The Sword
     Untitled
The Cabiri Chronicles
     Life of a History
     Under the Hood
     Hunger

     Balancing Act

     I was just acting!
     Lucifer as a Player
     Player Types Defined
     Railroading
     LARP Boredom
     LARP Survival

     Economics in D&D 3.5

     Sept 11, 2002
     Columbia Disaster

     A Letter of Vocation
     Evidence of Evil
     In Defense of a Reflection

     A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
     Hello
 

          Author's Comments: I start many stories, but this is one of the few that I actually completed.  For a creative writing class, it was received well only by one person in the class, who penciled on his review to me "And I'm the only one in the class who got it."   The professor and I had very different views on what made great literature...it was in his class that I developed my current distaste for Hemingway.


The Sword
December 13, 1994

          Olric Holroyd's rough, cragged hands rested on the stone battlement of the castle that was his charge. Far below him, in the penumbra created by the last trickling rays of sunlight, five rawboned men pushed against a wagon that had become mired in the mud of the river below. The rear of the wooden vehicle, which was heavily laden with wool headed to Bolton Abbey to the south, had begun to twist under the urging of the water, complicating the task further. One man decided to wish fire out of a twisted pine stump they'd found in the forest's nearby, while the other four continued haggling over the best way to move the cart. The heavy ox that was latched to the wagon leaned down and began to munch on innocent nearby weeds.
          Olric turned to face the pink and red horizon that dominated the view of the other side of the castle; the jaggedness of the line between the land and sky was only more pronounced by the sluggardly dripping spot of blood in the heavens.
          "'t'l be a wretch'd night, sar," the steward said through his stringy, white beard. His breath floated into the wind like a sulfurous smoke, and washed across Olric's face. Olric ignored the smell of old beef and barleyed ale, and nodded in agreement. The steward was a rapidly aging man, not yet of fifty years. His hair, once black as soot, looked like frost had fallen onto it in the midnight air and decided to defiantly remain when the sun shown. His face had begun to pucker in on itself, especially around his thin, brown eyes. Obscuring his rapidly balding head was a leather cap that he kept neatly tied under the whiskers of his chin. He wore a thick, woolen cloak over his linen clothing, both of which had grayed with age from their original browns and whites. His only weapon was a brass dagger he kept at his left hip, but that was only used to pierce the food cooked by the household servants under his supervision.
          Several soldiers stepped onto the roof of the aged tower, nodding to those men already standing nearby. Those who had been watching the surrounding countryside gave up their positions to their relief, and walked through the creaking doors of the nearest tower. As the fresh men rested into their positions, they pulled against the interwoven iron rings that guarded them against whatever weapon would intrude, forcing the pieces into more comfortable positions. They each pushed their bows between their legs and strung them, and some even pulled a single blue feathered arrow from it's quill and rested it on the battlement before him. "All's well," each shouted, in turn. After counting off eight such reports, Olric stepped to the nearest tower himself and began to tread down the worn, stone stairs. The steward remained behind to wonder if the sun had fallen behind the rounded tops of the Pennines, or the dark thunderclouds that he knew lay beyond them.
          Olric stepped into the Great Hall after descending two floors; the din of the soldiers who had just come off duty was a melody to his ear. It was times like this that he wondered if having his right ear would have given him twice the pleasure. He could not remember when, in his tender youth, his father had wrenched his ear from it's place; but he was certain that it had been a just punishment for whatever crime he had committed. His finger absently slipped under his left chest plate and scratched at the chains underneath. Unfortunately, chain mail proved against any sort of scratch, be it an assassin's dagger or its wearer's thumb.
          The Great Hall was the eating place, theatre, and sometimes judgment hall of the Olric's lord, the Baron of Ilkley. Barden Tower was built to be a wilderness fort to protect the calm dales of Yorkshire from any group of plaid-wearing barbarians who sought to steal the Shire's wine, women, and wealth that God had forsaken them. However, the Tower was now no more than a hunting lodge for His Lordship, whose father had decided to give up the life of living in a stone fortification to living a wooden manor in town, and his son saw no reason to alter his father's plan. The Baron himself was not the warrior that his ancestors had been. He had joined many other nobles in dedicating his time to the complex affairs of estate, not the simple affairs of war. Recently, however, he was called by the Duke to defend the Shire from yet another group of outlaws that were threatening the roads around Richmond. A message had arrived a day less than a fortnight ago reporting the Baron's successful return from those battles.
