"Will you die this day?"
"No… but you will."
"Oh, how I wish that were so."
~Marked One and challenger~
"It's him, isn't it?" one man asked in a hushed whisper.
"So it seems," replied another. "Skulls on the hilt show Verma craftsmanship. Yet he is not Verma. The stories tell—"
"Stories?" one old man snickered. "I've actually seen the results of his madness. He leaves dead bodies behind, everywhere he goes. Warlords don't even want him around. They say he's bad for their business."
"More bad for their egos," said a younger man. "They say no one can kill him."
"I've heard he's possessed by some demon," said another man.
"Possessed?" The old man snickered again. He was possibly the village cynic, the type who would never let the opportunity go by to set people straight on the dos and don'ts of speculation. "More like he's the demon."
The patrons continued whispering amongst themselves, thinking the itinerant warrior at the bar could not hear, but his Rantha ears picked up each word wafting over the air, ghost-like, though no less subtle than a black snake slithering across white sand.
Nor was he the only one who could hear. The head of a gang who sat nearby was, in fact, listening and smirking to every comment. The warrior had seen the arrogant whelp when coming into the tavern and noticed immediately the black leathers and gold and silver studded leather gauntlets.on his forearms, not to mention the gaudy sword at the youth's hip—it could hardly be of any good use to him. The blade was too long for his arm. The fool was more into appearances and bullying than anything, and the smirking mixed badly with his swarthy complexion, pitted with scars of past pus-filled boils. The inept attempts for attention were all that was needed to determine the youth would end up in a grave before he reached the age of twenty.
Not interested in any sort of confrontation, the warrior tried to ignore him, but the patrons would not let his dismissal go on for long. Their observations would lead to yet another bloody skirmish, and this night of all nights he would rather forget his nefarious reputation.
The gang leader's two leather-clad friends, both possibly the same age he was, but with more obnoxious demeanors, hissed with amused laughter as their so-called leader clutched his cod-piece, mocking the patrons in front of them.
The warrior felt the whelp's probing and expectant gaze sear into his back, but he did not pay him any mind, hoping his lack of interest would deter any challenge. The youth really was too young to die a fool's death. Then again, foolishness held no respect for age.
The murmurs continued. "They say his rage could ignite a smoldering volcano," one young man ventured.
"I was told it did, once," said another.
The speculations and observations roamed through the tavern from one side to the other, and then back again, like choppy waves.
The warrior sighed quietly. No, not so subtle at all.
He considered using his tattered gray cloak to cover the sword's ivory hilt, as its carved skulls would clearly identify him to others, but then quickly shrugged off the urge. The people here already suspected him of being the infamous cursed warrior. No sense hiding the fact now. He knew what he stirred inside of people: the terror, the excitement, and the unquenchable curiosity that pushed many into doing stupid things, but truth was truth no matter how ugly it looked. And if anything in this world mattered to him, it was truth.
Terahn had taught him that lesson.
For a moment his mind went back to thoughts of his past, when a promising life had been given him anew and his darkened corridors of madness had collapsed under the heavy weight of shelter's embrace. Terahn's embrace.
A warrior like no other, with a love for life as well as his people, the Swarrin prince known as Terahn had at one time managed to sway the rebellious spirit of an angry and unfocused young Rantha who could not see beyond the need for vengeance.
Terahn's love had at one time saved him from the path of bloodlust, until…
He was so lost in memories of a love sacrificed in bloodshed's fury he barely noticed the barkeep placing the wooden tankard of ale in front of him. The sweet scent of the dark brew brought him out of his desire to run away within his mind. He stared deeply into the liquid, like a seer scrying for anything to help him understand. But no visions or signs rippled over the surface of the ale. Like all other times before, epiphanies evaded him.
Why he continued the inward analysis was beyond him, except that maybe it had become habit—something to help turn his mind elsewhere other than his darkness. Were it not for Terahn and a harp song played by a child prince that, even now, toyed with his heart and mind, he never would have bothered to search for answers at all.
With a callused finger, made hard by the constant use of his cursed sword, he traced a crack on the wooden counter. Once again there were the stares, the whispers, and the scrutiny of those who wondered if they could take him in a fight. He had trained himself to ignore it all without losing discernment. Even in the midst of reminiscing, he could still maintain an unexplained awareness; it was a mild side effect of the curse.
