Fan fiction:The Destruction Within
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The Destruction Within
~~ 1 ~~
The first thing Bryar noticed when he woke in the narrow, filthy alley, was the cat. The dead cat. Though the alley was dark in the predawn, and though Bryar was no expert on cats, he was quite sure this one was dead. Its stomach had been torn open, the tatters of its guts strewn across the alley. The rats had taken their final revenge.
Turning away from the carcass, Bryar tried to get up, and found himself unable. He was weak and he hurt. His hands especially. The backs of his hands felt cracked and sore, and the tendons ached with a throbbing fatigue, as if he'd spent the night wringing out wet cloth. "I might have." Bryar muttered, clenching his fists to savor the pain. He had awakened with stranger injuries, but seldom so little memory of how he'd come by them. Cheap ale and he did not mix, which was why he drank his fill most nights, and why he'd long since grown used to waking up in strange places, inflicted with strange pains. Bryar considered it an occupational hazard, and sometimes a badge of pride. Today it was just annoying.
"Up!" he cried, grunting with effort as he lunched into a seated position, one enfeebled hand clutching at the rough brick wall to his right. That was as far as he could go for the moment, so he sat and tried to remember how he'd come to this feline burial ground. With no success. Bryar was accustomed to some missing memories, but last night was not a blur; it was a void. A blank. The last thing he recalled was restlessly wandering the empty streets of Halize, staring over the city walls to the east, his eyes fixed on the dark, distant peaks of the mountains that formed the border between the Eastern Deserts and Westmarch. He hadn't even been drunk, at the time.
Sick of this inaction, Bryar forced himself up to his knees, then pulled himself upright. Only then did he notice that his feet were bare. No wonder they felt so cold. More puzzled than distressed, Bryar began to rub the back of one hand over his forehead, then jerked it away at the feeling of cold ichor on his hand. Disgusted, Bryar limped to the end of the alley, where brighter light fell along a narrow street. There he held out his hands to study them for a moment, before pulling back into the shadow.
"Well..." he said, more dispassionate than disgusted.
Both of Bryar's hands appeared to have been dipped into a tank of blood. Not streaked, not smeared. Dunked. Submerged. The ichor extended almost to his elbows, and was clotted with wet lumps all up the sleeves of his homespun jerkin. Further splashes spotted his chest and shoulders, and Bryar knew his face must be just as bad. Or worse, thanks to the smear he'd just added to his forehead.
Forcing himself to remain calm, Bryar studied the blood on his arms, and soon realized it was worse than he'd thought. It was gore. Long strands of black hair were tangled in the rough material of his jerkin, along with gobbets of flesh. Turning his left arm over, Bryar's eyes widened. A small gold ring gleamed near his left elbow. An earring, the gold hoop still threaded through the ear, most of which was dangling from a long strip of flesh, which still boasted a tangle of long black hairs. That was too much, and Bryar jerked the garment over his head and threw it down. Staring at the ensanguined garment, Bryar backed away, his eyes wide, before turning and hurrying away as quickly as his unsteady legs would carry him.
His bare feet stopped him soon enough, and after just a few minutes Bryar found himself collapsed on the rear steps of a tailor's shop, his aching feet stretched out in front of him. His mind still reeling with shock, Bryar tried to think what to do while gradually realizing that he knew this store. He'd unloaded a wagon of cloth here once, he thought. The tailor had paid him with a new shirt and pants rather than gold, and once the little man had made a few alterations, they'd been some of the best clothing Bryar had ever owned.
Grinning at the memory, Bryar took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. Figuring whose blood this was could wait. First he had to wash himself clean, and find a shirt and some boots. Dawn was brightening the sky by the moment, and the city was waking around him. The markets would be buzzing already; he was fortunate to have found himself in the clothing district, where none of the shops opened before midmorning. The citizens of Halize did not tend towards nosiness or civic duty, but the sight of a man such as he; large, muscular, and roughly made, creeping through the back alleys shirtless, bootless, and drenched in gore, would not go unnoticed for long.
~~ 2 ~~
Poking his head around the corner, Bryar looked along the wide street and tried to remember where the nearest public well was located. Halize was not Lut Gholein, with a spouting fountain on every corner. This city was far inland, and while the caravan trade sustained the city, there was no great wealth. Nor was there magery or machinery to draw water up from the deeps, but wells dotted the wider streets, and water was not hard to come by. He just had to figure how to reach a source of water, clean himself, and depart unseen. South, Bryar thought, two blocks towards a public square...
A thunderous rumble interrupted his planning, and as the street shook and bits of rubble and dust floated down from the wall beside him, Bryar found himself back on his wounded feet, unsure which direction to run. An earthquake? That had not been thunder. Not from the cloudless spring sky.
Another street-shaking reverberation came seconds later, this one strong enough to stagger Bryar, and when a third came, much stronger, like a god striking the next street with a mighty hammer, Bryar's weakened hands lost their grip on the doorway. He fell, sprawling across the alley, and as he looked up from his prone position a lone figure stepped into view. The man stood in the center of the street at the end of the alleyway, less than twenty yards away. He wore a dark red robe with a deep hood, and held a long staff in one hand. One end of the staff was glowing, and when he raised it overhead, then brought it down with a whistling strike, the earth jumped again, this time actually bouncing Bryar back onto his feet as walls crumbled beside him.
He did not hesitate, whirling around and racing up the alley. Heat bloomed behind him, and a second after he turned a corner to the right, throwing himself into an even narrower passageway, a wall of flame roared past him, the flames impossibly hot, instantly consuming the litter and broken crates that covered the ground. They spurred Bryar on, and he fairly flew another corner as more flames erupted at his heels. Before he could reach the open street the earth shook once more, sending Bryar stumbling over a pile of discarded buckets and broken paving stones.