          The tower, however, still had its Great Hall to attest to his ancestors' greatness. The walls were well covered by thick, turquoise and sapphire tapestries that spanned the distance from the floor to the ceiling. Most of them contained scenes of hunting; one held an armored soldier holding a bleeding hart, another held the visage of a man in brown hunting leathers with a hawk and five dead hares, yet another held a man in green hunting clothes holding a wild pig. The largest of the tapestries, however, held an image of a fully armored soldier, with the insignia of Ilkley upon his shield, fighting a white dragon. Between each tapestry was a sconce and its torch, above which was the head of some animal the Baron or his father or his father had slain, the most impressive of which was a white elk that the Baron's grandfather had killed while hunting in Ulster, across the seas. It's antlers, which were covered in small hairs akin to those a young man might have for his first beard, were easily as wide as the height of two strong men. Its red glare forced the house servants a second glance when they entered the room, and most of them whispered some ancient protective poem to themselves as they left. The floor of the Great Hall was covered with straw upon layer of straw. Beneath the most recent layer lay the remains of former meals, decaying among the gray, rotting flesh of the older straw. Sometimes, one of the six dogs that patrolled the room for scraps would discover a treasure in the graveyard of meats and dig through to the stone floor below in search of his wormy feast. Most of the time, the wolfhounds would sit themselves next to the table and whine, uncertain if the hand that would come toward them offered a particularly greened piece of cow or a drunken slap across the maw.
          Olric leaned against the archway that led from the stairs to the Great Hall and watched his Lord's men prepare themselves for their meal. Barden Tower's only priest lifted his weight out of the wide, oaken chair in which he sat, and bowed his head. His voluminous brown robes dropped from his his hands as he arched them in prayer. The men grew quiet as the priest's mumblings began, and Olric laughed to himself at their ability to become solemn so quickly. A few shifted impatiently in their chairs, while others slipped a hand onto the table and procured for his friend tongue an early bit of beef. When the priest's prayer was finally finished, the men pulled their daggers and fought with laughter over the pea-green mottled cow's flesh before them. The servant women moved quickly to keep the coarse, dark ale flowing into the mouths of the soldiery. Some of the kinder women were even gifted with a hand to whatever part of their body pleased the soldier that they were serving. Olric was so lost in considering the scene before him that he took a great, long moment to notice the small tug on his lengthy crimson cloak.
          He turned, knowing who had quietly snuck away from the steward's ever glassing eye and padded her way to him. She smiled up at him, and his contemplative look was replaced by a small smile under his thick, red beard that she said reminded her of her father's.
          "Milord," she said, making a small curtsey.
          "If the steward discovers you've slipped his eye again, you'll be punished," he said.
          "I'll return," she said, seeming to have suddenly lost all her courage. She turned and began to move down the hall. Olric turned and followed, grabbing her by her thin arm. She whipped around a little faster than he'd meant and he wrapped his arms around her. Under his armor and war-sewn arms, she felt like a newly born goat. He pressed his lips against hers and, for a moment, they kissed. She smelled of oil and fire, and her mouth was grimed by the soot of the kitchen. He pulled himself back from her, realizing that her lips were trembling. Her eyes grew wide and her head shrank back on her thin neck.
          "What's wrong?" he whispered to her. His brows furrowed in anger; "I'll slay any man who has dishonored you," he said darkly.
          "No, Warden," she said to him, her body beginning to tremble as well. "No man dare touch me, for fear of your dread wrath." The tan linens she wore rippled like the ocean that buffered England and the Hibernian Isle. Her thin hands began to clutch each other like a brace of peregrines combating in a ditch. What nails that survived the attack of her yellowed teeth were split and crusted with blood from cleaning the rough floors of the kitchen every night.
          "Then why do you tremble so?" he asked, attempting to force curved tenderness into the square hole that was his voice. He put a hand out for her, but she didn't take it.
          "Milord, I tremble out of fear," she responded, backing away.
          He remained where he stood, his expression growing darker. "What do you fear, Cerwin?" He could feel himself becoming impatient with her. His face grew warm and he could feel the muscles near his ears pull his jaw against his skull.
          "That which is to come," she shouted, and Olric jumped from the sudden change, his armor rattling against him. Cerwin turned and ran down the hallway, her sobs remaining even after her footfalls had gone.
          Olric harumphed to himself and scratched again under his chest plate. He returned to his station in the archway to see if anyone had noticed the servant girl's shout. All of the soldiers seemed to still be besmeared in the task at hand. One of the men, however, looked up from his meal long enough to notice the Warden standing in the archway. He lifted up his dagger, which was festooned with a muddy, half-eaten turnip, and motioned for Olric to step forward. He said something through his food infested beard, but it could not be heard through the shouts of his companions. Olric smiled and began to approach the table. A servant rushed forward and placed a chair at the table for the Warden. As he left the archway, he could hear a far-off roar of the heavens.

