By Zach Wheat
Epitaph One: A Dead World
Stradanis woke to the sound of the dog barking. As he sat up and slid his slim sword out of the scabbard, he noticed Tawn was circling around him, stopping every few steps, facing out and growling what he came to understand was a warning that someone was approaching.
Tawn was not, properly speaking, a dog. His ancestors might have been wild dogs, and probably a hyena or two, but he was clearly a native of the new, dying world. His fur was as thick and wiry as wool, with a wolf-like snout, and eyes that tended to look at most anything that moved as if it was food. Unlike Stradanis, Tawn seemed to thrive in the wasteland, with an appetite for vermin and even the occasional rotting corpse. Still, he had been good company the last few years that would have otherwise been spent in maddening silence. Even if he couldn’t talk back, Stradanis was convinced he understood what was said to him.
Stradanis strained to see in the dark when he was kicked from behind. Tawn snarled and tried to snap but Stradanis grabbed him with his free arm as he held his blade up, ready for a parry.
“What do you want?” Stradanis asked.
White eyes glared at him and smiled through protruding incisors. It was not one, but three Dajenfel. Tawn was frenzied with rage.
“I can’t hold him here forever,” Stradanis protested.
“You won’t need to,” replied the nearest one, raising a rusty axe. “We can take care of him.” The other two walked around him to cover his flanks. The ebon-skinned Dajenfel looked like towers above him, muscled, wiry, and full of hunger and bloodlust. One began to ready a chain while the other his bloodsword.
“I have food,” Stradanis said, as he tried to calm the dog.
“We’ll take what we want, Valendorian” the first said. “We’ll take your food and your sword and your guitar and then we’ll leave.”
“That’s not the offer,” Stradanis replied. “Are we really going to have this conversation? Am I to treat you like human bandits?”
The chain whipped toward him, and he rolled backwards, into them, as he released Tawn. He could feel the hot blood pumping, the instinct pushing him, the sword knowing where to be for an awkward but successful parry. Suddenly he was up, pale blue light emanating like a halo from all around him, the quiet but distinct sound of a solemn chorus echoing from the aura.
The thin Loversblade tore into the Dajenfel’s chain as it swung back down, cutting it in half and slicing deftly through Dajenfel’s right shoulder blade and through the ribcage with an audible boom. Stradanis kicked the Dajenfel off his sword as the man’s cruel face looked at him in a final moment of shock as salty, fetid blood splashed his face and the ruinous remains of his rusty armor.
Tawn had managed to occupy the axe wielder, staying away from the axe by striking from behind and moving with him as he circled. The man with the Bloodsword, presumably the leader, moved in to make a chop at Tawn.
Stradanis pointed his blade at him and a loud, low tone began to vibrate it. As the tone got louder, it began to sound distinctly like a hundred male voices. A blast of sound and violet light splashed against the Dajenfel, knocking him back.
Taking advantage of his window, the axeman, cackling with a black miasma, brought his jagged blade down on the wasting breastplate of what used to be Stradanis’ armor. Rust on rust groaned as the distriction technique began to weave into the Valendorian’s body, spreading splintering black lines of explosive pain through him.
Stradanis groaned under the strain, and pushed it away with a great booming thud. The force tore the axe back and the Dajenfel nearly dropped the handle. Blood ran from his legs where the feral dog had gnawed him.
“I’m not afraid,” he said, as he adjusted his grip, and Tawn ran behind Stradanis to guard his back.
“You’re a Dajenfel,” Stradanis said. “I wouldn’t expect you to be.
As the Dajenfel with the axe began to glow with the dark miasma of another distriction attack, his companion began to create one of his own. The twin miasmas began to manifest and crackle weakly and the Dajenfel glared at Stradanis with cruel smugness. They had never fought a real opponent in their lives, he thought.
Stradanis had fought Dajenfel before, back during the war. Back when his legion still marched, and the world was not yet dead, they were some of the most fearsome opponents he had ever encountered, but these Dajenfel weren’t the same. Undisciplined, feral, unfocused.
All the raw rage and bloodlust was there, but the finesse was missing, he thought, as he cut the axeman’s head off and knocked the bloodsword out of the leader’s hands. The crackling stopped. The miasmas dispersed.
“What are you doing?” the last Dajenfel yelled, holding his bloodsword aloft. “We were fighting.”
“We aren’t fighting now,” Stradanis said as he began to pack up his primitive camp into his old legionnaire’s pack.
“Why not?” the Dajenfel asked.
“Because there would be no honor in killing such a weak opponent.”
“But I’m ready to fight you now,” the Dajenfel said. “Let’s fight.”
“No,” said Stradanis, “no you aren’t. You are hardly even a Dajenfel. You need training.
If you are going to be a bandit, you should stick to humans.”
“You could teach me,” he said.
“No, I couldn’t. I don’t know Dajenfel techniques.”
“But you’re strong.”
As Stradanis looked up, he squinted into the rising dun-colored sun. The Dajenfel was much younger than he realized, probably not even old enough to remember the war. Stradanis swung the strap of his legionnaire’s pack over his shoulder and walked toward the Dajenfel.
“So. What does that matter?” Stradanis asked, as he grabbed the young Dajenfel’s waterskin and began to take a measured sip from it.
“It’s everything,” he said.
Stradanis returned the waterskin and looked downhill, where he could see the tired sun rising into an egg yolk sky of dust clouds above a sea that held promise by its blueness, translucent waves looking as they always had. There was always the faintest hope that something, anything, was as it was before.
“My name is Joth,” the Dajenfel said.
“If you want to start being a Dajenfel, Joth,” Stradanis said, looking at the sea as he walked away, “I suggest you bury your dead before it gets any hotter.”