Looking back, he saw the figure again, his glowing staff burning like a star in the dim alleyway. "Who are you!" Bryar screamed, frantic with pain and confusion. His cry went unanswered, and as the staff again came crashing down, Bryar's hands rose instinctively, the fingers interlocking in a complicated gesture. Fire rushed at him, then somehow passed over and around him, blackening the walls on each side before it spent its fury against a narrow doorway, shattering the wood to splinters. Shocked that he remained alive, Bryar wasted no time in leaping up and racing through the opening.
The man was a mage of some sort, Bryar knew. Perhaps even one of the feared Vizjerei. Bryar had never seen such a man, at least not alive. The sight of this one reminded him of a terrible sight he'd witnessed just a few days before, when he'd found three men in such robes lying dead in the desert. From their corpses he'd taken certain treasures. It was said that all such mages shared a repository of knowledge. Was it any surprise that another of their order had come?
"I can get the necklace back!" Bryar cried, hysterical with fear. He felt flames rising again, and ducked as a blast of fire scorched through the air, burning straight through the wall to his right and igniting the drapes and several wall hangings. Pausing for a moment simply to gaze upon the fire, Bryar felt something within him stir, its presence awakened by the sight of such destruction. The feeling grew stronger a moment later, when another jet of fire gusted through the wall and passed him by like a galloping horse. The fire was tinged with blue, it burned so hot, and when another one of those hammer blows came a second later, Bryar was thrown from his feet.
Crawling, sobbing at the heat baking down at him, Bryar scrambled to the only door he could see, and threw it open. Outside waited the mage, his staff once again glowing and held overhead. Bryar slammed the door shut, but had time for nothing more before another attack came, this one crackling with electricity. Bolts of lightning arched through the wall, cutting trenches through the wood and stone as easily as a sword through wet cloth. They zigged and zagged across the wall, sizzling past Bryar as he screamed in fright and held up his hands, the fingers once more knotted in a strange pattern.
Something with him was again called by the lightning, and as the last of the bolts jittered across the front wall of the burning building, a deep voice echoed from Bryar's lips.
"At last! Again! The battle joined!"
Stunned by his words, Bryar could only stare as his hands extended, the fingers spread wide. An orange glow formed there, and in a blink it leapt from him, igniting into a stream of yellow and orange energy that sprayed forth, tearing straight through the wall and washing over the mage Bryar could see through holes the lightning had punched through wood and brick. The spell was agonizing to Bryar, the sensation like his hands had been dipped into molten metal, and though it lasted at most a second, he felt as though he'd been burning for days when his hands finally snapped shut, the blast of power vanishing as abruptly as it had begun.
"Run, human!" growled a voice in his head, and Bryar did, whirling and racing back out the way he'd come in just as the entire spell-gutted front wall caved in. Seconds later the entire three story structure collapsed with a roar and a gust of flame, toppling forward onto the remains of the mage with a great grinding crash.
Pausing not at all, Bryar kept moving, hurrying along the alleyway. He was still half naked and shoeless, but the fact that he was alive was more than enough to keep up his spirits, despite the inexplicable events he'd just endured. Holding out his hands in awe, Bryar saw that they were clean and pink with new flesh, the orange and yellow power seeming to have burned away all traces of blood, as well as removing the hair and dirt from the backs of his fingers.
Two streets over, Bryar stopped to catch his breath. He was laughing and on the verge of hysteria, giggling with a giddy relief. He could hear the flames and the continued collapse of the structure, and supposed the buildings on each side of it must be burning by now too. Something in him yearned for that; ached to witness the fire, and as Bryar shook his head at the unfamiliar sensations, he chuckled aloud.
"I must laugh, lest I cry." he intoned, then jumped with a start as his words were answered.
"You should. And you will!"
The growl of a voice seemed to come from every direction at once, and as Bryar looked around in surprise, a moving shadow caught his eye. For an instant he could see only darkness along the wall, until a third eye seemed to open within him, and a robed, spear-carrying man became visible in the murk. He moved like a waterfall, flowing with impossible speed and grace, and yet the tip of his skewer only grazed Bryar, as he moved faster than he would have thought possible. Surprise that he'd missed was only just beginning to register in the spearman's eyes when Bryar's hand lifted up and caught the man's face. He held it almost gently, but at once his hand began to squeeze, and as his fingers closed Bryar knew strength such as he'd never imagined.
Though Bryar held the man's flesh, he also sensed blood flowing through veins. He could even feel the striations and cracks in the skull below. All this in less than a blink, before his hand closed and the man's skull was flattened. Bone gave before his fingers, as supple as a woman's breast, and with a cracking, tearing sound the back of the spearman's head burst open. Dead before he knew it, the spearman's legs continued his charge, and he slammed into a wall three strides later, his spear impaling the brick surface.
Shaking his nerveless, aching hand, Bryar's only thought was to run. Instead he found himself walking to the spearman's corpse, even as the limp body slid down the wall it had crashed into. There was a small lake of gore behind him, and it deepened rapidly as his heart pumped its last, sending blood gushing through his ruined skull. Kneeling beside the mess, Bryar felt the inner sight that had been granted him fading away. He soon lost sight of his attacker, and as he squinted into the deep gloom that seemed to emanate from the man, he tugged loose a black cloak like pulling a shadow out of an ink pot.
Some of the darkness faded then, and Bryar realized he was gazing at a soldier, not a mage. This man wore shining breast plate beneath his cloak, a long sword on one hip, chain mail over his legs, metal gauntlets, and more. He seemed to be armored everywhere but his face and feet, and it was to his boots that Bryar turned the moment he'd struggled into the man's robe.
