Epitaph Five: Sanctification
Joth woke and felt a sickness, unfamiliar and wrong. The air was dry on his black skin, while fresh from the previous night’s bath, it left him itching all over. He felt for his Bloodsword in the scabbard and it gave him a fierce, but pleasant shock that made him forget the pounding in his head for a moment. As he rubbed his eyes, he realized Stradanis was gone, and someone else was staring at him from the bar.
“Why are you looking at me like that, Dajenfel?” the woman asked.
She was short, grey-skinned and dressed in a hooded robe, with a short sword hanging from a low-slung belt. She had the face of a young woman, but the creased lines of an old one.
“Do you mean my eyes?” Joth asked. “That’s the way they are.”
“I’m not talking about the white glow,” she said. “I mean the way you are are glaring at me.”
“I can see the tide flowing through you, covering you in a shroud of dark fog,” Joth said. “It’s…wrong.”
“You can see it?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Joth, holding his head. “I have to look away. It’s painful. My head already hurts and my tongue feels like it’s been licking the desert.”
“Perhaps you should drink some water,” she suggested.
“I need to find my friend first,” Joth replied.
“The Valendorian?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Joth.
“He’s an odd one. He left some time ago. I believe he went to the messenger service.”
Joth stood up and checked his balance.
“Why didn’t he wake me up?” Joth asked.
“You’ll have to ask him that,” she replied, “but I can tell you, the people who work here went to great lengths not to wake you.”
“Why?” Joth asked.
“No one wants to find out what a hung-over Dajenfel will do if you kick him in his sleep,” she said. “Here,” she offered, “you can have my water.”
Joth took the glass and drank it, welcoming it in his parched mouth.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“They call me Dust,” she said.
“Are you a Warbreed, Dust?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “I’m a Warro. At least I used to be.”
“Before you joined the Black Cog?” he asked.
“No,” she replied with a sad grin. “I’m afraid the Cog doesn’t go quite this far into the darkness, though I’m sure they would if they could.”
“So you aren’t Cog?” Joth asked.
“No,” said Dust. “It’s from the war. You know, embrace the darkness to defeat the darkness, and all that.
“I would rather die fighting than do that,” Joth scowled.
“You would be in good company,” Dust said, “but most Dajenfel fought on the other side anyway.”
“Side doesn’t matter,” Joth said. “The world is dead. Everyone lost.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Dust said. “I won’t say you are wrong.”
“So you aren’t Cog?” he asked.
“No,” said Dust.
“And you don’t like the Cog?” Joth asked.
“No,” said Dust. “I leave them alone, and they leave me alone. You ask a lot of questions, Dajenfel.”
“My name is Joth,” he said.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Joth,” said Dust. “But you should probably hurry if you want to find your friend.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” he asked.
“No,” said Dust. “On the contrary, I think that old Valendorian will guide you to an early death.”
“He’s not corrupted,” Joth said. “Like the Cog… or you.”
“That’s why he’s dangerous,” said Dust. “This world demands a certain compromise he has not yet been willing to make.”
“I’m happy to take your money, Valendorian, but I can’t let you leave alone,” the quartermaster said. “I wouldn’t sleep well letting you go out there alone.”
Stradanis looked at the weather-beaten, mustached face of the old man, his tired green eyes full of concern.
“But I’m considerably stronger than two men,” said Stradanis.
“I have no doubt about that,” the quartermaster said. “We normally run courier rides with at least four. And none of them came back from the last delivery.”
“I’ll go,” said Joth.
Stradanis turned to look at the Dajenfel behind him.
“How long have you been standing there?” he asked.
“Not long,” said Joth. “I’ll go with him,” he said to the quartermaster.
“I can only afford one horse,” said Stradanis.
“I can loan you a second horse,” the quartermaster offered, “saddle and all. I’ll pay you 100 cog and you can keep it if you make it back with the cargo and the whereabouts of the the riders that were supposed to deliver it.”
“Sounds easy,” said Joth.
“It’s not,” said the quartermaster. “There are about a thousand ways to die out there.”
“We’re strong,” Joth said. “Stronger than four humans. Plus, we have Tawn.”
“I don’t have enough money to cover water and food for two,” said Stradanis.
“I’ll cover it,” said the quartermaster. “Just get going while you have daylight. I’ll get you squared away in the barn over there.”
Stradanis was silent the entire ride, occasionally slowing down for Tawn to catch up to them. Joth, happy to have finally talked his way into their fragile partnership, did his best to respect the silence. As the sun set, and the stars and awful faces of the Dark Gods yawned above them, Stradanis pointed at a mutilated corpse.
“Is that one of the ones we’re looking for?” asked Joth
Stradanis dismounted and walked towards the body, face down, covered in sand.
“I don’t think so,” said Stradanis. “He looks like he’s been here a few weeks. Not much left of him. Looks like it was picked clean.”
Joth dismounted and poked it with his boot.
“It wasn’t bandits,” he said “It’s stained with darkness.”
“You can see that?” asked Stradanis.
“Yes,” said Joth. “If you concentrate. Bandits don’t leave those kinds of marks. Bandits probably took his stuff, but they didn’t kill him.”
“So who did,” asked Stradanis.
“The draggers,” Joth said.
“What are those?” Stradanis asked.
“The dead ones,” Joth said. “They walk the flats at night, and they have long, twisted arms and legs, and they drag these boards on chains.”
“Are they easy to kill?” Stradanis asked.
“No,” said Joth. “I always ran from them. I don’t know to kill something that’s already dead.”
“Let’s bury the body,” Stradanis said, pulling a shovel from the pack on his saddle.
