Thursday, December 11, 2014

12-11-14 Writing Warm-up
2:49 PM

12-11-14 Writing Warm-up


12-11-14 Writing Warm-up
Artwork © Leolas, All Rights Reserved - http://www.leolasfargue.com/
Story and Characters © Brannon Hollingsworth, All Rights Reserved 
Brought to you by Four Fools Press: “Crazy Good Stories”

Aaros gritted his teeth as his light axe bit deep into the neck of the guard. A spray of hissing blood painted a gory sigil upon the stone wall as the guard slumped into eternal slumber. Aaros blinked the blood from his eyes and scanned the room – they were dead – all of them. He nearly retched, knowing that he alone had done this terrible thing. He alone was responsible, no matter his reasons, no matter the justification. It was he that would carry the burden of these dead men’s stares to his own grave, however distant, or near-at-hand, it might be. New cries of alarm and the continued blowing of horns lent wings to Aaros’ iron-shod boots and he scrambled over two torn, lifeless bodies, ripping a throwing axe free from a sternum as he went.

Up moss-slicked, shadowy stone staircases Aaros ran, mentally checking his store of weapons: only three throwing axes remained, including the one he’d just regained. Only one of his original two bearded battle axes was still intact – the other’s haft splintered by a guard’s well placed sword blow that nearly took his hand as well. Aaros spit a huffed curse as he rounded a torch-lit bend: only four blades, two hands and two arms against an entire fortress of well-armed, well-armored and well-trained men-at-arms. Aaros gritted his teeth again as he heard the coming conflict of clattering armor from ahead of him in the hallway. He furrowed his heavy brow and narrowed his once-joyous hazel eyes: it would have to be enough – he was his daughter’s only hope.

By the scarce light cast by the leading, flickering torches, Aaros could make out six in chain bearing short swords. Aaros chuckled; most men would turn, or at least attempt to parley, given such odds. He was not most men - Aaros had to get past these guards. Aaros had to get the Key. The Key was the only thing that would aid him against his real enemy - the enemy that held his daughter captive. The mere thought of their rotten hands touching his daughter’s pale, unblemished skin – their bony fingers snagging in her curly brown locks – their fetid breath causing her blue eyes to water and cry – forced a roar from Aaros’ lungs that shook stones from the mortared tunnel ceiling. At the mere sight of the insane, bellowing and axe-bearing man pounding towards them, one of the six took flight back the way he’d come. Aaros’ heightened battle senses noted the sharp scents of urine over the mingled scents of blood, sweat, fire and fear. Aaros leapt towards the alcove that held his enemies, arms outstretched like a bird’s wings; cackling like the madman he was.

Aaros saw the silvery glint of upturned blades as he glided downward toward the five that remained. They meant to skewer him, Aaros knew, but he had other plans. Striking the closest torch with the flat of his bearded axe, he showered the men before him in hot coals and hungry flames. Caught completely by surprise, the five lost all thought of the madman before them and began screaming as their cloaks, hair and skin burst into smoldering flame. The first, who had taken the brunt of the shattered torch to the face, dropped his blade entirely, so intense was his pain. Aaros landed and ended it for him, laying him down beside his unused blade without a moment’s pause. A wide swipe to Aaros’ right sent another man tumbling to the stone floor in a heap, his severed head leading the way. The third guard, to Aaros’ left, came in hard and high, slicing down towards Aaros’ shoulder. The crazed warrior stepped quickly to his right and spun his throwing axe in his left hand, catching the guard’s blade in the axe head’s crook and twisting hard. Too late did the third guard realize his folly: he had instinctively followed his blade inwards towards Aaros and down as the madman twisted, thus leaving his upper body utterly exposed and off-balance. Aaros swung back across his body with his right hand; the bearded axe dropped the third guard like a young sapling. Aaros felt the burning sting of a sword along his ribs and roared in pain and surprise. The fourth guard, now to Aaros’ right, had struck like a snake and backed off, seeking his next opening; he swayed to and fro on the balls of his feet and eyed Aaros hungrily.

“You’ll never get the Key, Aaros!” the fourth guard jeered, trying to draw Aaros out. “Our master refused you once, when you came begging. You’re a fool to try to take it by force.”

Aaros glanced to the fifth guard – he’d just put himself out and stood with his hair smoking, taking stock of the situation. Aaros widened his eyes and grinned crookedly – what had been called his “madman look” - and feinted. He raised his bearded axe high in his right hand, roaring as if to strike the fifth guard on top of the skull. At the same moment, he whipped his left hand across his chest and let his throwing axe fly. Aaros was a master of the axe – he had spent decades working with them, living peaceably as a woodsman – now, however, his targets were not stumps and trees, but rather bodies and limbs. Without ever taking his eyes from the fifth guard, his throwing axe whirled across the alcove and split the fourth man’s leering smile neatly in two.

“Not ‘fool’ – ‘madman’” Aaros corrected as the fourth body thumped to the floor.


***

Aaros rode hard into the night. He tried to tell himself that he was riding away from the Keep, but deep inside he knew he was running away from his conscience. Twenty-two men had fallen to his blades before he held the Key in his hands. Twenty-two men, their accusing faces trailing behind him in the darkness like iron-laden pennants; ever threatening to drag him down into true despair and inescapable madness. The worst of all had been the last, Kal, the man whom he’d intimidated into leading him to the Key. Aaros had sworn to the man that he’d let him live – sworn to his face. In different times, Aaros and Kal would likely have been friends; they might have worked or drank together. Kal had an honest face under his helm and a kind heart beneath his mail; yet Aaros had killed him – killed him to ensure his own escape.

