by Zach Wheat
Epitaph Two: Ghostblade
Stradanis stared at the clear blue-green sea for hours. There was nothing left on the planet that color, he thought, other than his own eyes. Tawn sniffed up and down the beach at the calcified remains of fish and birds that even he was not brave enough to try eating. If there was ever a hope that he was going to find a living on the sea shore, it was a vain one. The sea wasn’t just dead, it was lethal to anything that entered it.
“You’re going to die if you stay here,” Joth said from behind.
Stradanis looked back at him, over his shoulder. “Why do you care?” he asked.
“You’re strong,” the Dajenfel said. “It would be a waste.” Joth carried a large sack up to Stradanis and set it down beside him.
“I don’t need anything from you,” Stradanis said, as Tawn sniffed the inside of the bag and pawed at the inside.
“Do it for the dog, then,” said Joth. “There’s enough water and food in there for the both of you to last a week.”
Stradanis grabbed the bag from Tawn and peered in. Beside the water skin was an assortment of fresh and dried fruit with salted meat. Next to that was an unlabeled dark glass bottle, with a metal cap. Stradanis pulled it out in disbelief.
“Where did you get this?” he asked.
“From the others,” Joth replied, “when I buried them.”
“No,” said Stradanis, “Where did they get it?” Stradanis popped the cap off with his thumb, holding up the cap between his thumb and finger while he sipped. It was ale. Or at least, close enough. He still couldn’t believe it. When the world ended, alcohol was the first thing to be used up. It was his first drink of any kind in many years. It was hardly the best he ever had, but he could feel instant relief for his own emptiness.
“Oh,” Joth said, “We took it from some riders. We didn’t kill them though.”
“Riders?” Stradanis asked. “On horses?”
“Yeah,” Joth answered. “They were carrying that stuff that you’re drinking but we drank most of it. And some notes. We let them keep the notes because it was for the Cog.”
“The Cog?” Stradanis asked.
“Yeah,” said Joth, pointing, “like on that bottle cap, between your finger.”
Stradanis looked at the cap, and clearly stamped on it, was a black cog, perfectly symmetrical. “Someone recently made this,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Joth, “the Black Cog, I just said. They make this in Ghostblade.”
“What’s a ghost blade?” Stradanis asked.
“It’s a town,” Joth said, “half a day north of here.”
“There’s a town near here?” Stradanis asked. In the beginning Stradanis had seen a few struggling villages, but over time those began to dwindle. He hadn’t seen a group of more than 30 people in years.
“Not a big one,” Joth said, “I mean, it’s not Cog City. It has maybe 150 people.”
“All humans?” Stradanis asked.
“Mostly,” Joth said. “There a few like us, but they aren’t like us.”
“Warbreed you mean?” he asked. “But not Dajenfel or Valendorian.”
“No, there’s one Valendorian,” Joth assured him. “And a few Dajenfel. But they aren’t like us.”
“Why wouldn’t they be like us, Joth?”
“They are corrupted,” said Joth. “Like this sea, like these dead lands. I told you, you are strong. You aren’t like them.”
“There aren’t many of us left, Joth,” Stradanis said. “And I didn’t enjoy killing your friends.” It was one thing to have mercy on a young feral Dajenfel, but the prospect of meeting Warbreed survivors from the war was exciting in itself.
“I know,” Joth said. “But you should avoid Ghostblade. And you should drink some water. This place gets very hot, we should move.”
Stradanis finished his ale and pulled on the waterskin. “First of all,” he said, pouring water into his hand and letting Tawn lap it, “there’s no ‘we.’ It’s just me and Tawn. And second, I’m going to this Ghostblade. I haven’t seen a town in years.”
“Then,” said Joth, “you are going to need my help finding it. I’lltake you there.” Joth held out his arm to help the Valendorian up.
It was mid-afternoon when Stradanis saw the smoke rising from Ghostblade. In the distance he saw a mill on a running stream, it’s wheel turning along the stream. The ground began to give and crack beneath him. As he looked down he could see the sand had fused into glass, all the up to a brambling line of trees at the stream.
“I haven’t seen trees in a while, much less a mill,” Stradanis said. “Why do you hate this place so much?”
“Everyone there has to work,” lamented the Dajenfel. “And so many rules. You can’t believe it.”
“That’s civilization,” Stradanis laughed. “Do you remember before the war?”
“I don’t remember the war at all,” Joth shrugged. “That was a long time ago.”
“It wasn’t that long ago.” Stradanis said.
“Yes, it was,” Joth replied. “You’re just old so it doesn’t seem that long to you.”
Stradanis marveled at the simple stone bridge arching over the grey stream. He opened an empty waterskin and moved toward the stream’s edge.
“Don’t,” Joth warned. “It’s bad. You can’t drink it.”
“Are you sure?” Stradanis asked.
“The Black Cog”, Joth explained, “they clean it.”
“Fine,” said Stradanis. “Can you take me to the Valendorian?”
“Yes,” he said. “Follow me.”
Beyond the stone bridge, Stradanis saw the town spreading out ahead of him: buildings, stables, smoke from a distant blacksmith, even a sign for an inn, the The Miner’s Delight. As they walked into the town, it was as dusty and bleak as anything he’d seen in the last decade, but a town nonetheless. A few townspeople stared, but none said a word or made the quietest whisper, as Joth led him to a building marked “Sherriff’s Office.”
Joth knocked on the door. “I’ll stay outside with Tawn,” he said. “They won’t bother us. They are afraid.”
“Come in,” a deep voice beckoned from behind the door.
Stradanis opened the door and and walked walked inside, greeted with the sight of a giant Valendorian, sitting at a desk, drinking what appeared to be a bottle of spirits.
“Kronos’ bones!” he exclaimed. “Take a seat, brother and get the sand off you.”
“Is that what I think it is?” Stradanis asked.
“Here,” the greying sheriff offered, “have a drink.”
Stradanis took the bottle, noting a black cog stamped on a nameless label. When he took a swig, he could feel the burn of the liquor in his mouth. Like the ale, it wasn’t the best he had ever had, but it was drinkable.
“It’s not Valendorian ambrosia, brother, but it does the trick,” he said.
Stradanis saw the man’s face across the desk, splotched with red, creased with premature lines, all leading to two glazed eyes. He was clearly drunk and looked like many unkind years had passed since he was sober.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Valendorian,” Stradanis said. “I thought I was the last one.”
“There’s a few of us around,” he replied. “But we’ll be gone soon enough. My name is Caius, Sherriff Caius. What’s yours?”
“Stradanis,” he said.
Caius laughed. “That’s a fancy name for a legionnaire. What’s that on your shoulder say? Tenth legion? I didn’t know there was a tenth.”
“Oh,” said Stradanis, “my tattoo.” He looked at the tattooed Valendorian numerals poking through the remains of his rusting armor. It was just two simple marks, like twin mountain peaks from a map. .Yeah I was assigned to the tenth, late in the war. They grabbed all the musicians pretty much. I was an Annalium Scriptor. You know, I played the marching songs, sanctified the graves, healed broken spirits.”
“Well,” Caius said, “you won’t be healing my spirit, but you are welcome to try.”
“I accept your challenge,” Stradanis said, as he unstrapped his varytonos from it’s case and tuned its eight strings. He began to strum the metallic instrument and a blue mist began to seep out of it. At some point between the second measure and when he began to sing in the third, Sherriff Caius held his hands to his eyes and his elbows to the desk and shamelessly wept.