There he would be, appearing to be lost in the past, or in thought, and the fools would sneak up on him, carelessly thinking they were being smooth and strategic. The body count had risen to one thousand five hundred sixty-eight, not counting kills on the battlefield. He always tallied the bodies, not out of pride, but out of his incessant need to plant himself in reality. He did not need the constant reminder of who he was or why. Every time he looked down at his chest and saw the mark, he remembered. No, the body count served as his focus.
Only after the slayings, when he saw the blood and carnage wrought by his hand, did he study those he had killed. He made it his penance never to forget the wounds inflicted by his hand. Many he had killed were arrogant fools, but most were warlords or slave owners, or people who reveled in the pain of others. No one would miss them, certainly, but he was no better than they were, and he still had not found the one destined to kill him—the one who could stop his maddening existence.
He considered it dumb luck that innocent people had not yet been victimized by his mysterious curse and sword. Perhaps they knew enough to flee the second he unsheathed the red steel, for he never fell into the Blood-Rage unless the need to fight came upon him.
There was a chance an innocent would someday feel the edge of his blade. The possibility always played in the back of his mind, sometimes seeping into his dreams at night, tormenting him. After all, killing an unarmed youth was the reason for the curse. What would truly stop him from killing another when the rage ignited?
The whispers continued and the eyes still scrutinized him.
He let out another bone-weary sigh—and felt the tingling in his blood. He quickly looked out the tavern windows. The sky had taken on the notorious hint of red as the sun began its descent into early evening. He shut his eyes. The craving that all Rantha went through at this time of year still hovered like an incoming storm a few hours away, but it would call to him soon. The tingling signaled he would have to leave this village, after all. He lowered his head in acceptance of his fate. A bed would have been nice, but it looked as though such a simple pleasure would have to keep until the next village or the one after that… or the one after that. Even if it weren't for the onset of the craving, he would still have to leave. The villagers would certainly not let him rest in peace if he stayed. No matter where he went his reputation failed to allow him to go without notice. He had hoped, though, that news of his nefarious actions had not traveled this far into Murgatara. He should have known better.
He surrendered to the call of unyielding misfortune once again. If it were not for the dreams, those torturous plagues infecting his sanity and reason, he would have bypassed this continent all together, to head northwest into the ice-lands of Olkon. The land of driving winds and snow would have been more fitting company for his disposition.
But this time his path was not his own.
This time his dreams told him where to walk.
Perhaps the dreams were calling him to what he yearned for. Perhaps the killers of his parents and older brother awaited his arrival, and in the process of killing them, one of them would end his own miserable life.
He gripped the tankard of ale and drank with all the casualness of one who didn't seem to matter, or just didn't care.
He grew tired of the barkeep's constant stare and slowly lifted his gaze to meet the scrutiny. "Something on your mind?" He spoke in a voice both low and calm.
The barkeep hitched a breath when looking into his eyes, but his rage lay dormant now. The barkeep should feel blessed. Instead, he cleared his throat and spoke his fears.
"We don't want any trouble here."
The infamous warrior gulped down the ale, then set the empty tankard on the counter without a sound. He flipped a coin into the barkeep's hand. "Then don't make any." He responded, at ease, undisturbed.
As he turned to leave, a sword blocked his path. He glanced down at the steel blade nestled close enough to kiss his throat, and then slid his gaze to the hand of the young man stupid enough to seek challenge.
The cursed warrior wondered if he should just kill the idiot for that reason alone.
* * * *
The sixteen other people in the tavern stilled as abruptly as if they had stumbled upon a long-forgotten tomb.
Silence filled the air, lessened only by heavy breathing, normally unheard beneath the bawdy yelling and carousing of the tavern's regular patrons.
The lone warrior, however, paid no attention to the stares and gaping mouths of the people. His only focus was the challenger before him, the pockmarked face of the warlord youth who only wanted to show off in front of his two snickering young friends.
The warrior ignored them. Only if they made any moves to help their friend would he turn his attention their way.
"Will your eyes flare red this night, Marked One?" The young challenger spoke with a hint of humor to his voice. He thought this was a joke. The punch line, however, would not be funny.
The warrior did not immediately reply. Though he did not yet feel the burn of his rage, steaming contempt poured into him at yet another fool who sought to call him out.
In spite of the drunken laughter his self-declared assassin spewed forth, the warrior spoke in a calm voice. "Leave, boy. Now."
"Or you'll do what?"
"Hey, we don't want any trouble here," the barkeep repeated, this time with more urgency, trying in vain to ease the escalating tension. "Take it outside if you want to fight."
The youth laughed heartily; the arrogant laughter of one who believed he could not die.