          By the time the Warden had finished his meal, the first of the guards had come down off his station. He was the thinnest of the guards, and wore no beard, though his wet, cornsilk hair hung low. His helmet was under his right arm, and his bow was unstrung. He didn't look as if he had expected the Warden to be in the Great Hall, and almost appeared ready to turn and run back into the rain far above.
          "Jorik," the Warden roared, "why have you left your post?" His heavy chair fell backwards as he rose, and clattered against the floor. A young boy jumped forward to put it back in its place, but an older servant nearby held his arm and shook his head in warning. The boy returned to his place.
          "Milord," the youth said. "A storm has come," he claimed. He seemed to realize the futility of a claim that seemed full of reason only a moment ago. He quickly added, "It is the breath of Scratch himself, milord." The young soldier seemed about to stumble over his words, and leaned foward at every phrase as if he were throwing the words from a catapult. The priest scowled at the remark, and marked himself with an invisible crucifix.
          "Should he make a cloven step onto the north tower, you shall remain at your post! Return to your duty now. Think not of wind and rain, but of the Baron, the Duke, the King and, most preciously of all, our God." The Warden turned, and stalked out of the huge chamber. After a moment of dilemmic terror, the young soldier turned and charged back up the steps to his watery post.

          Olric stalked the corridors of the Tower, determined to find Corwin and confront her. He had consumed a bit more of the priests' ale than he had wanted to, and he could feel his anger at her swelling inside him. It wasn't until he had stepped past the Great Hall again that he heard the voices within it, quickly speaking to one another, as if in confusion. The meal was over, and its eaters would have already found a comforting, though induced, sleep in the barracks.
          The Warden entered the room and five of the soldiers were standing around the end of one of the long, elmwood tables. He was about to admonish them for dereliction of their duty to God again when the sweet stench of burnt flesh rammed itself into his lungs. He came closer to the table, and the men grew silent.
          Laying on the table, moaning to himself, lay Jorik. Unlike the other men, he appeared to have escaped the drenching rain of God, only to wet himself with his own blood. His face was blackened and swollen, and deep streams of blood fell from his eye sockets like the tears he would have, if he still had eyes to cry with. Gray smoke gently lifted itself from his mouth, which was open as if to scream. Only a low, guttural moan escaped what was left of his lips, however. As Olric stepped closer, he could see more of the soldier's blood seeping between the links of his chain mail, which had not only been fused to itself, but to his flesh as well.
          "What did this?" Olric said, almost beginning to believe the stories the steward had told him when Olric had first come to the castle. Olric admonished him for his superstitious ignorance, and told him to speak no more of it.
          "God," the priest said, as he stepped out of the archway. He walked to the soldier and touched his fat finger to the man's melted face. "God has sent his judgment upon this one. A spear from His celestial throne crashed through the heavens and struck him down where he stood." The body of the man grew still as the last of his life expelled itself in one long, rattling breath. The priest bowed his head and spoke in the Church's tongue, which Olric had never understood, while creating an imaginary cross over the body. "Take him to the chapel," the priest said to the men. "I shall pray for his absolution, and attempt to abbreviate his stay in Purgatory."
