life. The son of Brom vows to release those tortured ghosts and end this blight upon the land. His blood is bound by oath now. There is no turning back.

Rounding into the entryway, his boots are silent. He pads forward, in a half crouch, his eyes straining to see in the dark. He can still hear the chorus of whispers, chattering all at once. They mask his approach. The witch will not know her death is at hand.

Through the shadows he creeps. He can see now the flicker of torchlight around the corner. Perhaps the witch has not gone so far as to seal a pact to grant her demonsight as well. He takes courage in this. Her black heart will beat its last on this chill morn.

A scrape of a boot freezes him and he locks gazes with another one of the abominations in her service as it comes around its own corner. It is shorter than the other two and it stares at him with black eyes. Karus imagines the faintest flicker of intelligence lurks in those black pools. It matters not. The arrow takes it through one of those hellish eyes, dropping it in a lifeless pile. He drags it into a shadowy corner and hopes it will not be discovered before his fell deeds have fruited.

He passes near windows smeared with dust and cracked from the wrath of winter. Peering out reveals a courtyard where several more of her creatures lurk. They are standing in a trio, looking at each other, but if their lips move Karus cannot see. It matters not to him. The halls of the manse encircle the courtyard. He will avoid these three for now, vowing to slay them upon his return if they are not felled alongside their queen.

His prey is stalked like any mountain cat or great bear. However, He lacks the hounds he might use for one of the great cats that prowl the woods and hills of his homeland. The element of surprise is paramount. This hunt is as is intended: one man proving his worth and grit against a dangerous foe.

It is cold in here, terribly cold, and his breath fogs the air in slow rolling bursts. Karus welcomes the chill. It reminds him of the days of his youth. It speaks to him of frozen lakes and mountains draped in snow. It harkens to steel gray skies and the swirl of snowflakes in the air. This cold reminds him of who he was, who he is, and who he will become. There is but one thing left to do.

He slips into the main hall, a ghost made flesh, and ducks behind a pillar. In the back, she waits. The witch is not lounging on her wicked throne but instead attends to several of her minions. It is quiet within the great hall with little but the scrape of boots and the crackle of torches to fill it yet he cannot tell if she speaks her black speech to her puppets or if her will is communicated silently through their malevolent connection.

Karus watches for a moment, pondering if this is some sort of trap. The witch fiddles with each of her subjects, all shorter like the last one he slew. She smooths out their rags and adjusts their tangled, moldy hair. His lip curls in disgust. She treats them like children; even that hallowed bond is corrupted in these foul halls. He waits another moment, then two, watching and waiting for a telltale sign that she knows he is here and is waiting. There is nothing.

Beyond her, behind the black throne, hang objects on the wall. Here, an axe, there a pair of crossed swords, and in the center is his quest: an ivory and silver horn. Its metal has tarnished under time’s cruel grasp, but it still offers a dull gleam in the torchlight. This is what he has been searching for to return to his people. This is what will deliver them from the curse of the giantmen and will allow them to prosper and flourish.

The son of Brom straightens, and pulls the arrow back to his cheek, steadying his aim on the witch’s back. His heart surges at being so near to his goal. He takes a slow breath and forces the beat to slow again. But the scrape of boots in the hall behind him herald the coming of doom. His body remains still but his head turns just enough for his eyes to glance back at the doorway behind him. He has no time, no time to waste. They are coming.

Loose.

The bowstring thrums as it returns to its heartswood mate and the arrow speeds through the air, burying itself deep in the witch’s back.

But it is not a killing shot.

She twists one gnarled hand twisting as it reached for her arrow that pierced her flesh. Sinking to her knees, the witch spasms, trying to find what hurt her. A spatter of blood leaks out onto the dirty floors. Karus smiles. The three attendants bear no sign of being startled but stare blankly at him for a moment before springing to action. One sinks to the ground next to its queen, one hand touching her arm. The other two sprint toward him, black fury in their black eyes.

Knock, draw, loose.

One of the two falls, but there is not time for a second arrow. His hand drops to the long knife sheathed on his belt. Out the curved blade comes, and onward the monster comes rushing headlong toward him. It is a head shorter than Karus, and thinner too, but where its size lacks its malevolence exceeds. But in one smooth motion Karus turns and slashes the throat of it the servant as it rushes onward. A stream of black jets from its neck as it falls, clutching at its own parody of lifesblood gushes outward.

Karus spins back and runs toward the witch. She writhes in pain and as he approaches he sees the head of it jutting out from the front of her ragged gown. There is blood, and plenty of it, but she may yet live if she possesses the fell magics to sustain her life. Karus is here to make certain she does not have the chance.