A voice interrupted him. A voice that came form his own mouth.
"Don the rings."
Not one to argue with himself, Bryar yanked off the man's gloves and found one thick ring on each of his forefingers. They slid off easily, fit comfortably onto Bryar's fingers, and instantly sent an amazing wave of strength and agility coursing through his body. "Magical rings?" he asked. This time no one answered him, and with the help of the jewelry his nimble fingers quickly had the man's boots unlaced and pulled onto his feet. They didn't quite fit, but Bryar wasn't about to complain. Nor did he object to the fat coin purse and gilded belt knife he found around the spearman's waist. Lashing the belt under his robe, Bryar hurried away, almost running until he reached a busier street. There Bryar slowed his pace and tried to look calm as numerous citizens hurried past.
None eyed him closely, drawn as they were by the sounds of fire and destruction, and Bryar walked to the side of the road, cutting through another alleyway as soon as he could, his thoughts spinning. "What was that?" he asked himself, shaking his head. "It was a great victory. But was it my victory?" That too went unanswered, and as Bryar remembered the flames and lightning washing harmlessly over him, and the way his hand had crushed a warrior's skull, he could only shake his head.
"Who are you?" he asked. "What are you?" To both questions the reply was the same. Silence.
~~ 3 ~~
One hour later, Bryar was fed, bathed, better dressed, and securely locked behind the door of a private room in one of the better inns in Halize. He was also terrified, as memories of his morning mingled with recollections of the sights he'd seen in the desert, three days ago. He'd done something, that day, something to draw the attention of the mages. Something he had to find a way to undo. He was safe for now; somehow he knew there were no more mages or any of their sneaking, shadowy foot soldiers in the city. But more would come. They could sense something on him, or in him. And Bryar couldn't trust to this morning's luck to preserve him, next time.
Another large swallow of fine wine did much to soothe his nerves, and a second relaxed him enough to sit back in bed and close his eyes. His thoughts turned back three days, and as comfortable and relaxed as only a man who'd just escaped certain death could be, Bryar let his memories run freely.
He'd awakened that morning, three days ago, before dawn. His hands had not ached, nor been soaked with blood, that time, and he'd sat up in a bed, rather than a filthy alleyway. He'd not been alone, then. That night he'd slept in a barracks for caravan workers, after spending the previous day unloading wagons, and when he'd awakened at such an ungodly hour, his eyes had been instantly drawn to the Western sky. There he'd seen tiny black dots, vultures circling in the distance, and they'd drawn him up and out of the room full of slumbering men without hesitation.
He'd not slept well, the night before. Several times thunder had boomed in the desert, rolling over the hard-packed desert sands and through the streets of Halize, though Bryar had never seen any lightning or black storm clouds when he'd looked up from his dice and drink. He'd given the thunder little thought before sleeping, but now that he was awake and heading out into the desert, two full skins of water over his shoulders, it seemed an unmistakable portent. Of what, Bryar knew not, but his brain worried at the puzzle as his long stride carried him through the city gates and out into the wastes.
Newcomers to the Eastern Deserts were often fooled by distances. Bryar was no newcomer; he knew the walk would be long, but he'd gotten an early start and had plenty of water for this time of year. He'd chased vultures before, but never to any success. Every boy and most of the men in Halize tried their luck once or twice, dreaming of a fat merchant stupidly wandered off from his caravan, delirious and dying, willing to trade half his fortune for a drink of water. Such had never happened, so far as Bryar knew, but it was a tempting legend.
That thought was not in Bryar's mind as he walked, but he still felt compelled to keep going. He had nothing better to do; there were no caravans due today, so he wasn't missing out on any work anyway. As he walked, Bryar kept his eyes on the distant specks of circling vultures. He was experienced in these wastes, and knew enough not to walk straight towards his destination. The desert looked flat from a distance, but on foot it was anything but. The hard-packed ground was humped by ridges, cut by ravines, and studded with rock outcroppings. A straight line was seldom the fastest route in this wasteland, so Bryar ranged left and right, choosing the flattest path whenever possible. He walked steadily and made good progress, but still the morning slipped past, and it was nearly noon by the time he was close enough to pick out individual birds soaring overhead.
His mission was clear, by then. Salvage, not rescue. The vultures were not circling indefinitely; one landed every few minutes as others winged into to take its place in pattern. Whatever lay below, Bryar knew it must be substantial to feed so many scavengers. He just hoped that they hadn't eaten any gold or other treasures their victim might have been carrying. And that there was nothing larger than birds and foxes at the meal.
He'd brought his sword, but Bryar hoped he'd find no cause to use it. There were dangers in the desert; giant insects of various types, great cats, packs of wolves in the wet winter months, and even the occasional demon, slipped from some ancient crypt. Bryar knew of such tombs, and of the undead that shambled within them. None were anywhere nearby, and even if they were, their occupants would not be drawn to a vultures' feast. They cared not for the dead, not the vultures for them, for their undead flesh was revolting even to the carrion eaters that filled this desert.
When Bryar rounded a last mound of rock and came into sight of his destination, he could make no sense of the sight. No other person had beaten him to the scene. Just the scavengers, who seemed to be waiting on something. Several coyotes and at least two dozen huge vultures were ahead of him, but they were not feeding. They were sitting, forming a ragged ring around some unseen spectacle.
Not until he drew closer could Bryar see past the scavengers, and the site amazed him. There were four corpses, human all, and they were as yet untouched, for none of the buzzards or dogs would move close enough to feed upon their sun-blistered flesh.
