Teaser: The Scorned Lands
Figured I’d try this on you guys, see if you liked it.
Oh, and Happy Easter to K. Coble. – This is for her. 😉
Prologue: to Conjure Destiny
Ragnarok. Twilight of the Gods.
Whom the Gods destroy they first make mad… but when Gods purpose their own annihilation, what lunacy preludes that ruin? What malefic visions birth gibbering deicide?
Ragnarok… the end of all things.
It was an end, yes. But not final. A conclusion, not a consummation.
No one remembers how it began, only that the savagery raged for days. No realm spared as celestials expended their very essence to unleash the primal energies required to murder their kind. Continents heaved, oceans boiled, stars exploded. Time, space, day, night lost all meaning. Erstwhile allies and servants, our lives were abruptly incidental, insects in the scale of their grand self-immolation.
So while the Gods hurled doom across the three worlds – rending the Heavens, scorching the Earth, shattering the Underworld – we huddled and hid and dared not pray. Terror, woe, and havoc crashed over us like great waves of the deep. All turned to rubble and ash – an utter desecration – for when Gods make war, who can escape?
Then one day Ragnarok ended.
The Gods were dead.
We who survived blinked in horror at what remained – that we remained – and called ourselves cursed. Remnants of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, scattered across the blighted landscape, fated to still draw breath, forced to sift meaning from desolation.
Minor deities remain, few, feral and precarious, their minds overthrown by pain, loss, and dismay at the hells they helped unleash. On themselves. On us.
We shun them.
Ragnarok… The word twines from two roots, their true meaning: ‘to conjure destiny’.
The Gods abandoned us, took their capricious favor, their lofty scorn to whatever afterlife Gods go to. If there is such a place.
The only destiny that remains is what we conjure from the remains.
One: All the time in this ruined world
Year Three after the Grim Fall
Addas had smelt it before he heard it: hoofs pounding out of the bleak half-light and swirling snow. Twisted aside, just barely. Damn thing still bashed the air out of his lungs, sprawled him down the hill. Last he saw was the ass-end vanishing in the gloom.
He stumbled and gasped his way into a tall clump of scraggle, pain spiking his ribs every step, every ragged breath pluming the frigid air. The bush weren’t much. Its desiccated branches rattled in the wind like finger bones, but bad cover is always better than none.
Warmth drooled under his shirt and he knelt, risking a glance were his hand pressed his chest; blood seeped through his thick fingers. Bastard’s horn had gashed clean through the armor rings and the jerkin.
God-cursed fecker near gored me, he grimaced. Add another scar to the batch – if I live.
Addas steadied himself. Peered out.
The storm had hunkered down to stay; ugly, low and leaden. Bitter winds howled out of the north, bringing a frenzy of large flakes the color of ash that burned skin raw, and the cold that froze boiling water in the pot. It was dumping hard, swallowing the landscape, dropping the view to a stone’s throw. Only a few shaggy humps of brush and black boulders jutted out of the icy slop.
The beast was nowhere to be seen. But not gone. It was still out there, stalking him. Addas could feel its hunger.
He cocked his head, listened under the roar of the storm. Nothing.
He jerked his hand away from the wound, hissed as the chill bit exposed flesh. Ignore it, Chalk’s customary advice rang in his head. Bleeding ain’t important now – living is.
Easy for you to say, Addas muttered. You ain’t here.
Warty brute had been in the dirt a month, and Addas almost missed him. Almost.
The old tracker had taken him out every day for three years, rain, shine, blistering summer, freezing winter, taught him every trick, trap, track and snare he knew. He’d beat the piss out of Addas every day for three years too, cuffing him at the tiniest mistake, bellowing, “World’s hard now. Get that in yer skull. You needs be harder.” Those lessons had started the scar collection, everyone a jagged little clue, a reminder of what was gone and what was now.
Filthy, senile, grueling, cruel, Chalk had been his savior – if you could use the word nowadays. He’d been the only one willing to take Addas in, half breeds being bucket scum even before the Grim Fall. Most of the other refugees from those days were long dead, so there must have been something to the cunning old fecker’s brand of schooling.
Addas’ bloody hand brushed the handle of the cleaver sheathed at his side. It had been Chalks. Wish me luck, he thought. Ain’t none left, he heard him grunt. Get on with it.
“Well shit, then,” Addas said to the wind.
He gripped the shaft of his javelin. One of his good ones. Pitted and rust-scabbed, the iron head still held a wicked edge.
Squinting into the gale, Addas froze still as a stone. He counted thirty heartbeats then reared up. “Come on then,” he roared. “Here I am.”
Good’un, he heard Chalk snigger. Charging the likes of you means it’s starvin’. So control the brawl. Make the ‘ungry bugger come to you.
You can shut up now, Addas thought.
Twenty more heartbeats. Nothing.
Then, snow scrunched, slithered on his right.
Addas shifted toward the sound, the javelin suddenly twig-thin across his meaty palm. Three fingers to steady, thumb and pointer to aim, like Chalk had taught. Coiled as a spring, he sniffed the wind ever so delicate.
The air was flat, hard as iron, but a sick-sweet hint of skin-rot spiced the back of his throat. Mange on the beast’s coat.
“Oh, you want me, doncha? You royal fecker,” he murmured. Addas slow-stepped forward, half out of the bush, and planted his boots deep and firm. “Come then,” he hissed.
At those words, a dark shape heaved out of the roiling squall like an avalanche. Head down, long horn straight as a pike, it fixed to skewer him like a hunk of meat.
Heart in his mouth, storm in his ears, time sludged, stretched like tar; a whole day in a heartbeat. Suddenly everything was chiseled, separate and new; each flake of snow, the twine wrap on the shaft under his fingers, the muscles rippling on the charging wax-white mass, the snort of fog from its nostrils. That spike tip was mere feet away, but Addas had all the time in this ruined world.
He drove the javelin and pivoted in the same moment, saw the iron head sunk deep in the beast’s chest as it blew past, heard its scream of pain and frustration. Another dozen steps, the front legs folded and it dropped like a sack of rocks, furrowing the snow out into the gloom.
Addas whipped out the cleaver. Crouched. Waited.
Over the wind, he heard it thrash and grunt, raging against Addas, against the blizzard, against death. The cries grew steadily weaker, and he crept toward it, heavy broad blade raised over his shoulder.
It was kicking its life out fifty paces on. The javelin wobbled and twitched in its chest like a dowsing rod, snow darkening to a bloody mush underneath. It rolled its eyes, jerked its long head trying to stab him even as it wheezed its last.
Now that’s how ya live another day, Chalk cackled in his head.
Beast was gaunt, ribbed as a washboard, but there was still some meat to it. He’d drag it back for eats, but that horn was his. It was scored and dirty, but unbroken. Rare and valuable thing, unicorn horn. Pierce plate armor, it would.
The reek of offal churned in the wind as its bowels let go. Addas watched the creature shudder, slump and go still. A gust blew the stringy mane over one staring eye.
Addas Dashag, hunter, tracker, rover, scavenger, half-orc from the Black Sands clan put his boot on the unicorn’s chest and yanked his javelin out. He wiped it clean, inspected it for bends or cracks. Satisfied, he strapped it on his back then he hefted his cleaver and set to hacking the skull to get at the root of that lovely horn.