          The soldiers obeyed, carrying the broken body up one flight of stairs and into the priest's home and chapel. They quietly walked back to the Great Hall, none of them looking at the Warden and they proceeded up the stairs. The Warden turned and looked at the table, which was covered in dark, purplish blood and black crusts of flesh that had fallen off while moving the soldier. Olric reached out a hand and touched the sticky stuff. He lifted his hand to his nose and inhaled and shook his head as . It had been long since he had smelled the scent of blood. He found himself filled with the memories of fighting in the Duke's army nearly a decade ago against the bare-chested barbarians of the North, as well as those barbarians who wore only a striped dress for armor. He remembered the first man he killed, his meticulously braided white-blonde hair could not save the neck below it from the deep cut of his broadsword. The thick warrior fell to his knees and looked to the heavens, as if expecting a celestial woman to reach down and drag him to his heathen god. It was then that Olric had discovered that there was no real power in the world but that possessed by men. Without men, even God himself wouldn't exist, he had decided. He had, of course, never told anyone of this feeling, for it would certainly bring him no good in the eyes of those more holy.
          Another soldier, one of the oldest, came storming down the stairs behind the Warden. "Warden," he said to Olric, trying to remain straight while his chest forced breath between his teeth. "There is someone at the gate."
          "'Someone'? Who is it, Lyam?" he said, his heavy brow furrowing.
          "He wouldn't give us his name, sir. But he claimed to have us all flayed if we did not open the gate."
          Olric nodded and stepped toward the archway. "Return to your post, Lyam, I will handle this." The Warden stepped up to a small door next to the large, oaken entrance to the Tower and knocked loudly. "Porter? Awake, porter," Olric shouted through the wood, "there is a traveller at your door." Olric heard some metal fall on the stone floor upon which the porter slept, as well as the rustling of clothing. When the door opened, the tall young man crouched down and stepped through the doorway. "I'm sorry, Olric, I didn't hear," he said, pleadingly. Olric reached up and slapped the man on his right ear. "Clumsy fool," he said. "I should return you to the village that I found you in. Would you like to return there, under the heavy rocks I pulled from your body? Have you enough in that broken skull to understand what your sole duty is?"
          "I'm sorry, Olric," he said, his eyes glassing over with water.
          "Enough, you are too simple to understand," Olric said, slapping the giant's ear again. "Open the door."
          Olric rested a hand on his sword and watched as the giant pushed back the locks on the door. As the door opened, the Warden could see an iron wall of rain bashing itself into the ground. A man, similarly assaulted by the weather, stepped into the torchlight. The Porter raised a hand to his mouth and gasped as the Baron stepped in.
          The Baron was a strong man, but he stepped into the room as if he was pulling his horse behind him. Blood seeped from beneath the plates that once protected his leg, and his face was bulging with bruises. His golden and blue robes were ripped and tattered, so much so that the armor that was usually obscured by them jutted through like broken bones. He had no weapon on his body, and one bloody spur clicked against the stone floor when he stepped. The most disturbing detail of his appearance was his face, which seemed fixed in a state of terror. His eyes were wide and dark from the blood that had invaded them, his mouth hung open, slightly moving as if it were trying to speak without the permission of his mind, and his nostrils puffed out streams of smoke in the cold night air.
          The Warden immediately fell to his right knee and bowed his head deeply. "Milord," he began, "out of ignorance, I did not know you were--"
          His voice was cut off as the Baron fell onto Olric, his body limp from exhaustion. Olric spread his arms wide to prevent the Baron from falling further, and lifted him gently to a standing position. To his recollection, it was the first time in his twenty years of service to the Baron that they had touched. "To arms," the Baron whispered hoarsely. "We shall be besieged."