Joth grabbed his own shovel and worked well into the starlight, as the two of them pushed through the hard sand. Once they finished pushing the corpse into the hole and filling it up, Stradanis unpacked and built a fire from the dead brush.
“We’re going to camp next to the corpse?” Joth asked.
“Yes,” said Stradanis. “I still need to sanctify the grave.”
Stradanis pulled the varytonos out of its case and tuned the eight strings.
“Why?” asked Joth.
“Because it’s the right thing to do and no one else is going to do it,” said Stradanis.
Joth stood still while Stradanis began to strum. Blue light danced on his hands, and when he sang, a full, fierce baritone reverberated through the stark waste in ancient Valendorian. Joth watched the light grow brighter around him, and then on the grave, as the voice got louder. He could barely keep his eyes open, and through his squinting, he instinctively watched with his Ebon Sight, as the light burned away the corruption. On the grave, the ground around him, and even on his own hands, Joth watched with a mix of horror and amazement as the white light cleansed him and everything around them of the stains of corruption.
When he finished, Stradanis put his varytonos back into its case and walked toward the campfire where Tawn, likely accustomed to the spectacle, and not amused by the fanfare, slept quietly next to it.
“That was amazing,” Joth began, “but I’m a bit concerned.”
“Why?” asked Stradanis.
“Because the Skinless Beast only knows what bandits, draggers, and other residents of the flats heard and saw that.” Joth said.
“You worry too much,” Stradanis said. “I’ll take first watch. Try to get some sleep.”
Sleep was a welcome guest for Joth, who was not used to the pains and cramps associated with spending time on a saddle. He shared some of the dried meat and water Stradanis had brought and then curled next to the fire on a few old blankets. His eyes felt as though they had closed for hardly a moment, when he was woken fully by the bloodcurdling sounds of a very enraged Tawn.
Joth jumped up and drew his Bloodsword, but failed to see the large black plank sailing at his temple until it struck him with a force that would shatter a human skull. He found himself on his back, grasping for his dropped sword, unable to take his sight off of the dragger’s dead eyes looming seven feet above him.
As he began to fumble for his Bloodsword, Joth saw Tawn streaking from behind the undead
abomination, and as he looked away to find the handle in his hand, heard an audible snap as the dog grabbed the back of the thing’s left knee.
With the free, clawed hand of his long arm, the creature rotated his lumbering torso away from Joth and swiped at Tawn, but the dog tumbled away with rotting flesh it its mouth. Joth swung at the other leg with an upward strike, channeling the sole technique he knew. The Bloodsword bit into the calcified flesh with a satisfying thump, leaving cracks splintering up the creature’s leg and thigh.
It was right when Stradanis charged from the creature’s blind side that the cracks began to grow and explode, showering Joth in decayed flesh and maggots. Joth felt a distinctive pulse of electricity in the dry air that made the hair on his neck stand on end, a moment before he saw the business end of Stradanis’ blade travel trough the collar bone of the dragger and rest in its chest.
Still on its feet, the dragger took a step to the side, as Stradanis struggled to free the sword as maggots began to spray his face from the gaping wound he had created. The dragger twisted its entire body as it took the chain in both hands, the plank sailing over Joth in a 180-degree swing into the giant Valendorian.
When the plank hit him, Joth heard the thunderous sound of a large drum as he watched Stradanis sailing away in midair. Jumping to his feet, Joth took a heavy two-handed swing, from left to right across the dragger’s midsection, ripping open the skin and rags it wore, then up over his right shoulder and down on the head of it as hard as he could. Covered in pus and maggots, Joth struggled to wrench his own sword free from the back of the thing’s head.
Joth felt the chain wrap around his neck with great force, yanking him off his feet and lifting him up, as if in slow motion. He kicked and punched and struggled as his body was covered in rot and felt a sad euphoria spread over him. He could hear music faintly, then louder as he was suddenly in a place of peace, a place of pure light. Joth looked for the Mother of Pain to guide him to the Forever Place, but she was not there.
The white light grew brighter until he saw nothing else, as the music became so loud it engulfed him, every note like a wave of force pummeling him into eternity. Then came the sound of a deep baritone, and then the single voice became the sound of a thousand. Through the white fog, Joth watched a legion of horsemen ride toward, and then through him as he smelt the breaths of their horses as the men sang in unison, holding spears and banners above them.
Joth felt a mouth kissing him as the white disappeared and the comforting sound of sinister Dajenfel laughter filled the room. The faces of beautiful Dajenfel women surrounded him, as one of them stroked his hair and another kissed him all over his face. He too erupted in manic laughter.
When he opened his eyes, Tawn’s giant tongue flicked across the bridge of his nose, and pain shot through his body, the charred remains of carrion still stuck to his skin. The taste, however, did not seem to disagree with the feral dog. Joth grunted and strained to sit up.
“Don’t move,” said Stradanis.
“Why not?” asked Joth, as the dog continued to lick him.
“You broke a few bones in your neck,” said Stradanis. “But it should heal with the Mending Lullaby. You should be fine by morning.”
As his eyes adjusted to the campfire, Joth could see Stradanis was sitting nearby and strained his eyes to see better.
“Don’t move your head,” Stradanis instructed.
“What are you doing?” Joth asked.
“I’m…I’m updating the scrolls.”
“The scrolls of the Tenth Legion,” said Stradanis. “It’s my job. It’s the main job of an Annalium Scriptor. I have to chronicle every battle. This one certainly needs to be recorded.”
“But your Legion is gone, Stradanis.” Joth said.
“I don’t recall ever surrendering,” said Stradanis.
“But how can a Legion be just one man?” said Joth.
“It’s two now,” answered Stradanis, “and one dog.”