One man lay in the center of the circle of birds, face down, his arms and legs sprawled akimbo. He was naked, or nearly so, his pale white skin shining in the unblinking sun. Beneath him laid a second man, beside him a third. Those two both wore red robes and laid on their backs, their arms and legs drawn together, almost as though they were posed in a coffin. The fourth man was dressed as the other two, but he laid several steps away, and looked as if he'd been thrown there as he died. He was sprawled on his side, his arms and legs bent or broken, judging by the odd angles at which they protruded. Whatever had struck him had done so with enough force that one boot had been knocked from his foot. It laid behind him, just at the edge of the circle of vultures. The bared foot was very pale, but also reddened by the sun, like a rare steak. That no vulture, coyote, or fox had yet taken a bite of that tender morsel struck Bryar with suspicion.
Odder yet was the ground. All around the bodies and extending out past the encircling menagerie were great rips, rents, and burns across the surface of the desert. A battle had been waged here, one that had unleashed forces powerful enough to rend and scorch the rock-hard ground. Magic had been expended in this location, and most likely it had struck these four men dead. Were there perhaps others, lying broken and scattered just over the next rise? Bryar thought not; he hadn't seen any other bodies, nor could he see any scavengers gathered anywhere but here. Still, he kept his eyes moving from side to side as he walked towards the bodies at the apex of the ringed death eaters.
The silent animals did not heed his approach, and not until he was almost upon them did they yield to his shouting and arm waving. Even then the birds gave ground grudgingly, and none simply flew forwards. Instead they scattered left and right, squawking, ****ting, and stepping on each other as they jockeyed for position, while drawing no nearer to the corpses.
Saving the naked man in the center for last, Bryar walked across the open space and knelt down near the sprawled man in the red robe. Casting an uneasy eye over the great mass of vultures sitting almost within reach, Bryar quickly searched the corpse. The man held little of value; his robes had once been rich, but they were now torn and dusty, the lining ripped and the threaded embroidery pulled loose. If the man wore a purse Bryar could not find it, and aside from two small journals slung on a leather strap, and a dull dagger, the man was unarmed. His face was frozen in a rictus, and his vest and the silk shirt beneath it were scorched and pockmarked by black burns.
Disappointed, Bryar moved quickly to the second robed man. He and the man beside him were both laid out neatly, and this man seemed almost ready for formal burial, with his legs together and his hands folded over his stomach. He was dressed much the same as the first, but he was much older. His face was outlined in dark blue, tattoos so old they'd spread, blurred, and partially faded into his skin. Numerous silver rings pierced his nose, brow, and both eyebrows, two long scars ran down his left cheek and neck, and even in death he had a serene look of wisdom and power. Best of all, he wore a thick golden chain from which dangled a number of polished bits of bone. Bryar slung the necklace over his head, pocketed the man's coin purse, and moved on.
The third robed man also lay on his back, but not so neatly. The smaller, half-naked man lay almost in his armpit, and one of the robed man's metal-gloved fists was still curled in the dark hair of the half-naked man. In return, the half-naked man had one hand resting across the robed man's chest, his fingers just touching the jaw. A jaw that was the last normal thing about the robed man's face. The rest was crushed, almost flattened, as if by the stomping hooves of an ox. His skull had cracked open along one side, and he'd been squashed with such force that most of his brain was lying beneath his ear, the delicate curls and whirls of the organ largely erased by the baking sun.
There was no sign of what had so damaged the man, no maces or clubs to be found; just the hand of the nearly naked man resting on his chin. The robed victim still clutched a long staff, shod in iron at both ends and carved with countless shapes and designs. As best Bryar could tell from the ruins of his face, he'd been tattooed as well. Large stone earrings dangled from both ears, and the shattered remains of bones and shells he'd worn on a pendant laid broken and scattered. Bryar could see nothing of value, save for a belt dagger with a wavy blade, in a nicely-worked scabbard. He took it, and while strapping it on his own waist, finally turned his eyes to the body in the center of the circle.
He wasn't much to look at. The man was small, hardly larger than a boy, and he wore only a ripped pair of canvas pants with a length of rope for a belt. His feet were bare, the soles blistered and cut from running over the hard earth, and his long black hair was matted and partially torn from his head, clearly by the gloved fist of the robed man he'd died with. The fist was still wound in his hair, and by all signs these two had grappled as they died. Steeling himself for a gruesome sight, Bryar knelt down and slid one hand beneath the shirtless man's shoulder, then heaved him over. He was light, and flipped over easily, sliding bonelessly off of his companion in death. The sight was more shocking than Bryar had expected.
The half-naked man was a woman, her breasts small but unmistakable now that she lay on her back! Her face was plain and badly bruised from a savage beating. Worse were the jagged, blackened cuts cut along her stomach and sides, trenches through which ribs and intestines glistened. Her hands were mangled as well, the fingers broken and poking in every direction, the skin of her palms blackened by flames and caked in dried blood and dirt.
Stepping back, Bryar took a deep drink from his dwindling water skin, trying to imagine what had happened here. How could this all-but naked woman have killed three large men? How could she have fought on with such injuries? Was she some sort of Mage? Bryar had heard of magic-using women, but they were nearly unknown, and greatly overshadowed by the legendary mages of the Vizjerei. Where these three men Sorcerers, then? Their lack of weapons seemed to testify to that; it was said that Mages needed only their hands and concentration to call death from the air.
Suddenly afraid of what he had found and who he had stolen from, Bryar clutched the necklace at his throat and stumbled backwards. He might have kept right on going had not a sudden cacophony from behind reminded him of the vultures. Startled, he leapt back into the center of the circle, and only then did he see a gleam of light in the half-open eye of the mutilated woman. She lived still?
Amazed, Bryar lost his caution and knelt down to gaze into her battered face. As he watched, fascination outweighing his horror, the woman's mouth moved and her one good eye stared up blankly, the eyelid twitching. "Brothers..." she rasped with her final breath, as her head fell back and a sudden stink rose from her.