A few more paces brings him to her side. He grabs the witch by her filthy hair and wrenches her head back. There is no time to look her in the eyes. No time for last words. There is only time for the kill, lest he fail.

The knife draws out her life as surely as a pen draws a line. Crimson floods down her neck, spilling on the floor without ceremony, without remorse. She gurgles a curse, but it has no effect, not even in the overwhelming presence of her blood. Of those curses, it is those that bind to life that are the most binding and terrible to behold.

What were boot scrapes in the hall have turned into the pound as the sound of killing reached the ears of the damned. They burst into the hall, ten paces distant, and see Karus standing over the fallen queen as she squirms away, one hand clutching her neck. Karus drags the flat of the blade across her leg as she squirms, cleaning it before sheathing it in his belt once more. The servants bear pathetic weapons, pitchforks and staves, suitable to farmers and not a hunter. He cannot tell if he sees rage in their eyes or if it is his imagination. It matters not. Let these beasts know that a northman walks among them, a king yet to be crowned, whose wrath will be too great and terrible to behold.

An arrow takes one in the chest as they stand in the door, stunned or perhaps trying to decide what to do. A second arrow fells one as they surge into a run toward him. It falls clutching its face. The third reaches him as he draws his blade and buries it in its neck. He lets the monster fall, knife and all, as he notches another arrow. There are more coming. There will always be more.

He backpedals past the throne and toward the wall. Eyes on the door, he can hear the footfalls coming now. He steels his resolve. The goal is too close now to fail. One hand reaches back and plucks the tarnished horn from its place of honor on the wall. With a deft move he slides it into his rucksack. He has it. He cannot believe it. He has it. This is what his people have been looking for. He knows it. He can feel it in his bones as surely as it can feel it singing in his blood.

Karus’ heart soars at his deeds. He has done what none in his village would have ever suspected he could. Now all that remains is to escape and show them what kind of mettle this one is truly made from. A grim smile touches his lips. He is ready. Let them come.

Six bolt into the room, carrying cudgels and staves like their brethren. For foul servants they are woefully equipped to repel an attack upon their mistress. He brushes it off as he draws back the first arrow. Be they fresh converts or poorly tended, he cares not.

As the first one clutches at the arrow jutting from its chest, the others snap back into action. They charge him. He shoots another before drawing his long knife and taking up a spot with the throne to his side as makeshift cover.

They come at him in a blind rush, swinging their sticks wildly, nearly braining each other as they attempt to brain Karus. He ducks aside one particularly clumsy slash and lays open the monster’s belly, dancing away as its black guts spill out onto the floor.

But a club catches him on the shoulder and he tries to roll away with it, wincing at the pain. Clumsy they might be, but it does not remove any of the sting. He counts himself lucky that nothing broke from that. He pays the wound back by sheathing the knife in the assailant’s middle before jerking it out again.

A third comes for him and he jams the blade into its chest once more, but the creature wrenches away weakly grasping at the hilt. Karus retreats immediately drawing an arrow. But as one monster rushes him, the other one flees. He shoots the former in the belly, but it falls into him, writhing and ruining his shot on the one that took flight.

His chest heaves and the air is thick with the smell of death. Shoulder aching, he shoves the monster still clutching at its guts. It sprawls, still weakly pull at its arrow until it becomes very still. Karus looks down at his hand and grimaces. Some of the black blood is on him. A flick of his hand sends the viscid in an arc, spattering against the dirty floors. The rest is wiped off on the rags of one of the dead. That their flesh is still warm is not surprising to Karus, it is that they are warm at all. But fell magic does strange things and it is not for him to know of it, merely to end it.

The witch does not stir. Her heart has ceased its wicked beat, but Karus knows better than to leave any part of this to chance. He fetches his blade and sets to the grisly task. A few moments later, he rises back to his feet, his trophy hanging from his hands.

The pelt whispers something to him. Karus ignores it.

In the old tales, once a man or a woman has forsworn the oaths that the first men made with the spirits, once he or she has pledged to the demonic—using their soul as the forfeit—then they no longer need to fear death in the same way as men. Karus knows if he leaves her there she will rise up once more. A grim smile touches his lips. He would like to see her return from this.

“That’s a mighty fine work you’ve got there, son,” his father says. The ghost of the once-great man stands next to one of the hearths, an arm up in a mockery of casually leaning against the stone.

Karus’ eyes light up with one of the simplest joys: praise from a father to a son. He does not think he has ever heard those words before. It is all he can do to stammer out his thanks. He shifts the severed head from one hand to another. The greasy hair makes it difficult to hold.

