Assassin Out Of Twilight
The stench of rotting flesh was sickening. It hung in the air like a fog thick enough to taste, and like a fog it seemed to have dewed every surface, but with something greasy and foul.
“It didn’t take long,” said Oswulf, “but then it wasn’t really alive.”
Leaning on his fused and warped staff Hadrim looked down at the corpse. The flesh had shrunk back from the snout of its doglike head to expose yellow fangs and black bone. The same bone was also exposed in its splashed open rib-cage and at its joints, where putrefying flesh had been peeled off by sea-spray and wind. The whole of the Jaugre looked deflated; like some horrid garment cast on the ground. There was nothing here for Hadrim to fear, hate, or feel anger at.
Something else then…
He could find no peace. There had been no satisfaction in killing this minion, just euphoria at having survived. He snorted derisively.
I’m dead anyway.
To Oswulf he said, “I had to be sure.” Then he turned away.
“I know,” said Oswulf, “nightmares are difficult to kill.”
Hadrim gave a curt nod and looked to where Edgehouse brooded on its darksome cliff top. A shadow passed behind his eyes and he felt the irrational impulse to smash something.
Oswulf stepped back. He remembered the man who had laughed as he wielded his staff of green fire and killed and killed. For a moment that man had been present. Oswulf considered his next move.
“I’m coming with you,” he said, eventually, testing.
“No,” replied Hadrim, “you are needed here.”
“Any more than you?”
Hadrim ran a finger over the lump of scar-tissue at the centre of his forehead. Drannen had removed the fragments of black-silver, but too late. The poison was residual. It was in his blood, had been washed into his flesh, into his bones. He looked at the staff. The symbiosis had kept him alive. Now the staff was a twisted, powerless, relic. And Hadrim was a walking dead man.
“Is your claim on vengeance any more valid than mine?”
“I cannot stop you from going, cousin,” cold as midnight ice, “I travel alone.”
“I don’t want to go. We both know that only death awaits at the end of such a journey.”
Hadrim looked at him. He went on.
“Suicide, Hadrim? The same death wish that took you to Dreggedon?”
“Yes!” The word hissed through clenched teeth as Hadrim turned to tramp back up the shingle. He hated pity and did not want to be subject to it, nor subject to Oswulf’s contempt for his sudden mortality.
“Wait!” shouted Oswulf, coming after him and slapping a hand down on his shoulder. Hadrim reacted instinctively, his anger reigning unrestrained, if only for a moment. He jabbed back with his staff catching Oswulf in the stomach, buckling him over, turned and brought his staff up across his chest, driving the breath from his body and sprawling him across the shingle. Had Oswulf been anything less than Arrinias he would have been dead. Hadrim loomed over him, his face twisted with anger.
“Don’t you understand!” he yelled. “I have nothing else!” He gestured wildly at Edgehouse. “I cannot build. I can only destroy.”
With that he whirled away, dashed up the shingle and mounted his horse. Neighing, it reared and kicked air. Hadrim regained control and spurred it away. Lying on the shingle nursing his ribs, Oswulf wondered if he would ever see his mad cousin again, and wondered if he cared to.
Eventually Hadrim brought the pace of his horse down to a canter and looked up at the sky. The pall of grey cloud churned, blown on an unheard wind, fleeing a sunrise that would never come.
No birdshapes. No birdshapes ever again.
He turned his gaze down to the ice-hardened ground and anaemic drifts of snow. In the chill air his breath gouted like smoke, and he remembered shades.
Jerrod had told him there were no more Weregril, no more birdshapes. Agorth, Carsus, and Nacromis had been the last, and Hadrim had destroyed them; two with the staff, and one with that other … He looked down at his white-spider hands and clenched them convulsively round the staff.
Cuthred, his demon-caught brother known the fatal touch of his hands, as had the Weregril Nacromis, when he had drunk its life. Justly had his enemies named him Strangler. But the name had been acquired long before then. He remembered a woman nailed to a tree and the priest-soldiers who had done it; Amondiusm the Red Bishop, truly red at the end. They had all died unrepentant as he had finally choked the life from them. He shook his head, turned, jammed the staff under the strap that held his pack to his horse.
So, the journey begins.
The journey he had silently vowed to take when, spitting blood, he had left the Jaugre dead on the Twilight shore.