"What?" exclaimed Bryar, recoiling. An instant later a crawling sensation prickled his skin, as of a thousand flies walking over his face, and he cried out in disgust and leapt to his feet. Running blindly, he covered his head as he crashed through a screaming wall of flapping wings. Mercifully the vultures did not cling to him, and when he tripped over a stone and fell sprawling on the hardpack, less than a dozen strides later, he looked back to see their ring of deliberation broken. The four bodies were abruptly vanished, buried beneath a squabbling tide of feathers and fur as the vultures and coyotes surged over the meat. Sickened, Bryar got this his feet, wincing at the sting from his skinned right knee. Taking a moment to study the desert and be sure he was heading in the correct direction, he patted his neck and belt to be sure his prizes were intact, took a shallow sip of water, and started the long journey back to Halize.
Enriched though he was, the gruesome encounter had taken something out of his stride, and it had been all Bryar could do to make it back to town before dark. An ale and half a roasted bird had given him back some strength, and less than an hour later he'd felt a good deal better, with the gold for the dagger and necklace filling out his new purse. Bryar's celebration had begun that night, and lasted for two days, ending only when some unknown compunction had called him into the streets late last night. There he'd paced alone through the dark city, staring at the rocky western peaks and plotting an unknown revenge, before waking up in an alleyway, confused and soaked in blood.
~~ 4 ~~
He felt a similar confusion when he woke at midday, his hands again throbbing. The soft bed and dark room were unfamiliar, but a long swig of wine helped settle Bryar's nerves, and by the time he'd ordered lunch and seen it delivered by a winking, hip-swaying, large-breasted maid, his mood had improved greatly. There was nothing like a narrow escape to sharpen one's appreciation for the finer things in life, and for the rest of the day and night, Bryar did all he could to indulge in those. Several times he felt doubled, as though someone else looking out through his eyes. It felt good, like having a friend to watch over him, and each time the sensation returned Bryar toasted his guest. By midnight Bryar was awesomely drunk. As was the maid, though she'd done less than match his every fourth swallow.
Together they were just able to make it back to his room, the maid helping him along with one hand clutching his coin purse and the other his codpiece. Shutting and locking the door, Bryar staggered to the window, threw open the shutters, opened his pants, and pissed out into the street. He could see nothing in the darkness, but had a vague hope that someone might be down there. Someone without a crossbow. No one shouted up in outrage, and when Bryar at last shook himself off and turned back to the bed, he chuckled at the sight. The maid was lying flat on her back, her blouse opened, her breasts exposed. They were even larger than he'd expected, and when he realized that the woman's consciousness had lasted just long enough to bare herself, and that she was now snoring softly, Bryar's mood brightened.
"The perfect woman." he muttered, running one hand over her soft skin and giving the left breast a gentle squeeze. That action reminded him of something, and with a frown he released her warm flesh as he dropped onto the bed beside her. Looking down at his flaccid length, he yawned, then eyed the maid. She was fair, but the task of fumbling through all her skirts and underthings seemed impossibly complicated. He'd just rest a moment. Rest until he felt up to it. Laughing to himself, Bryar closed his eyes, distantly hoping the candles didn't burn down and set the room on fire.
~~ 5 ~~
When he woke his head was roaring, and the girl was nowhere to be seen. Not in any recognizable form, at least. The room stunk like the slaughterhouse it was. Blood streaked every wall, puddled on the floor, and even covered the ceiling. Stunned to react, Bryar simply gazed around in confusion, before looking down at himself. He was spotted with blood, but only spotted. His hands were smeared, but most of his naked body was clean, save for a few drops here and there. Drops that had must have fallen from the ceiling, where quite a bit of the woman seemed to have been... nailed? Skewered? But by what? Bryar thought he could recognize a breast and most of a rib cage, somehow spiked to the ceiling above the doorway, and if he was not mistaken the woman's heart was directly above his own, skewered to the ceiling by a broken length of bone.
Closing his eyes, Bryar tried to think. He could not. All he could think of was the man's face he'd crushed yesterday, and how like a woman's breast it had felt.
"I did not do this!" he insisted, speaking quietly in the tomb of a room. No one answered him, no other voice came from his mouth, and in the silence Bryar rose, fetched his new clothing from the wardrobe, and let himself out of the room. Still naked, he walked down the hallway, leaving the door closed, but unlocked, behind him. Dawn was not yet threatening, and in the tavern downstairs he found two unconscious men slumped on a table. Each had left a swallow of ale in his mug, and Bryar splashed the liquid over his head, then rubbed the tepid beer over his face and wrung his hands together until they felt clean. Well, cleaner. Blood free, at least.
He dressed there, pulling on his new clothing and making sure he still wore the rings he'd torn from the fingers of the dead spearman, before walking out into the predawn darkness.
~~ 6 ~~
They found him sooner than he'd expected.
It was still early in the morning, hardly an hour past dawn, and Bryar was sitting in the common room of the Seaside Inn, a tavern on the far eastern edge of town. It was nowhere near the ocean, of course, but this side of Halize was nearest to Lut Gholein and the inner of the Twin Seas beyond it. So he supposed it was on the seaside of Halize, if still dozens of miles from the actual ocean.
Such strange thoughts had been running through Bryar's mind all morning, as he sat and sipped water and watched the sun rise and the drunks snore. He wasn't drinking ale. Hadn't felt the need. He heard the sound of footsteps coming through the back kitchen before the front door opened, and he knew they'd come for him. When the kitchen door eased open a crack Bryar didn't look. He didn't need to; he could see them perfectly without moving his head. Without even moving his eyes.