Aaros fought back the tears and the bile that rose unbidden and rode all the harder. He had to get to the Undying Lands before midnight. He had to save his daughter. He tried to tell himself that the things he’d done were not his fault – that the plague of the Undead upon the lands had forced good men into grey roles. Aaros tried, but he failed. He knew that what he’d done was horrible; just as horrible as what the Kings had done when they’d allied with the Undead – hiding away artifacts of goodness and light like the Key that could turn the tide. Just as horrible as what the Undead were likely doing to his sweet daughter. Aaros gritted his teeth and rode on, harder, towards the rising moon.


***

It may have been the steady rhythm of the galloping horse. Perhaps it was the loss of blood from his many wounds. Whatever the cause, Aaros slipped off into a vision of a better time, before the evils of the wide world had befallen him…

“You know, Shara, you’re getting to be just like your mother”, Aaros called ahead. His daughter was indeed the spitting image of her mother – long, lithe, flaxen haired – and even at nine summers she already looked as if she’d seen twelve or more. She was as beautiful as a cool spring evening and as serene and majestic as the moon that hung above her head like a halo.

“What do you mean, papa?” she giggled, glancing modestly back over her shoulder.

“You love riding at night, just as she did! I think it was the elven blood that ran in her veins, and now in yours. She could not let a fair moonlight night pass without a ride, or a song, or a dance beneath the heaven’s boughs!” Aaros laughed – a laugh that was full of hope and promise, yet edged by a tint of sorrow for things loved and lost.

Shara reigned her horse and circled back to her father’s side. She looked deeply into the clean-shaven man’s grim face and laid her tiny, smooth hand upon his rough, work-calloused hand. “Papa”, she began, her genteel words like the most beautiful music ever played, “I know you miss mama deeply, but know this – as long as I am with you, she’s here with us too. So, as long as we’re together, we will ALL be together!”

Aaros smiled – a true, genuine smile the likes of which he’d not smiled in many a moon. He could not fault the wisdom of his precious little girl, she who brought such joy, light and peace to his shattered life. He reached to embrace her…but in that instant she was gone! It was then that Aaros first saw the dark, bony hands stretched down from the inky heavens and up from the shadowy ground. Black, cold, clawed hands that cruelly ripped Shara from him. Aaros tried to fight back, tried to reach out for his beloved daughter – but she was simply gone! He screamed her name, but his voice was muffled and he was stunned into silence by colossal waves of laughter. Then came the pale, dead visages, made all the more pale by the stark moonlight; laughing at him, mocking him, denying him that which he so desperately needed. Aaros felt himself falling into blackness – into the gaping, yawning void that is madness. Falling…


***

The horse dropped like a stone. It was dead before its cooling flesh hit the barren earth. Aaros imagined another intangible chain of death linking itself to the ever-tightening collar around his neck. He pushed himself to his knees and retched - coughing, gagging, and crying. He tried to tell himself that it was the wounds from the battle and the hard ride. He knew better. When it was finally done, he crawled to the saddlebags and fished out a healing draught – one of the three he’d salvaged from the wizard’s body – the disemboweled wizard’s body. Aaros squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. He had to remember his daughter – he’d made it to the Undying Lands and it was just before midnight. There was still time, but he had to hurry – already, the dead horse was beginning to move slightly – those small jerks and jumps that happened before…before the unthinkable occurred. Aaros knew that it was only a matter of time before the creature rose into Unlife – such was the way of things this close to the Undying Lands. He uncorked the healing draught and choked the freezing, yet searing liquid down his gullet. Aaros readied himself for the pain that came with magical healing: skin and muscle stretching itself and knitting back together, bones forcing themselves back into socket. The spastic pain was blinding, but soon it, too, had passed. Aaros gathered himself, gathered his things and then surveyed the scene before him.

A gruesome parody of what it had been before the arrival of the Undead, the Undying Lands looked much the same that it had before: small, quaint towns, outlying farms with roads connecting the two – it was all still there, at least on the outside. Aaros had to fight to keep his stomach in check as he gazed upon this thinly veiled mask – a putrid and hollow attempt at imitation of the living that lay beneath the pale moon. Beneath it all, however, was a horror that could not be hidden, could not be masked, and in Aaros’ mind, could not be ignored. The Undead yearned for life – they literally wanted to be alive – but whatever foul force had created them prevented this from happening. In their unquenchable search for life, the Undead surrounded themselves with as many sources of life they could find – children being their preferred vessels. Though none would admit it, all knew of the dark sorceries the undead wrought upon these innocent lives until they were finally no more than lifeless, mindless husks.

Aaros was about to change all of that and in exchange, those damnable bony bastards would return his daughter. Aaros held the Key, the Key of Life, the most powerful of all the Vitallis Artifacts in the known world – that which the Undead desired more than all. As he looked upon the Key, he widened his eyes and grinned - his “madman look”; with this, surely, those accursed Undead could bring his daughter back from the dead. And then, they could have their blasted Key for all he cared.

Aaros gritted his teeth, and stepped into the Undying Lands.




***

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