Updated: Apr 5
Taking inspiration from fellow creators sharing their stories online, I've decided to offer one of my own. This particular tale was originally written to prompt by invitation to a shared world in 2008. It was not accepted then or any of the other times it's been rewritten and submitted elsewhere since, so this is its first 'publication.' As such, I'm presenting the long version because I can, and I've always liked this story. I like this character, too, whose name I spent a long time working on with a recording artist to create a name that sounded like the puff of breath released in death: Pawft. I also back in those days used an inexpensive character-creation software called HeroMachine to visualize many of my characters. Allow me to regale you now, with the first of five parts of a tale of Pawft, unwilling servitor to Koul, The Cowled One, Lord of Death.
The Breath of Death
by Jason M Waltz
Part the First
So you would clasp my wrist and call me friend? Hear then, before you speak such choice. Sit, pour drink, and hear of my life. Hear what cost my friendship.
Aye, not three valleys from this table, I stood alone. Five sun-settings ago, atop a ridge I stood, and looked back along my path. Sweat, heavy upon my brow, did flow into my eyes and blur my vision, granting me sight to far more than the bitter carnage in my wake. Living blackness crept the stilled battlefield and settled upon the valorous dead. I watched those familiar cowls roil unfettered across the bloody banquet as Koul’s Death Gatherers eagerly devoured the many courses served up by my sword.
For several moments I had thought Aultic would make it through to that ridge with me. But Aultic’s body lay beneath the Borathian warrior whose spear ripped his throat out before my thrust ended the man’s own existence. Behind Aultic lay Juras, whose severed spine took the fearsome swing meant for me. The head of the man who killed him stared at me, approval at my own strong blow sparking still in his dulled eyes.
Past Juras, my gaze followed the staggered line of bodies to where we had joined the fray. Thirteen more they stretched back, direct into the maw of Koul’s minion. Our eyes met, but even then its rictal grin did not dishearten me as much as thought of my lost sodality.
I sighed. My heated exhalation rose in the chill air like a mist, a weak mimicry of the shadowy figure smothering the valley below. A reminder of who I was. Aye, still am. Shredded by the cold winds that rushed back to claim their mountain basin from the heat of our intruding armies, it disappeared, leaving me again alone.
Always it has been thus. I survive, my companions do not.
That day, I raised my eyes to the turbulent black clouds and bared my teeth. Thrice I slammed my vambraced forearm against my shield before I tossed the sheltering steel from me. As it fell upon the rocks, I lifted my voice to the sky.
“Am I but a favored toy of spoiled children? Be done with me! Cast me aside as I have this shield; I want your shackled haven no more.”
Nothing above changed; no sign the heavens heard my defiance. I yanked the helmet from my head and set my dark mane free. Prying winds whipped my hair about, sought to either strip me of it or blind me with its writhing locks. I shouted into it.
The powerful flow of wind caught my words and twisted them back upon me, wrapped them about my head and drove them into my ears. Gone. Dead. Be gone. Echoed, reechoed, until they were all I knew and I was lost among them. My helmet’s strikes upon rock rang a distant clangor, its spin and stop against my booted foot all that roused me.
I lowered my head and cast my eyes once more upon the field of ruined flesh and saw that at least one denizen of the Dark Inferno heard me. One greedy finger rose and fell, the skeletal digit beckoning. Temptation to answer that call nigh overwhelmed me. Yet I hesitated.
Know, stranger, that I persist in surviving because I know nothing better. Nothing has surpassed my next fistful of coin, my next swallow of wine, my next thrust into a woman. Aye, even my next clash of steel. The next challenge of battle, never knowing if my sword will rip life from my foe before his axe cleaves my skull and sends me to Death’s burning darkness. For I know too well my sullen gods and spiteful goddesses. Escape so easy will not be my mortal way.
My hesitation on that desolate height cost me whatever chance I had just been offered. My clearing vision witnessed the undulating robes of Koul transform. Fresh waves of carrion birds, grown bold once the clamor of arms had stilled, rose and fell across the edges of the field.
Ah, refill those mugs. It is good you do, for I’ve just begun.
I did not choose to die. No, I chose nothing, not even the paths to and from that place.
The direction of the nearest settlement large enough to boast wine, women and further chance at wealth was then unknown to me. I still know nothing of this region; this hearth was but a common desire unvoiced. I met Aultic and his sworn companions to the south a mere fortnight prior, in another village I had never seen in a tavern I had never entered. A place much like this one, no different from all the others.
Hired to join in a battle soon to be waged upon the same unwary souls that served their ale – aye, the very battle of which I first spoke – Aultic’s men but waited for the call to arms. Had I but known . . .
They were simple soldiers, not evil men. I’ve learned there are rather few of those. Most men are followers and have not the iron swinging between their legs necessary to resisting evilness. For such as these, it comes down not to their groins but to their stomachs and whether those are made of iron.
A man’s men were Aultic’s, men I was proud to hoist drink with and name friends. Though doing so bound me to them as sure as they were bound to their masters. Bound me to stand with them if fight should come their way. Stand with them and watch them die about me despite all my efforts to confound our destinies.
Die while I did not.
I scanned the fallen for sign of life. Not human – there were none left of use to me – but for beasts of burden. I would not walk out of that valley if there was any chance against it.
My horse had been the first to die. An arrow the length of my arm burrowed through its neck and drove its barbed head just short of my own. The length of my leg, and there would be no tale this night.
The horse fell as if poleaxed, saving me yet again by dropping me short of the furious swing of a bearded brute who spun with the force of his own unimpeded blow and fell with my sword through his armpit.
My steel sank deep and refused to release its hold within the man’s heart, forcing me to abandon it. I wrenched the blade twisting from his dying grasp and leapt to my feet. Looking about, I marked a twisted tree thrusting from the cliff face and noted its distance. If I lived, I would return for my sword. I leave no ally behind.
So I returned.
Loyalty is an uncomplicated creed, the summation of my life. Not to cause, nor ideal. To flesh and blood, mine and those of my companions. I know no cause but brotherhood.
That and my sword are all I offer. Ware my company, though. The Cowled One long has followed close upon my heels and made it his jest to find acquaintance with my companions.
Rraaggarth my father, chieftain of our Peoples of the Tongue, set this trail before me when he heard my name. The Peoples hear the unspoken noises of the earth; hear and name our children after them, taking existence from their meanings. Rraaggarth, the mountain’s rumble, heard destiny in the lion’s hunt. He named me for the soft puff of air that escapes the lion’s powerful jaws at the end of its leap, Pawft, the last sound delivered as mighty fangs rip life away.
My fate determined, I became Koul’s breath, a devourer of prey. Ever adversaries, always partners, our paths entwined. We often meet amid the dead, our liveries cut of the same dark cloth, woven by the same fell hands, colored by the same dread dye.
So there you have it, the introduction to Pawft,
a man destined at his birth-naming to forever find death
instead of life and loneliness instead of companionship,
no matter how many blood oaths, brothers, and battles he
stumbles into. Sit, grab a drink, and listen to his tale.