Deep in thought Hadrim guided his horse through the wasteland of rock that was his homeland. He thought of Vanna, the girl he had known in Edgehouse for the short time before Drannen had told him of the residual poison. He thought of the trade initiated between Edgehouse and Sa-kind, and knew he would never know what would become of it. And he thought of death. His hand strayed to his tunic and pressed against the flask that hung there. Its contents would work to stave off the effects of the poison, but only for a short time. He wondered if there was enough to see him as far as the Yellow Tower, to his enemy. He doubted it, but making this journey was all he could do. A gesture, perhaps, but he did not have the temperament to sit idly in Edgehouse and wait for death.
At length he topped the ridge before the basin of land that contained the Cross-roads, and shortly he reached that place. There, he dismounted, removed from his horse the supplies he intended to carry, then slapped it on the rump to send it back towards Edgehouse. He looked at the arches then.
Drannen had repaired the Mirror, but he could not correct the damage to the ways. Many of them had disconnected and returned to their original disorder. Only three of the twenty arches were now usable. He approached one, feeling a lessened aura of power in the air.
He knew that the way he intended to travel was rough and dangerous. In madness he had travelled it once before. Now, he had little choice. He stepped under the arch and was gone from Surdar.
The arch led through to another of the Twilight lands. There, Hadrim halted for a moment to adjust the straps of his backpack and get his bearings, then he set out at a jog along the tideland of a beach of orange sand streaked with oily black mud. The sky he travelled under was no longer grey, it was purple and red-stippled, and on the horizon he was determinedly heading for, clouds loomed like a blood-splashed mountain range. Red was the predominant colour here, and red his memory of the things he had done here, so long ago.
The beach ran on for as far as he could see, and trotting along the arrow-straight tideland he passed massive tubular shells that he knew had not been carried in by the tide. They were black-speckled pink on the outside, turning completely pink at the one open end then porcelain-white on the inside. From many of them came the sounds as of life stirring sluggishly. Hadrim knew he was in no danger from them, so long as he kept moving.
Gradually the beach was encroached on by rocky points until there was no more sand left. Hadrim had to slow as he carefully made his way across a red-tinted expanse of volcanic rock, to one side of which, waves crashed, sending blood-coloured sprays of water up through various cracks and bores and into the air like fumaroles.
In time Hadrim reached a cairn constructed of the red-tinted rock, and set off inland. The weather had taken the sharp corners off the stones since he had laid them.
The expanse of rock stretched inland unbroken until at length it finished against the foot of a cliff in which a stair had been cut. Hadrim negotiated this with care, as the steps were covered with the same vines that spread in lattices across the face of the cliff and had been crumbled by their seeking rootlets. At the top he rested, and looked out across yet another wasteland.
Orange and black sands stretched in one direction until they were lost in dimlight. In the other direction the land was scattered with enormous flat boulders and poisonous looking pools. Hadrim looked at the unchanged view for a moment with memories crowding his thoughts, then he moved down the shale slope and set out on the path between; the middle path, a balance between dangers.
As no rising or setting sun marked time Hadrim travelled on until he felt weary then rested in the shadow of one of the slabs. He ate some food he had brought from Edgehouse and drank some of Drannen’s potion, then washed the foul taste from his mouth with a meagre amount of water. Nearby were pools of oily, blood-coloured water, but he would never drink that. He had learnt that lesson long ago and nearly died from it. On the edge of death, only his madness had sustained him, as it had done so many times.
In the cold shade Hadrim dozed then was woken by small movements all around him. Attracted by the warmth of his body, black beetles the size of his thumb had crawled out of the various cracks, crevices, and hollows that surrounded him. It was time to move on before other things were attracted by the stationary warmth of his body. This was not a land where a man could stay in one spot, in the wilds, for any more than a brief rest, unless he wanted to stay there ever after.
Hadrim moved again to the edge of the black and red sands feeling much refreshed and set out at a trot, his boots kicking up spurts of sand, which dropped back heavily after a momentary glitter.
In the silt and metallic gravel at the bottom of the pool it stirred and extruded its siphon to the surface. After a moment it retracted it and began to drag itself up the slope to the edge of the pool. Something; a taste, an essence, moved it from its resting place of many years. Dislodged from its almond shaped shell other, smaller molluscs, fell to the bottom of the pool and were snapped up by the blind white eels living there. Once it had dragged itself from the water, with its single slime-coated foot, it extruded its siphon again and waved it up and down like a fisherman’s pole. Shortly after this it extruded its blunt head from its shell and moved it from side to side as if sniffing. In a moment it came upon the line of dark imprints in the sand. It lowered its siphon and sucked up some of the sand from one of the imprints then spat it out wrapped in white slime. It paused then for a long time, as if undecided, then it dragged itself on.