He heard the creak of the bowstring as it was drawn back, heard the thrum when it was released, and heard the whistle of the arrow through the air. It was not well fletched, one of the feathers was too long, and it whistled and dragged, affecting the arrow's flight. Not that it would have mattered, with such a close shot, but Bryar had to adjust his grasp a fraction of an inch, when he reached up and snatched the arrow out of the air.
"I'm sorry about the girl. But I didn't kill her. Please go away."
His words fell into silence. He knew they'd heard him, but they didn't obey. He'd known they wouldn't; they'd been told to return with his head, or without their own. He'd have said the same thing, if someone had done what they thought Bryar had done to that girl.
He understood, but he was not ready to die, and he didn't feel like running. He needed help. He needed the force within him to emerge. It had saved him before, it had done that to the girl, and it would have to rise up now to save him from this band. Bryar could not call it forth though. No man could command such a demon. So he sat motionless, watching as two, three, four men stepped out of the kitchen, their swords drawn. They approached quietly, spreading out to prevent him trying to escape. Bryar watched them, without really watching. They could do what they wanted. It wouldn't matter.
As they surrounded him, moving almost to within range, their leader, his bow now slung over his back, spoke. "That was a nice trick with the arrow. Can you do it with a blade?"
Bryar didn't even look at him. He just waited. He knew not what sort of demon he'd taken into his body, when he bent over that dying naked woman in the desert, but it was strong. He could have judged that simply by the enemies who pursued it. Those mages in the desert, the others in the streets of Halize yesterday morning... they'd been strong. These fools were nothing; Bryar could almost have killed them himself. But not with his bare hands. So he waited, wondering when the demon would come forth. The abilities seemed to come more freely when he acted, rather than beseeching of the unknown power, so Bryar did just that.
He could hear the creak of leather when the man behind him tensed, and as he swung down his blade, Bryar leaned forward. Not far, just enough that the tip of the sword missed him. It cut straight down through the backrest of the chair, and as it split the wood Bryar leapt backwards, twisting around and driving one hand into the man's chest. He did not punch, or attempt to stab. He simply pressed his palm into the man's body, and felt a great pleasure as power rushed out through his fingers, exploding in the soldier's body. He lost his grip on the sword and gave a loud burp, then collapsed, clutching at his throat as he drowned on his own ruptured lungs.
The men to his sides spared no time to mourn. They attacked, leaping up onto the tables and swinging wildly. Bryar ducked one blade and turned to the left, catching hold of that man by the ankle. Again burst the power, passing effortlessly through the leather boot, and the man howled as he crashed to the floor, every blood vessel from his foot to his groin ruptured, his skin split and leaking.
His screams and the crashing of combat was more then enough to wake the few lingering drunks who had spent the evening sleeping on tables in the Seaside Inn's common room, and when one of them blundered into the archer's way, he cut the man down. Strangely jealous, Bryar seized another confused man and sent force into him, liquefying the inside of his body and sending it spurting out the other side. The spray drenched his attackers, and before they could clear their eyes Bryar was upon them, killing both with the slightest caress of his hands across their shoulders. The archer fell back, his sword held with trembling hands.
Bryar ignored him, the hunger inside him fixing on easier prey.
Hurling two tables out of his way, Bryar pounced, seizing two tottering old men, their palsied legs too feeble to carry them quickly to safety. Their flesh felt sickly, like rotten beef jerky, and it gave way to the slightest surge of power. Sinking his hands into their bodies, driving his arms elbow deep through their abdomens, Bryar shared some of the pleasure as the creature within his body sighed in delight.
Clenching tightly on the slimy organs he found within his fists, Bryar yanked his hands back, dropping both men in shock as he hauled lengths of their intestines out through their skin. One man died almost at once, and when the fistful of flesh tore, Bryar left him lying in the doorway. The other's guts proved more durable, and Bryar felt a strange compulsion to drag him along as he left the tavern and made for the nearest town gate.
A crowd was gathering, drawn by the clamor of battle. They parted at the sight of Bryar and his cargo, their horrified faces a delight to his senses. Bryar could have killed them all, but a new urge was upon him, so we went silently, dragging the graybeard along by a ten foot leash of his own intestines. The crowd followed at a respectful distance, but someone must have run ahead, since by the time the strange parade reached the Eastern Gate it had been closed and barred, and a squad of sleepy-eyed soldiers awaited Bryar.
Sighing, he dropped the guts and walked forward, his bloody hands held out, empty. "Please open the gate." he said. "We must travel to Lut Gholein."
The soldiers didn't know what to make of this, and when none spoke, Bryar felt the demon within lose what little patience it possessed. "Very well." It spoke with Bryar's voice, raising his hands and bringing forth destruction. A wedge of ice surged towards the gate, hurling the soldiers like twigs before a torrent. Several men were pulped when the wedge stuck the wooden barrier, which fared little better. Thick planks burst open, metal straps snapped, and the entire Eastern Gate collapsed a moment later, as maimed soldiers tried to pull themselves away from the destroyer.
Bryar passed them by, walking out into the desert without a glance back. No one in Halize made any move to pursue him, which Bryar thought was wise. His inner guest might not have agreed. His guest might have wished for an excuse to level the entire city. Bryar wasn't sure, and he didn't much care. They were going to Lut Gholein now. He knew no more than that, and that for the first time in his life, he was not alone.
~~ 7 ~~
The caravan ride to Lut Gholein took a week, in good weather. Oxen walked slowly, though, and stopped each night. Bryar thought he might make it in two or three days, if he walked nonstop. His guest was powerful, and could surely use that might to keep Bryar walking, instead of just for burning and crushing skulls. He had no water or food, but Bryar didn't worry about that. The demon, his guest, would provide.