"The act of taking my life does not belong to you," the warrior decreed, quietly, as though this action on the youth's part was as boring as watching flies flittering through air. The curse on his soul had been specific, even though shrouded in symbolism.
A storm of red tides form
As each man seeks to kill.
But only one will slay your heart,
In the midst of Passion's chill.
He doubted this arrogant whelp was the one destined to take his life, for his body fell into the heated torture of the rage. The symptoms advanced like a familiar enemy. His blood would begin to boil and his breathing would increase. Sweat would soon begin to flow down his rugged face and body, drenching his long, black hair into dripping strands. His normally green-tinged amber eyes would flare red like molten rock, as would the mark on his chest and his sword, both pulsating with each beat of his caged heart. The vibration of the sword would intensify, harmonizing its balance with the rage of the one who wielded it.
Ripples of heat now filled his limbs like a passionate craving. Already he began to see red, literally, as every image his eyes beheld became distorted in a fire's rippling heat. The face of this youth wavered in his vision, taking on demonic form. He always saw the souls of those he attacked, saw them as one would look upon the face of evil itself. He would feel their desire to shed blood, to rape and maim. He would taste their bloodlust on his lips and it always served to intensify his own.
And, like all those other times before when his rage sought to drown out his reason, a memory sought to invade his thoughts and pull him back to stability: an innocent child prince, pure of soul. Harp music, played by that child's once nimble fingers, would seep through the madness, break through the inner turmoil, but he would always try to lock it away in the darkest halls of his mind.
Stephen, Stephen, Stephen.
The name filtered in, trying to rip at the fabric of his threatening madness. He fought to push it back, for the precious memory of Stephen's purity of heart was not meant to be quartered in the presence of a tainted soul.
"Not here," he hissed, not realizing he had spoken out loud.
"Here or outside, makes no difference," his challenger taunted. "You will fight me this day."
The youth's mocking voice echoed somewhere in his awareness, drowned out by the beautiful melodies of Stephen's music from his distant past. They always managed to touch his mind, in spite of the many attempts to push them away.
The dreams, the dreams, the dreams. Why had the dreams called him back to this place?
Stephen had died a long time ago. He simply could not have survived all these years, not with a lung ailment such as he had suffered.
And then came another memory—this one of a white-haired man with a silver and gold pipe, playing discordant melodies heard in the winding halls of past and present, with fluctuating and non-uniform patterns. The sultry voice of the man known as The Piper lingered in his mind… "Care to make a wager, friend? Your heart's life will come to a timely end."
He winced. He remembered the ragged hands on his body, the invasion, the ripping of violent intrusion, and the pipe music played on and on as his captors had taken him again and again.
He saw Terahn's head rolling to a stop at his feet, heard the laughter of The Piper as the being taunted him with the death of his lover.
And now, upon lifting his gaze, a searing red took shape in front of him. The music stopped, and all he saw was the face of a warrior smiling madly at him, covered in the markings of the Verma, painted black and blue and white. The mouth twisted upward, revealing blackened teeth sculpted by chisel to form fangs able to rip and shred.
The heat of his rage grabbed him viciously with burning talons. His hand went to his sword's hilt, and the face before him stopped laughing. The four metal skull clasps holding the curved sword within its open-sided scabbard unlatched as though unseen fingers had flipped them open. The sword came out of its home with the ease of constant practice, and those within the tavern saw for the first time the curved, reddened steel with the teeth-like notches at the tip of the cursed blade.
The youth stared deeply into the fiery eyes, flaring like blazing embers, and by the expression on his pockmarked face, he knew he was looking into the face of his own damnation.
* * * *
The two friends stood from their table, hands grasping the hilts of their swords, ready to fight.
Within a shadowed corner in the back of the tavern sat another man who had simply bided his time and watched the warrior upon his arrival. Dressed in hides with a hooded animal-skin cloak draping his shoulders, he watched the scene unfurl before him, yet showed no surprise upon the turning of The Marked One's eyes, or the glowing, pulsating heat of the sword's blade. He merely continued to drink his ale, undaunted by the suddenly charged atmosphere.
The hood hid the man's face well as did the shadowed corner, but both did little to hide the fact he was an archer and hunter. A hint of fading sunlight and the coming red moonlight caught the tip of his longbow resting beside him against the wall like a trusted friend, within reach should there be a need.
The insolent youth who had brought the challenge would die this day, whether by The Marked One's hand or by his own. The source or method of his death did not matter, just so long as he died.
The hooded man eased his pelt-clad feet from under the table, ready to stand and move into battle if the situation called for it.