Though he considered it unlikely he would encounter violence, Hadrim approached the fire with a caution forged in years of warfare. At first all he could make out were the vague forms of people silhouetted against the flames. But at length, as he crept close to the fire in the shadow of a massive tilted slab, he was able to study the people gathered round it.
There were two people wearing robes heavily embroidered with tapestry-like scenes. One was a middle aged man with weasel-like features. The other was a boy, with his head shaven but for a queue of black hair and his features half hidden by a collar that came up as high as his ears. What Hadrim could see of his face looked lifeless, unnaturally so.
Opposite these two were a large muscular man and an equally as large and muscular woman. The woman was dressed in black, cloth trousers tucked into turned-down fur-lined boots, and a black tunic with highly polished chain mail cinched over it. With interest Hadrim noted the war bow and short sword at her side. Her hair was blonde and what Hadrim could see of her profile, was strong-featured and attractive. The man, dressed much the same as the woman, Hadrim guessed to be her brother, so closely did their features match. In the firelight Hadrim saw the glint of a silver earring in his ear, just as he noted the gleaming honed edge of the broadsword at his side. Obviously these were people to be approached with caution.
“You in the camp!” he called.
Immediately the man and woman were on their feet, the woman, with an arrow notched with professional speed, the man, with his broadsword up and ready. Both of them backed away from the revealing light of the campfire.
“What is it you want?” asked the woman.
“I’ll show myself,” said Hadrim, “if there is a chance I won’t be filled with arrows.”
The woman lowered her bow but did not release her hold on the notched arrow. Hadrim decided to take a chance and stepped out into the open.
“Who are you?” the woman asked, a quaver in her voice.
“No one you know, I think. My name is Hadrim.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from the monk character.
“He names himself demon,” he hissed, “kill him!”
“We take no orders from you, Tarik,” said the blond haired man, with contempt.
“Remove your hood,” said the woman flatly.
He removed his hood.
“See!” exclaimed Tarik.
“I’m tired of telling you!” snapped the man, “we don’t believe your infantile preaching!”
“Be quiet the both of you!” commanded the woman. Then to Hadrim she said, “What do you want here, Hadrim?”
Hadrim replied, “It’s never advisable to travel these lands alone. I am some way from Idrun and I do feel the need to sleep occasionally. Are you bound there?”
At this the woman relaxed.
Approach and be welcome, Hadrim.” She gestured to herself then to the blond haired man. “I am Miraldia and this is my brother Adrania.” Then with a nod to the other two, “These are Tarik and his acolyte. They travel with us for the same reasons as you would…. Yes, we are bound for Idrun, where else?”
Hadrim moved into the nimbus of the fire and looked around. Tarik glared at him and he met that glare until Tarik averted his eyes. Then he returned his attention to Miraldia.
“You have just made camp?”
“We have, come, be seated.”
Hadrim did as bid. As he sat down Miraldia and Adrania did likewise. Adrania looked at him with curiosity.
“Tarik believes you to be a demon,” he said.
“Now why should he believe that?” asked Hadrim, with a glance at the monk. Tarik glared at him again then turned his attention back to the flames. Something about his attitude struck Hadrim as false. He looked at the acolyte. The acolyte gazed at nothing with his dead-fish eyes. Hadrim wondered what drugs it had been necessary for him to take to join this particular priesthood.
“Tarik is superstitious; a convert to the new religion,” said Adrania.
“New religion?” queried Hadrim.
“Yes,” continued Adrania, “they worship a pantheon of gods and have a pantheon of demons. One of those demons is named Hadrim, and appears as a tall man with long grey hair.”
“It comes from the old story,” explained Miraldia, “about Hadrim, the mad Lord of Twilight, who caused a war here in the time of the Republic.”
Hadrim knew they were fighting against belief and that he would have to help them, for his own safety if for nothing else. It was true; he had been the cause of a war here when he had travelled through here on his way to Dreggedon, but he had not been the only cause, it had been ripe to happen.
“I have heard the stories, of course,” he said while gathering his thoughts, “my father called me Hadrim as a way of getting back at my mother for bearing me. I sometimes wonder if my hair would have turned grey if I had been named differently.”
“Anyway, it’s a terrible strain being a demon.”
“There, Tarik, do you still think he’s a demon?”
“It is a sin to bear such a name,” said Tarik, and rolled himself in his blankets. His acolyte looked at Hadrim with a dead expression and did the same.
