Allow me to continue to regale you with the second of five parts of a tale of Pawft, unwilling servitor to Koul, The Cowled One, Lord of Death. Part I introduced 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 as only he can tell it.
The Breath of Death
by Jason M Waltz
Part the Second
Ahhhh, drink! By the smack of my lips I salute your buying coin.
After my refusal, nothing more than wild scavengers and probing winds moved upon that plain of corpses below. Both picked at the remains, passing by the insignificant and competing over the better. Neither took heed of my presence. None else lived.
Hear me, this is important: none else lived. Yet the rushing winds carried upon their tumbling shoulders the sound of my name – and none were there to claim the words.
I bent to retrieve my helmet and discovered the corpse before me armed with a curious dagger. As my gaze moved across it, I was nigh overwhelmed by a crescendo of horns and baying hounds calling for my attention. The music of the hunt. Who would hunt there, then? A glance about sent the sounds receding and revealed no one new upon that grisly field. I remained alone, crouched among the dead.
I looked to the weapon again as a sudden ray of sun struck full upon its stunning haft and blinded me. Shielding my eyes from the glare with my recovered helmet, I used the borrowed sword to slice the dead man’s leathers and pull free the long knife and scabbard. My fingers closed around its hilt and a flush of warmth rushed through me. For but one breath I felt I drowned in boiling waters – then the sensation fled and I could only marvel at how the unique handle fell into my hand in perfect position no matter how I drew it from its casing. The silver blade seemed to ripple beneath my study, but a blink later and all I saw were the many nicks along its edge, evidence its former owner had used it as a parrying weapon.
The swordbreaker on my left hip already served me in that manner, so this new piece found both higher purpose and a home at my right. I see your eyes move, your search for this blade I speak of. Aye, it rides right here. Once I seated the knife upon my belt and cinched it tight, my equilibrium returned. My posture straightened as my right hand rested upon the knife’s pommel. I felt almost triumphant.
Past time it was to recover my sword and salvage my saddlebags. I searched for and found the twisted tree on its rocky perch and trudged through the warrior slain toward my fallen steed. I kept my head held high to avoid the eyes of those once mortal men I trod. I ignored the ravenous earth and greedy hunters vying over the pooling lifebloods.
None there had been my enemy. Right or wrong, my foes were but the opponents of my friends. Only the town and tavern my winding steps took me to decided which side I took that day. No matter. The result would have been unchanged.
I reached my destination and dropped the substitute sword next to its owner. Unfortunate for he it had not served him as ably as it did I. I claimed my own sword with both hands and gave it a mighty tug. It slid free without resistance. Unprepared, I staggered backward until my heel caught among the dead and I fell.
And kept on falling.
Now, stranger, a normal fall allows no chance for recognition, but this time I not only knew I fell, I had time to consider my descent. When I realized my fall continued, I finally peered between my legs and saw my imminent impact.
With that came an understanding, however, and I tucked my head and prepared to roll and rise – to no avail. Coherent thought rushed from my mind as I struck the ground far harder than any common fall the length of my height would elicit. Breath erupted from my lungs in a gush of air and I struggled to breathe through thick clouds of dirty gray that burst about me.
Even dulled with shock, I knew I sank into the crumbling dust and I fought my body’s natural idea for survival. My fingers spasmed around the hilt of my sword, wanting to release it and claw upward like a deep sea pearl diver desperate to surface. I forced my grip tighter and clenched the sword to my chest, aware that if I slackened even a fraction I risked forever losing the weapon in this ash heap.
For I knew where I was, and I would not give Them such satisfaction. They would bury neither of us beneath that false residue of the Dark Inferno.
Although I choked upon the nauseating powder filling my nostrils and clogging my throat, my mind quickly named them illusion. The ash did not truly exist, despite its taste upon my tongue. Koul’s well-crafted fabrication, but I had to denounce it before it wove itself into what was truth and became too strong for me to discern.
Difficult it was, yet I clenched my eyes and told myself I no longer sank, told myself that firm ground lay beneath my feet. My descent slowed but still I sank into the hungry dust. It saw no reason to believe me. A swift flush of serenity flowed through my body like nothing ever before had and I stood unmoving upon rocky soil. I stumbled, unprepared for such a thing.
I opened my eyes and stepped from the churning cloud of ash into a host of warriors gathered around an empty fire pit. I stared in disbelief as they stood with hands outstretched, warming themselves at absent flames. Something in my mind awoke at the sight, recognized the newly dead, and . . . dismissed them. Dismissed them as no longer useful.
I wondered at the thought and spat the dust of the damned from my mouth as I walked among them, peering at their faces. A way of return hid here, I just needed to find it.
Shouldering between two burly soldiers, I reached the open fire pit and turned about. More dead arrived. Half-recognized faces enlightened me. This was a gathering of the recent battle slain. Most ignored me; none realized I was yet alive. I wondered what they might do once they found out and if I could kill them again.
The dead were not present on my previous visit to this realm. That time I sat in private consultation with Koul, the Lord of Death himself, but that is another tale. Remembering our meeting and how it had come to be, I understood he was not involved in this summons. I doubted he was even aware of my presence in his realm.
A laughing voice interrupted my reverie.
“Found you at last, you big bastard! The rest of us are over here, waiting. We’ve new tales to share this night.”
So now you've fallen into the realm of Death with Pawft,
a man destined at his birth-naming to forever deliver fresh souls
to Koul, Lord of Death, who's never had a more consistent,
more thorough, more productive reaper in all eternity . . .
or one who despised him more. Sit, grab a drink, and listen to Pawft's tale.