And now I shall continue to regale you with the third 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 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. Part II brought quite the surprise to us all, especially Pawft, as he literally fell into the Realm of Death. So grab a drink and a stool, and listen to his tale as only he can tell it.
The Breath of Death
by Jason M Waltz
Part the Third
Aultic, with Juras close beside him, stood across the nonexistent fire from me. “You call the stakes . . .” The timbre of his voice changed, his words trailed off. Aultic canted his head and looked close at me. Several of the dead around him mimicked the pose. Even they sensed the spark of recognition in his dimming orbs. I watched it spread through the others like chain lightning and soon all were glaring at me. Most all.
Juras looked confused while sadness tinged Aultic’s face. When the other dead began unsheathing weapons, he stepped around the fire pit to stand before me.
“You’ll not share our fire tonight.” Resignation more than question.
I nodded, unsure if I should speak, and limbered my grip upon my sword. I held my tongue and waited for events to unfold.
Aultic returned my nod after a moment, his head shifting grotesquely on his almost-severed neck. “Then I shall save a spot for you.” He smiled and drew the great sword from the sheath across his back. “Until then, we’ll stand with you as you did with us.”
A wave of his off hand brought Juras and the rest near. They gathered about, all in various conditions of death, fifteen men I had met but a fortnight ago. Men I had shared drink and food and women with only days before. Men who, hours ago, fell upon the same battlefield I had just fallen from.
They again stood beside me. By the looks on their faces, they meant to stay.
My spirits lifted. Loyalty appeared not to be so until death after all. I gave them a grim smile, then cocked an eyebrow at the surrounding dead.
Aultic uttered a command and the party formed a perimeter about us, two men deep. He walked beside me and the silence we shared was more profound than all the tales we had told. I know I will think back on those moments often.
A murmur rustled through the encircling throng and all turned toward me. Few are the things that unnerve me, but the vacant eyes of that dead army did then. The sudden absence of all noise other than my booted footfalls – and mine alone – paled in comparison to those intense cold orbs. The power of their desire to drain my life’s warmth would have crushed a lesser man than I. Only the dreadful shriek that next rent the silence preserved my sanity. At the sound, the dead parted, revealing my summoner.
Creatures of the Dark Inferno are never as they seem. Do you know of what I speak? No? No.
Often they are less than the sum of their exaggerated appearances and effects. On occasion they are more. Experience has taught me their illusions grow stronger in proportion to the fear they provoke. Only aggressive engagement reveals which variety of beast a man may face. Whatever this creature was, I knew it would be more formidable there on its own plane than any I had found in this our mortal realm.
The thing appeared to have the head of a dog set upon the torso of a horse. Thick ropy strands of hair fell from this head, draping much of its body in shaggy curtain and hiding its lower limbs from sight. I saw no tail or wings, the usual trappings of demonic beings. That held little meaning though, as the greenish pus oozing from around its distended eyes and the reek of its breath were indication enough of its origins.
It grinned at me through jaws shifting into the elongated ones of the swamp croc and sprawled limply across a fresh hummock. The smooth, hairless arms of a woman sprouted from both of the creature’s fore-shoulders, such grotesqueness forcing the bile of my stomach to burn at the base of my throat. It stretched forth one of those soft hands and beckoned me closer. The voice that reached my ears echoed every woman’s bedtime whisper.
“Lie with me, Pawft. There are many things I wish to do for you.” I ignored the mocking condescension laced throughout the venomous words. The perfect imitation of throaty pleasure I could not.
Snarling a curse, I bulled through Aultic’s men and charged the creature’s position. Aultic shouted and his men surged forward. The beast’s eyes widened and I was satisfied by its surprise. A glance to my right reassured me of Aultic’s presence and I nodded. Aggressiveness had been the correct choice.
Sword raised above my head, I mounted the rise with a laugh at the creature’s sudden deflation. It sank in upon itself faster than I anticipated and my swing carried above its ugly head. Even as I checked myself and began my reverse, I saw its hair begin to squirm and realized its surprise had been feigned.
“Aultic, down,” I yelled. I dropped to the ground and rolled, rising out of reach of those stretching strands. I hoped.
Two strands snapped out, one taking the man next to Juras in the face and the other wrapping around Juras himself. The whip-like strike of the first appendage simply disintegrated the man’s head. For a moment he continued forward, a headless golem, until his body sagged, then blinked out of existence. A long sigh swept through the dead host. The whistling wind of their united breath raised the hair on my neck and I felt a burning sensation on my right side.
Strong stranger, I shook in terror then, for I thought one of those hairs had struck me. Aye, that was real fear as I’d never felt it and never wish to again.
A glance revealed nothing, but the burn persisted so I thought some wound I had missed hid beneath the fancy new blade that rode there. My fingers closed upon it and the burn rushed through my being, filling me with knowledge so that I knew the man’s soul existed no more. The cost of loyalty had just increased.
Juras was screaming, the strand of hair encompassing his thrashing body pulling tighter and tighter as it continued circling, the tip weaving about him like a snake, until it reached his mouth. A pause, and I wrenched my horrified eyes from Juras and looked to Koul’s underling. It but waited for my look and grinned. In the corner of my eye I saw the poised hair dart forward into the man’s gaping mouth. His screams ended in a grotesque choke and Juras was gone before I could turn back. Another sigh blew over me and I shivered in the terrible cold.
“Pawft, Pawft.” The fiend shook its head. “I want to play with you, not these.” Disdain dripped from these.
Aultic whispered, “How do we face such a creature?”
It laughed. “There are no whispers here, Aultic, Daultic’s son, father of Ultic and Eltic. Nothing is hidden and I hear all. Even the thoughts of your heart.”
There was murder in Aultic’s eye, but he did not move. The other men saw that and many retreated. I saw the smug satisfaction on the beast’s face and an idea came to my mind.
He looked at me.
“What’s to fear more?”
He furrowed his brow. The rest of the men took heed.
“What do you fear more, removal from this realm, or,” I gestured at the keenly watching monstrosity, “being caged here beneath the daily attentions of such as these?”
Understanding dawned on Aultic’s face, followed by determination. I knew his decision despite the question he asked.
“Do you know where Juras and Melck go?”
Now we're in the thick of it with Pawft,
a man destined at his birth-naming to forever barter with Koul,
Lord of Death, in a seemingly eternal battle of imbibing on the passions of life to include brotherhood and companionship more often than it is all ripped asunder and away by Death.
So belly up to the bar, grab drinks for all, and listen to Pawft's tale.