Epitaph Six: Bramblethorne
By Zach Wheat
Stradanis pulled the reins of his horse and stopped at a sign ahead of the town. Tawn sniffed cautiously in the air, darting his head through the desert breeze trying to remain upwind of the town.
“What does the sign say?” Joth asked. Joth was sore from the merciless pains of the saddle digging into his seat and groin and used the brief stop as an excuse to dismount.
“Bramblethorne,” said Stradanis.
“It doesn’t look like much,” said Joth, disappointed.
“What were you expecting, Joth?” asked Stradanis. “An opera house? Emerald gardens and dancing maidens?”
“Where is Tawn going?” Joth asked. Tawn had moved far ahead, still sniffing the air, hot on some invisible trail.
Stradanis urged his horse forward into a trot, posting up and down with his steed. With a groan, Joth mounted his horse and followed after. Tawn began to run faster with the horses behind him and led them behind a large wooden inn. He stopped and barked. A mound of bodies piled nearly to the roof were neatly resting there, neatly stacked as high as the roof of the inn. The stench was overpowering and foul.
“Good boy, Tawn” said Joth. Tawn looked back at the Dajenfel, clearly pleased with himself. “He wants you to say he’s a good boy,” Joth said to Stradanis.
“It looks like the whole town,” said Stradanis, dismounting. He walked toward the pile of dead. “No signs of struggle,” he said. “Not a single gods damned wound.”
“Good boy, Tawn,” Joth said. “You’re a very good boy.”
“Let’s focus, here, Joth,” said Stradanis, walking closer toward the pyramid of rotting corpses.
“What are we looking for?” asked Joth.
“Four riders and a small chest,” Stradanis replied, as he began to yank the bodies down. “Wooden, painted green. Come and help me.”
“Sure,” said Joth. “What am I looking for?”
“Riding boots,” Stradanis said. “They don’t wear uniforms but the quartermaster said they all were wearing high boots.”
“Here’s a horse,” Joth said. “There’s a saddle bag.”
“Anything in it,” Stradanis asked.
“Some feed, a water skin – should I take it?”
“We could use it,” Stradanis said.
“Here’s another horse,” Joth said, “Oh and a rider. Tall boots.”
“Check,” said Stradanis.
“They look like my size,” Joth said.
“No, Joth,” he said, “the saddlebags.”
“Oh, right,” Joth said. He yanked overlapping bodies off the decaying horse, it’s eyes locked in an expression of shock. “Hey, Stradanis?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Stradanis replied.
“Do all the people look peaceful,” Joth asked, “like, they died without being angry or upset?”
“Hmm,” said Stradanis. “Possibly.”
“Because,” said Joth, “The horses don’t.”
“Did you check the saddle bag?” Stradanis asked.
“No,” Joth said, “but look. This horse looked terrified.”
Stradanis look at the dead horse. “Yeah, I see what you mean,” he said. “Blood on the corners of his mouth, like he was fighting the bit.” Stradanis flung a fat old lady off the hindquarters of the horse and reached into the bag, yanking out a green wooden chest.
“Is that it?” Joth asked, yanking the boots off the rider.
“Yes,” said Stradanis, “But we need to verify all four riders are dead.”
“They are,” a women’s voice answered.
Stradanis drew his thin Lover’s Blade as Joth struggled to get his boots on, as Dust stepped out of the shadows. Tawn began to snarl menacingly.
“How did you get here?” Joth asked the Warro. “I spoke to you right before I rode out.” Tawn began to grow louder.
“You know this Warro?” Stradanis asked.
“I’m fast,” Dust answered. “Can you restrain your dog? Please?” Stradanis whispered to Tawn and the dog let out a quiet grumble.
“Faster than a horse?” Joth asked.
“When properly motivated,” she replied.
“I think you have some questions to answer, Warro,” said Stradanis.
“These corpses are at least four days old,” said Joth. “And I saw her two days ago.”
“She’s totally corrupt,” said Stradanis. “Maybe she used some kind of dark arcana.”
“Oh,” said Joth, “You used the sight. That’s good.”
“It wasn’t me, Stradanis,” she said. “It was the Pale Carnival.”
Stradanis narrowed his eyes at the Warro. “Pale Carnival?”
“A cult,” said Dust. “They travel all over the wastes. No one has ever survived an encounter.”
“If no one has ever survived,” asked Joth, “How would anyone know their name?”
“That’s what others have called them,” Dust explained. “Some have seen them from a distance and had the good sense to steer clear.”
“How is it you happened to be here?” Stradanis asked.
“I came to investigate,” said Dust. “I’d like to keep them away from Ghostblade if I can.”
“How did you know they were here?” Joth asked.
“Do you need me to paint a canvas?” she asked.
“Indulge us, please,” said Stradanis as he sheathed his sword.
“I’m a Viganti,” she said “and I am tuned to ruptures in the Tide. It’s not perfect, but I know when something on the magnitude of the Pale Carnival is near.”
Stradanis’s face grew pale. “I thought all the Viganti were dead.”
“Hardly, there are,” she said, “if anything, too many of us.”
