Lo, it has come, the final and fifth part of Pawft's tale. A story of sorrow from a warrior in unwilling service to Koul, The Cowled One, as learned in Part I. Part II brought a painful fall for all into the Realm of Death, while Part III put Pawft at the mercy of a Child of Koul and Part IV set living and dead against it.
Still your tongues and push full mugs to Pawft's eager lips as he closes his tale of dark dangers in the world below. How does he survive, or does he? What is the mystery beyond Death he hinted at? And what's that devilish blade he's found . . . and is that really it there at his side?
That's right, keep buying the drinks -- and, yes, a leg of that lamb on the spit and some of that bread he's been smelling -- for it's hard for a man to tell a tale true on an empty stomach. Hush up now, and let's hear the answers we seek.
The Breath of Death
by Jason M Waltz
Part the Fifth and Last
It was several heartbeats before I realized the moaning I heard was my own. I shut my mouth to absolute silence. My body ached so, it hurt to consider moving, but I could not remain on my belly. Where was Aultic?
The sudden thunder of blood pounding through my veins was painful but it gave me the incentive to roll over. I rolled across strands of the monster’s hair. They were brittle and crackled beneath my weight. Splinters of hair shoved into my flesh when I put a hand out to push myself upright.
A sonorous voice sounded behind me. “You’ll want me to remove those before you leave.”
It had been ten season cycles since I last heard that voice, but it awoke the residue of its presence embedded in my soul. A part of me welcomed it; the rest burned with impotent rage. The Cowled One, Lord of Death had arrived. Another, secret feeling washed over me then, and vanished. I wondered about that, but had not the strength to consider it.
There was no use hiding my weakness so I did not try. I remained sitting in the dirt and turned around to face him. He shifted away when I swung the silver dagger between us and laid my hands in my lap.
“Well met, Pawft.” He pointed at the dagger. “What is that?”
I did not answer and he frowned. My heart thudded in my chest but not even the horror of his glower could surpass the stares of the dead I had already borne. I raised my eyes to his and became trapped by the soulless eternity that seethed in the sockets of his death mask. Something deep in that black maelstrom squirmed, and even seated at his feet I felt its curiosity grow. Something inside me jerked my eyes away, but that black threat to smother me seemed to draw closer.
Aye, another moment of fear, and I wonder still if that is all that awaits mankind.
From beneath my lowered eyelids I saw him jab a yellowed finger bone at the knife. “Please put that away and I shall look at your hand.” The forced formality was unusual.
A voice whispered in my soul. “You are too weak. Sheath me before he learns the truth.” Cold displeasure colored those words, but it was the hint of desperation in them that forced me to act and I put it away.
The unnamed darkness lifted from my shoulders and the shadow of death receded. I determined to explore this reaction to the knife another time.
Both my hands were in one of his before I realized it. He turned them palm up, then plucked each demonic hair with sure deftness. There was nothing gentle about it and I knew each would leave its mark. He finished and dropped my hands as he stepped back.
Strength flowed back into my body and I stood with some effort. Aultic appeared beside me then and I could sense the shuffling of others behind us.
“You have killed a child of mine, Pawft,” Koul said. “I cannot allow crimes against me to go unpunished. There will be a reckoning.
“Since you serve me well in your present role, I will not lose that yet. I shall increase your indenture by twofold. Slay another of my clan, and I will increase it fourfold.”
The Cowled One stepped back and spoke to the gathered dead.
“I will send another of my children to guide you.” He swung a gaunt hand above their heads and a fine dusting of bone powder showered across them. “You will forget the words spoken by this mortal who dares to presume to know what fear exists beyond the Veil.”
“Pawft.” The hooded deity turned back to me. “Your father did me great service with your naming. So I shall return the favor. Twice. Do not believe there is but one Veil. And beware that blade. It bears intentions of a vague sort and it hides itself from my sight.”
I opened my mouth then let it close. If he wanted me to know he would have said more.
Instead, the Lord of the Dead chuckled and faded away.
My sword fell from my lap as I sat up with a jolt, and it clattered among the armored figures sprawled about me. Blinking my eyes at the setting sun and shaking strange aches away, I surveyed my position.
Before me lay my dead horse and beside him the first of Aultic’s men to fall. I pictured the remainder sprawled between the ridge and us.
Yes, friend, I was back among the living. Or rather, the once living.
A large shadow flowed over me and sudden noise to my left startled me into motion.
Drawing the dagger from my right hip, I swung toward the shape that came over the piled dead. I relaxed when the rat veered from my movement and smiled at its squeal when the hawk’s talons lifted it from the earth. Life continued despite the best efforts of man. My eyes followed hawk and rodent across the sky for a moment, then dropped back down to rest upon the dagger in my hand.
Numerous nicks marred the blade and a fine line ran halfway down its width. Disgusted with its cracked inferiority, I raised the knife above my shoulder to toss it back into the drek of battle. Something fluttered from the blade and onto my other hand. A blackened hair.
Images sprang to mind and I shuddered, the violent shake of my hand flinging the hair away. I studied the blade and was relieved to find no more.
I shoved up from the pile of corpses and thrust the knife back into its sheath. Picking up my sword, I considered tossing the knife away until I remembered the The Cowled One’s hesitation. The blade seemed to have some merit after all. And I could always sell it.
A snort and clop of hooves sounded behind me and I turned to find a horse staring at me. It was black and there were no other mounts in sight. I recognized the hand of Koul, my benefactor and my enemy. The god whose possession I remained; whose friendship was suspect.
I stripped the saddlebags from my dead horse and positioned them over those on this new mount. I’d learn whatever they held in time. I led the horse up the ridge and paused at the bodies of my friends. I pictured their faces as last I saw them in Koul’s Dark Inferno and I recognized the peace now reflected on their mortal remains.
Friendship was not so one-sided after all.
Mounting the horse, I turned our backs upon the field of the fallen and goaded him over the ridge, away from the sun. I have named him Aultic and he answers to it well.
You ask about the blade? Well friend, here it is. Would you like to hold its perfect balance? Yes, it is duller than I said it was, but recall I described it as such only within the Dark Inferno, where illusion rules all. Here, isn’t this the finest grip you have ever seen?
Let us drink to friendship and fine weapons. Barkeep, another round . . . Stay, friend, and drink with me. Wait! Good friend, where go you?
Ho, stranger, desire you the tale of this blade?
There it is, the complete first tale of Pawft, as Pawft
-- who may be destined at his birth to forever deliver dinner to Death . . . or not --
tells it. As he says, he found a blade that carried him through the Dark Inferno, slew a child of Kaul,
and even made that foul god pause. Yet as he's also said, he scavenged upon a battlefield and found
a knife that isn't quite as shiny as he claims. Who knows what the story is in truth? What we do know
is that Pawft grows ever thirsty, and like all great storytellers he'll tell you all about it . . . till you send him along to another town and another bar and another mug.