He walked all day, moving in silence and not thinking. He did not speak, did not complain, and it wasn't until dusk, when he feel asleep walking and crashed to the ground, that Bryar woke from his stupor. Sitting up in the ditch at the side of the road, Bryar shook his head and touched the blood that was leaking from his nose. Hurt, he spoke reproachfully.
"I'm tired. You have to keep us walking." There was no response.
Resigned, Bryar struggled to his feet and managed another few miles, before he dozed off again. And fell again, this time with less grace, landing heavily on one hand and banging the side of his head on a large stone. Dizzy and stunned, Bryar raised his hand to suck at the blood flowing from his torn palm while he gazed up at the star-filled sky. The road beneath him was no down mattress; it was hard packed dirt that had been mud a month past, and still bore dried oxen hoof prints and wagon wheel tracks. It hurt, beneath his exhausted body.
"Talk to me." he said. There was no response. "I can't walk all the way to Lut Gholein. I'm not even sure I can walk back to Halize."
Silence still. Bryar matched it, lying motionless in the center of the road. A moment passed, then another, and Bryar at last curled up and pulled his robe tight, as best he could. Nights grew quite cold in the desert during the spring, and he could not sleep if he was shivering. He'd rise and walk later, to keep warm. But he had to rest first. Perhaps when he woke he'd know which way to go.
"To Lut Gholein." came the reply. It was hardly a voice, more of a hiss. Bryar sighed.
"I can't walk that far."
Shrugging, Bryar closed his eyes and tucked his chin down inside his collar. Sleep came almost at once. It did not last long, and the moon had hardly risen into the sky when the voice woke Bryar. "They come!" it snarled, the tone dark with hatred.
"Let them come." Bryar replied. "You will kill them."
"Not these," said. "They are strong."
"Stronger than you?" asked Bryar, his curiosity awakened. He sat up in the middle of the road, stretching and yawning. He was terribly thirsty, very hungry, and his feet and legs ached from a full day of walking.
"Yes." replied the voice, the tone bubbling with a spite and malevolence Bryar had never imagined. "In this plane. In this form. Alone."
"You're not alone." Bryar answered.
"You wish to be rid of me. Unwanted." Bryar wasn't sure what he heard in the voice. Anger? Rejection?
"Why would I want that?" he asked.
There was silence then. A silence that stretched out for minutes, for nearly an hour, until Bryar heard the faint sounds of approaching footsteps. They were walking, not running, and there were a lot of them. The Vizjerei. Sorcerers.
"Horadrim." said his other voice, hatred and despair mixing in the tone.
"Horadrim?" asked Bryar.
"Wizards. Sorcerers. Humans. Weak. But driven by the Angels. Gifted of tools to bind. To hold. They claimed already my brothers."
Nodding, Bryar understood. "They did. But they will not claim you."
The voice was silent, but Bryar felt it inside his head. Satisfaction? Gratitude? Emotions he had not thought it capable of. Emotions it had not thought itself capable of. "For this kindness it will kill me," thought Bryar, with a half smile. Then he was at once on his feet, running full speed off the side of the road, as flames filled the sky and burst up from the ground on all sides.
More flames bloomed before him, but the other was active within him, and he felt nothing as he leapt through. A figure appeared, and as it lowered a glowing staff, Bryar felt something tear inside himself. One moment he was there, then next he was beside the figure, and when his hands squeezed the shocked man's chest, turning what beat within it to a boiling soup, Bryar felt the demon's pleasure as his own.
Again he ran, dodging the flames, ducking the lightning, felling an armored warrior with his bare hands. He ran until he had nowhere else to run and the mages, the Horadrim, ringed him on all sides. They were strong indeed; laden with enchantments that protected them from his spells. They had learned from their failures. They were resilient. They were all that he and his kind hated about humans.
Invisible hands seized his body, crushing him in their grip, and when their leader stepped forward, a yellow crystal held in his hands, Bryar felt his guest's despair. "Brothers!" his mind cried, and Bryar understood. He waited, unable to breath in the crushing grip, unable to bear the pain he felt as his guest was pulled away from him.
"Hold the demon while I use the soulstone!" cried the mage, yellow sparks spiting and crackling from the stone's glowing surface. His comrades shouted assent, and as their magical grips on the human loosened, Bryar took his one chance. He lunged, drawing the dagger from his belt and driving it straight into the face of the mage.
A normal man would have been finished. This Horadrim was too quick, and was able to dodge the killing strike, though at the cost of a deep cut to his cheek. Bryar cared not; his target had not been the mage at all, and when he circled his stab downward, he felt the knife slash deeply into the back of the mage's hand. His hold on the crystal was loosed, and Bryar smoothly caught it with his left hand, at once hurling it down to the rock-hard ground. Bryar had feared it might be unbreakable, like a vast diamond, but he needn't have worried. The soulstone shattered easily, most of the crystal bursting into dust and splinters while one larger chunk spun away, still glowing in the darkness.
Bryar would have stomped that bit to dust as well, but before he could move the demon surged back to full strength, and his lust to destroy the Horadrim overwhelmed all. Surprised at the wounding of their leader, the other mages had lost their psychic grip on the demon, and he unleashed his fury on the reeling humans without delay, spraying molten bursts in every direction. Half a dozen of the Horadrim were felled, but their numbers were too great, and it was just moments before a dazed and bloodied Bryar and his raging guest were once again held tight by invisible bounds.
Helpless to resist, his arms twisted behind him, Bryar could only watch as the leader advanced once again. His cheek still bleed freely and his slashed hand was but crudely bandaged, but in it he cradled the last shard of the soulstone. It glowed just as brightly, but was much reduced in size, and as Bryar struggled to remain conscious, the glee of his guest kept him conscious. "Tal Rasha, you fool! Such a splinter will not hold me."