Adrania laughed again. His laughter was swallowed by the shadows. Miraldia reached for the stew pot over the fire and ladled some out for Hadrim.
“So you are bound for Idrun?” she said.
Hadrim spooned some stew into his mouth, chewed slowly and contemplatively.
“Yes,” was all he said after a long pause.
“I am just curious why anyone should travel there alone,” she continued, probing.
“Why do you go there?” Hadrim asked.
“Why does anyone go there in times like these?” she countered, and suddenly the twilight was fraught with nascent violence. Hadrim noted her hand sliding nearer to her sword and the hardening of her expression.
Times like these?
He was without vital information he realised.
“I only intend to stay there for a short while. I am bound for the statue of Doric,” he said, hoping to obviate any need for violence.
Miraldia’s hand closed on the hilt of her sword. The staff was cool against Hadrim’s right leg. He wondered if he might have to use it again, so soon, to kill. He did not know what was going wrong; why his destination caused him so much danger. The statue of Doric had been regarded only as a curious relic of some bygone age, the last time he had been here, and of no importance to anyone but him. It was where the Portal was located. He lifted his gaze from his stew bowl and nailed them both with a stare. Miraldia flinched. Adrania reached for his sword, slowly.
“I have not been in this land for many years,” said Hadrim, “the statue of Doric is merely a place I wish to revisit,” his voice turned ironic, “it holds memories for me.” He continued to stare at them, challenging them to doubt him. “Is there something I should know?”
With her free hand Miraldia reached into her tunic. Her hand shook. She had confidence in her own and her brother’s abilities, but, unreasonably, she was scared. She took out the blood-stained pendant she had carried for some time.
“Do you know this?” she asked.
Hadrim was on his feet before he even knew what he was doing. The staff was warm in his hands and there was murder in his eyes. Miraldia did not move, and following her lead Adrania stayed still also. She now knew she had reason to be scared. This grim stranger had moved faster than she had thought possible, and he was a giant … terrifying. Yet … earlier he had seemed only tall and … strange.
“You have seen this before,” she stated, daring only to glance at the piece of yellow stone.
“Where did you get that?” Hadrim demanded, his every word like a blow. Miraldia felt a vague relief. Perhaps he had the same motivations as herself. She lowered the sigil of the Yellow Tower and replaced it in her tunic.
“I took it from the body of the creature that killed my husband,” she said, warily.
Hadrim loosened his grip on the staff. That something like a scream in him died to a wail, then to nothing. He turned his head. He had heard … giggling. He shook his head and lowered the staff. A breeze cooled the sweat on his face.
No one to kill.
“Your enemies are my enemies,” he managed, then the tension drained out of him and he sat down. Hands drifted away from sword hilts.
“We learnt that these creatures…” Miraldia spat the word, “are the servants of one called Meleche, who lives in the statue of Doric. Do you know if this is true?”
Hadrim glanced in the direction of that distant acrolith. It appalled him to think that those of the Tower had an outpost this close to Edgehouse. Already he had found his enemies. He would have to face this Meleche who stood in his way. This Meleche would probably have to die.
“From what I know I would say the statue of Doric is the most likely place for you to find this Meleche,” he said, wondering, as he did so, how many other Portals were controlled by the Tower.
“I would prefer certainties,” said Miraldia.
Hadrim picked up his bowl and finished the cooling stew. He then unstrapped his blanket and spread in out by the fire.
“Wake me when you want me to stand watch,” he said. If they had expected him to say more they were disappointed.
Tarik was not disappointed. From under his blankets he stared at Hadrim with all the zeal of a fanatic.
Hadrim was quickly asleep, and, it seemed to him, quickly awoken. As he opened his eyes he saw that it was Tarik who had woken him. Warily he pulled back his blanket and sat upright. The gleam in Tarik’s eyes was unabated, but he made no threatening moves.
“Are you a believer?” he asked.
“A believer in what?” asked Hadrim, reining in his contempt. Tarik came under the label of fanatic as far as Hadrim was concerned, and as such, dangerous. Fanatics it was who had nailed his wife to a tree, and whom he had hunted down and strangled with her silk scarf.
“In the Adrussos Pantheon,” replied Tarik.
Hadrim fixed him with a stony gaze.
“I do not believe in the existence of gods, and even should I be proven wrong, I would not worship them.”
“What do you believe in then?”
“I believe that no human motive is pure, unselfish.”
“Is that all?”
Hadrim stood to move to the perimeter of the camp for his watch.
“No,” he said as he walked into the shadows, “I believe in demons.”
And he laughed.