Brom nods once and clears his throat. “’course, I would have caught that last one. It went to tell the others, you know. Best be on your way.”

Karus opens his mouth to thank his father, to tell him that his son is glad for all he taught him, that he knew their contentious relationship was just Brom’s way of toughening up his son, that he loves him, but Brom is gone and Karus and the pelt are alone once more.

The pelt’s whisper grows into a shout.

“Yes, I know,” he says. “Let us make haste.”

Quickly now he runs down the hall, the head tossing the odd drip onto the floor. He dares not look down into its eyes for he can feel the witch and her magic lurks within there. He prays she does not find a way to speak. Down the hallway he flies, racing around the courtyard and back to the main entrance. He bursts outside into the light.

A mob of shambling monsters greets him. They ring around the entrance standing several ranks deep. Some clutch cudgels and pitchforks while others have more proper spears and even the occasional sword. Some in the back appear to have slings or small hunting bows. He feels their eyes shift from him to the head dangling from his hands. As one they recoil. It gives Karus an idea.

Karus, the son of Brom and first of his name, opens his mouth to address the crowd.
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Unread 17th of May, 2010, 21:21
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Karus lies in the woods, hurt but victorious. His subjects had not welcomed them into his arms and instead had attacked him, attempting to bring him down with their hands and with knives. But he was too quick by half to be caught by their treacherous, mutinous hands. Nevertheless, the foul peasants left their mark—stinging his side with a cruel blade. He had fled into the woods, taking care to mask his tracks. If they have hounds, they may catch his scent and blood, but he would have to simply hope that fortune would smile on him this day and spare this northern son.

The wolf stays close to his side, licking his wounds and staying near to try and staunch the blood from spilling out onto the earth.

“You found it,” his father says, stepping from behind a tree. “I’m surprised.”

“Thank you, father,” Karus says. “You flatter me.”

“I see those lambs were able to stick you,” he says. “I didn’t know they had fangs.”

“There were many monsters, father,” Karus says. “I slew many.”

“I would’ve have killed more.”

“I know.”

Brom stands there, his shoulder and side still crushed from the tree that had
felled him, and looks at his living son. His mouth is turned into an appraising frown. His eyes glance from the object to the wound and back again. The unbroken half drums thick fingers against one massive thigh. At last he heaves a sigh.

“But you did well…for a boy,” he says.

“This trial makes me a man, father.”

“For a man then,” Brom says.

Karus arches an eyebrow, his back propped against a tree. “You’ll start treating me with respect then?”

“I will expect you to carry yourself like a man of our people,” he says.

“Fair enough.”

“So, are you ready to go?”

“No,” Karus says, grimacing. “I’m tired. I need to rest first.”

“Then rest, son,” Brom says, giving him the first smile he’d seen in a long time.

“I’ll watch to make sure no lambs come to disturb your slumber.”

Karus, son of Brom, closes his eyes. His father watches, and snow begins to fall.
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Unread 17th of May, 2010, 21:23
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Epilogue

“Bad business up in Proston,” Maric says, forking his fingers superstitiously. He wants to spit on the wooden floor but the tavernkeep will have his hide for that. Not that you could even tell it was there from the dirt and mud that gets tracked in and out. It might even do it a spot of good. Still, this is Tevin’s place and he’ll not have his debts called early for acting against the man’s wishes.

“Oh?”

“Aye,” he says. He’s not surprised that Jason hasn’t heard. The man wouldn’t know if a flood was coming until he had already drowned. “Supposed to be a wedding up there between the Halifans and the Monktons.”

“Those two families getting married? That’s a surprise.”

Bad blood had churned and roiled between the two for a long time. Several generations earlier a duel had been fought between the patrons of the household over a conflicting claim over a parcel of land. The Monkton slew the Halifan and sealed the enmity of that family for forty years. That they had finally decided to bury their feud and unite through marriage had come as a surprise to Maric, but it made sense. Even grudges fade with time, and the two families were stronger for it.

“Not as surprising as what happened right before the priest was set to bind them,” Maric says. “A madman, some say ‘twas a demon, snuck into the bride’s chambers and murdered her and a dozen of her family. Men, women, children, it didn’t matter. The thing might’ve looked like a man, but it acted like a monster.”

“Pelor protect us,” Jason says, touching his chest. “What happened to the devil?”

“One of the Monktons got him with a knife,” Maric says, taking a pull from his ale. “But the devil got away into the woods. They say he didn’t leave a trail of blood to follow.”

“Queer, that,” Jason says. “Best keep your doors locked at night.”

“Aye.”
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