Bryar thought he saw doubt in the mage's eyes, but it was replaced with the shining gleam of the true believer when a white light suddenly washed over the assembled Horadrim and their prisoner within a prisoner.
"And yet you will be held." came a booming voice, the winged figure from which it emitted glowing with a light Bryar could not endure.
An archangel! Such creatures were more legendary even than demons or mages, and as Bryar squinted into the pure radiance, able to glimpse no more than gleaming armor and the brilliant tendrils of light that served it as wings, the wounded mage stepped closer.
Locking eyes with Bryar, the Tal Rasha nodded, seeming to see both the man and the demon within. Raising Bryar's own dagger, its blade still smeared with his blood, Tal Rasha struck, expertly opening Bryar's throat. Gasping, tasting blood instead of air, Bryar looked down in shock as the mage removed the blade, replacing it with the glowing shard of soulstone. It hurt, a bitter ache that radiated through his entire body, and as Bryar felt his life ebbing, a greater emptiness washed through him as the demon was drawn forth, pulled helplessly into the soulstone. Emptied, Bryar felt a strange calm wash over him, the gibbering, ranting madness and lust for destruction he'd taken as his own suddenly vanished.
Only the invisible grip of magic held him upright as he died, his glazed eyes staring blankly as Tal Rasha held up the glowing stone, looked at the nodding angel, then drove the crystal into his own chest, screaming as the sharp stone penetrated him and the demon flooded into his body, there to wrestle for control for all eternity. As he breathed his last, Bryar knew a final triumph. No mortal could contain the Lord of Destruction. His dying eyes finally able to penetrate the archangel's glamour, Bryar saw that the angel knew it as well. He smiled then, and saw no more.
My idea with this story was to retell one of the key events in the Diablo mythology from a different POV. I chose the binding of Baal (reference links below), with the story told from the POV of the last human he possesses. I did a bit of rewriting of the game history, but very little. Less than I thought I'd have to.
The stories in the game manual talk about the horadrim hunting down the 3 brothers during the Dark Exile, and having to kill the humans they'd possessed. Only when the body was dead did the spirits of Diablo/Baal/Mephisto come free, and they could then go into another human, or be sucked into a soulstone.
As told in the game manuals and retold in this story, Baal was the last of the 3 to remain free, and he was captured in an Eastern city near Lut Gholein, by a band of Horadrim mages led by Tal Rasha, after a fierce battle in which the soulstone was partially shattered. The 2 versions of the story differ slightly between the D1 and D2 manuals, but neither address how the human hosts of Baal felt, or how the soulstone was broken. so I took some artistic liberty in imagining it for myself.
The game manuals are from the POV of the humans and Tyrael, but I thought it would be more interesting to see it from the other side, and to sort of humanize Baal. That was the initial plan, anyway. When I got to actually writing the story, I didn't develop that as well as I wanted. I liked that opening scene of the guy waking up drenched in blood, and that became sort of a theme; Baal would come out and commit atrocities while the guy was unconscious. So Baal's pretty much all evil in this one, which isn't really how I had it planned.
Initially I was going to have more time pass during the story, and the guy who had baal in him was going to really grow to like it. He'd been sort of a loser and a weakling all his life, and with the demon inside him he'd be improved. (Baal would take some time to grow in strength before he could manifest himself and take control, ala the Dark Wanderer saga). The main character was going to be more of a tragic figure; baal was his first real friend/helper, who made him stronger and able to be a man for the first time in his life. so naturally he'd grow attached to the demon and fight to protect him, blind to the evil the demon was doing. I didn't do that in the final story, mostly for time/space considerations. The story became compressed in time flow and more action-heavy than initially intended, and I didn't give myself enough time to write it to rework it substantially before the submission deadline (which I think I missed anyway).
I didn't start working on this story until the Friday night before the deadline. I got through a rough draft by Saturday afternoon, and sent out copies to a few friends for some quick feedback. RL intruded on Sunday, and I didn't get around to doing the final editing until Sunday evening, and worked frantically right up until the midnight deadline, but didn't have time to go over the last chapter at all.
(I tried to submit it starting at 11:57 Sunday night, and never actually got a confirmation message. The first time my browser processed it and then loaded an entry form for a Starcraft cartoon contest. I then got an error message, and after that the page wouldn't load. So I don't think I ever successfully entered this one in the contest. I like to think I didn't, since I wasn't even an Honorable Mention, and it's more pleasing to blame time and technology than accept that Blizzard throught my story was teh suck.)
The version I posted here has been edited some since then. Little changed early on, but I tweaked a lot of the final chapter, since it was too abrupt. It still is; the guy goes from apparently not knowing he's got a demon inside of him to conspiring with it in like 5 minutes. I need more explanation why Bryar isn't more freaked out by events. As a result Bryar isn't very sympathetic and seems like a psycho.
I also didn't explain the horadrim or the soulstones or tyrael or demons, etc. I'm not sure that needs to be done; the judges of the contest were obviously familiar with the diablo game lore, but lots of casual fans haven't read anything in the game manuals in 10 years (if at all) and pay no attention to the game story/lore/plot. so they wouldn't get the hints of what was going on throughout, wouldn't remember anything about Baal's activities during the Dark Exile, wouldn't remember Tal Rasha, etc. In that way I guess it's a story more for committed fans than the general public. Whether that's good or bad I dunno.
On the whole I'm not real happy with this one. I like the concept, but I didn't execute it as I wanted to, and not just because it was such a rushed writing process. I wanted to take advantage of the 10k word limit to do something a little bigger and more involved/developing than I've done with my other 3-5k horror-themed Diablo stories. And instead I just ended up cramming in more action scenes and events, rather than doing real character development and plot building.
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