“What’s a Viganti?” asked Joth.
“Warro who cheated fate and used the dark tides to become something strong enough to fight the Ashura,” said Stradanis. “Completely corrupted from the tides. When the first ones returned home after being at war, most lost their minds and couldn’t be calmed or controlled. Once they went mad, some were still fine as long as there was an enemy to fight, but a few began to attack their own.”
“So they killed them?” Joth asked.
“They couldn’t,” Stradanis explained. “They were too powerful.”
“So what did they do?” Joth asked.
“They made more,” said Stradanis. “Just made them a bit weaker, so the madness would set in slower.”
“And the one hunted the other?” Joth asked.
“Yes,” Stradanis. “The old ones are called Darkspawn, the new Palespawn.”
“But what happens when they finish their mission?” he asked.
“They make yet more,” said Stradanis. “Except these aren’t made to last more than fifteen years.”
“They just die?” Joth asked.
“Not yet,” said Dust. “There’s the one I’m looking for, and the one looking for me.”
“So you are Palespawn?” Joth asked. “I understand now.”
“I felt the Pale Carnival nearby,” she said, ignoring him, “and thought it could be him.”
“Could the Pale Carnival be your Darkspawn?” Stradanis asked.
“No,” she said with quiet indifference. “This handiwork is not their way. Viganti are tempests of rage, painting in blood.”
“Could the Pale Carnival be connected to the Black Cog?” Stradanis asked.
“Again, no,” she said. “The Black Cog hide in the shadows, and besides, they try to keep civilization afloat. They have nothing to gain from this, and neither do we from remaining here.”
“We have to give them an honorable peace with eternity,” said Stradanis.
“That’s a quite a hole you’ll have to dig,” said Dust.
“We can burn them,” said Joth. “I mean, that’s what Dajenfel do.”
“We need some kind of oil,” said Stradanis.
“We’ll just need wood to keep the fire going,” said Joth.
“No one is going to be using these buildings,” said Dust. “Stand back.”
Dust drew her short sword and walked toward the inn. Joth and Stradanis looked at each other in confusion as Dust let out a war cry, and a black nimbus surrounded her and her sword. The nimbus grew larger, and pulsed. Tawn ran to the far side of the pile of bodies, away from the inn, rested on his belly, and began to howl.
Stradanis grabbed Joth by the arm with two hands, and wrenched his body into a mighty throw, flinging a surprised Joth to the ground near the dog. As Joth collided with the sand, the entire inn exploded with a horrifying shriek, showering the entire village with bits of nail and jagged wood as the sound of a single loud drumbeat cracked from Stradanis. The pile of bodies was a horrid mess of ichor and blood pudding and exposed bone. Tawn expressed extreme displeasure with the turn of events and barked loudly.
Joth stood up, shaken from the fall and explosion, and saw Stradanis prone, with most of his clothing ripped away from the sheer force of the blast.
“Stradanis!” cried Joth. “Stradanis!”
Dust ran to Stradanis, and knelt where the Valendorian fell. Stradanis lifted himself half-naked from the sand and coughed.
“If you ever do that again, Viganti,” he groaned. “I’ll test my sanctification on you.”
“You’d better hope it kills me, Stradanis,” she gruffly replied. She turned to Joth. “Is that enough wood for you?”
“Yes,” said Joth.
“Good,” she said, standing up. “Then I will be on my way. See you back in Ghostblade.”
Joth stood in disbelief as Dust returned her sword to its scabbard, began to jog a few paces and broke into a run in order of magnitude faster than any horse he had ever seen. As Stradanis continued to empty his lungs of sand and Tawn barked angrily at the disappearing Warro, Joth began collecting wood pieces.
By nightfall, wood was placed strategically and lit into a bonfire, creating an acrid plume of black smoke as the rotting and ripped remains of the townspeople, the riders, and their horses were burnt.
Stradanis held his varytonos and played a somber song, singing low in Valendorian. The black smoke began to dance and images of warriors from Valendor’s golden age began to whirl as a white light bathed the bonfire.
Wrenching his eyes with his ebon sight, Joth watched the light cleanse the corruption from the pile of bodies, and flow outward, lighting a few buildings on fire. He heard a distinct ghostly voice, a woman’s voice, harmonize with Stradanis as he sang his solemn song. Once the song finished, the smoke returned to normal, the images disappeared, and the light faded.
“Sanctification?” asked Joth.
“Yes,” Stradanis said. “It was a grand form.” Abruptly, he added, “We should leave.”
“Is it not more dangerous to travel at night?” Joth asked.
“I’m weary, but I’m not sleeping here,” said Stradanis.
“You have the chest?” asked Joth.
“In my saddlebag,” said Stradanis.
“So we go,” said Joth. “I think we honored the people here.”
“It’s important,” said Stradanis.
“I understand,” said Joth.
As they walked to their horses, Tawn ran ahead of them down the trail back to town.
“He doesn’t want to sleep here, either,” said Joth.
“We don’t want to be anywhere he doesn’t want to be,” the Valendorian replied.