He did not care that no one paid him any mind. In fact, he preferred to go unnoticed as he watched the scene before him. The Marked One spoke, and his voice was filled with both sorrow and warning.
"Will you die this day?" he asked the youth. The words were merely whispered, but in the quiet settling over the people, stilled by the young man's audacious challenge, they came out as more a heraldic decree.
"No," the youth replied with a sneer. "But you will."
Before being forced to relinquish his will to the curse, The Marked One spoke what sounded more like a yearning birthed in the deepest hollows of his heart. "Oh, how I wish that were so."
The heated desire of bloodlust showed in The Marked One's shaking body, his heavy breathing. The hooded man studied the cursed warrior's stance, the clenched grip over the carved skulls in the ivory hilt of the sword. He saw the face muscles twitch, the jaw tighten. He knew all the signs. He had studied. He had questioned those who had witnessed past encounters with the warrior of the Blood-Rage. He knew the mark over the heart would begin to glow and pulsate, if it wasn't already doing so.
He watched with keen interest as the red blade arched through the air, only to be blocked by the youth's sword.
The two other friends stared, stupefied, at the mark pulsating with each beat of the cursed man's heart. "He is a demon!" one shouted.
The foolish challenger pushed against his opponent and laughed. "Then I will be his exorcist!"
The Marked One bared his teeth, and a low growl formed at the base of his throat. The growl of a sho'eme lion would be hard pressed to match it. Would it erupt into a roar?
The red blade slashed down and cut an incision along the youth's chest. The youth stumbled back and grabbed the bloodied area. His hardened face twisted with anger at having first blood drawn from him. At any second he would give into a rampage, which would make him an easier target for his opponent's notorious skill.
Yes, Ka'lak, the hooded archer thought. Make him lose his focus so he may not see death claim him.
When the warlord's two friends headed into the battle, thus driving the patrons and tavern owner to flee the building, the archer made his move.
* * * *
In every battle, every fight, The Marked One was doomed to relive the night that stole his peace, the night when he sought revenge for Terahn's death and for the abuse heaped upon his own body while in captivity. He saw only Verma warriors each and every time his sword was infused with the rage of his soul. He lashed out at memories still alive and real in his mind. The night of his being captured and cursed played again and again… always.
He saw two more Verma come to the aid of their injured friend; then suddenly another appeared at his side, a man with long black hair, dressed in the animal skins of the Swarrin race. The cursed warrior froze when he noticed the face of this Swarrin. He watched as the Swarrin cut down the two other Verma with one stroke of his tusk-embedded mace.
Using his own language, the Swarrin had spoken a warning, and the warrior turned to block the blow of his challenger. Confusion fractured his mind, and he fluctuated between the rage in his soul and the familiar comfort this Swarrin warrior brought with him.
Memories of Terahn falling into his arms filled his thoughts: the knife protruding out of his lover's chest, the blood streaming down Terahn's firm abdomen, and the deeply brown, pain-filled eyes fading into sightless death.
The Marked One's focus slipped. "No," he muttered.
The youth swung his sword and cut the maddened warrior's shoulder, but the pain of the wound did not come close to eclipsing the pain in his heart. He stumbled backward and fell to his knees. "No!"
He heard the sound of metal against metal and knew the Swarrin had taken up the battle with the challenger on his own.
The Marked One did not care. His mind twisted and turned. Fantasy spun out of control, mixing reality into its maelstrom. "Terahn?" he whispered in confusion, unable to believe what he saw. The Swarrin warrior looked so much like his dead lover, he could not help but think Terahn's ghost had come back to help him in some way.
He cringed with the confusing images of his tortured dreams coming to life before him and he fell deeper and deeper into them, forgetting the present battle that no longer concerned him.
He wanted death to take him away. He wanted the peace death would bring, but it was not to be. The dreams would not let him go. His past reasons for living—Terahn and…
Stephen, Stephen, Stephen.
The music filtered into his shattered reason, drawing him away, urging him to push back the red heat of his fury.
He lowered his head to the wooden floor and sought shelter inside his shaking arms. He screamed the scream of a madness that harbored no mercy, of a thick and smothering darkness. No, he was not the one to ignite a volcano; the volcano would ignite within him. He wondered which part of him would be ripped apart first by the massive eruption… his body or his mind?
The force of his screams was of such magnitude, the people of the village would later report the tavern had shaken with the reverberations.
And then, after it seemed the wails would never cease, they finally died slowly to tormented moans.