          Corwin lifted the gilded goblet to the Baron's lip, which was swollen around four pools of dark blood that resembled the shape of his teeth. When Olric had bellowed for a servant to bring the Baron a goblet of beer, he had not been thinking of anything but his battered lord. However, upon Corwin's arrival with the beer in hand, he had difficulty concentrating on anything but her. She was still frightened, and she periodically met Olric's gaze with a doe-like glance. Whenever their eyes met, she would quickly avert her eyes, and her skirt would begin its rhythmic trembling.
          "'Twas a score of highwaymen who lay in wait for my band of hunters," the Baron said after he had taken a sloppy gulp of his beer. "We fought them valiantly, as Richard's knights against the accursed Moors, but their number was greater than our skill. And their eyes...beloved Mary preserve my soul, those eyes..." His head fell to one side as his eyes grew wider. He continued to stare at one of the tapestries as he continued his story. "One by one, my soldiers fell around me, gripping themselves in their death-wounds. It was only the fleet hooves of Proteus that carried me to the Strid, below. There, she fell against a wagon that lay mired in the ford; I felt her leg snap against the force of her fall. When I pulled myself from the river, I saw around me the corpses of five men, their blood mixing in the water around them, twining itself around the blood of the dying beast that had been attached to their wagon. But it had not been a man's sword who had pierced those good subjects' hearts, but four, long, black, ichory claws, which had left several marks on each man's body." The priest stepped into the Great Hall from the small door behind the Baron's throne. Sweat had slimed his bald crown and his breathing was sickeningly heavy. With every puff of breath that rushed from his lips, a drop of sweaty saliva was pushed before him. "It has come, Father, as you claimed it would, as the Book claimed it would. The End. The End is here!" the Baron screamed to himself in agony and terror as his bejeweled, muddy hands stretched his hair to its limit. His feet stomped like a child frustrated for not being able to command his own destiny, and his violent contortions moved the great chair noisily from the table. The priest was, for once, silent.
          "Take His Lordship to his chambers," Olric said to Corwin. "See that he receives what rest he can find, and tend further to his wounds." Olric looked at the Baron, who cowered in his chair like a beaten dog. "If his strained health worsens, call on me, where ever I may be."
          "Yes, milord," Corwin said, giving a slight curtsey. She had jumped, almost as if struck, when Olric had spoken to her. Fear was still etched into every word she uttered. She gently placed her arm under the Baron's and ushered him up. Whatever it was that had her so worried, it was serving to steel up her soul for the Baron's outrageous behavior.
          Olric turned and moved to the stairs leading up to the roof. He gruffly grabbed a cloak that was fastened to the wall just within the archway and pulled it tightly around him. The brooch he used to fasten the cloak captured a few strands of his beard, which were ripped from their moorings before he realized what he had done. He cursed himself, and his pain, and stepped up the wet stairs.

          The battlements were quiet, despite the twenty-two men who now stood watch and the hard assault of rain from the heavens. Olric began to walk slowly around the circumference of the castle, his eyes peering into the night for any movement he could see between the nails of water. No sign of an army could be seen on any horizon, but the rain would have certainly drowned out any fire they could have built to protect themselves. For minute upon minute, Olric remained on the tower, pacing back and forth among the soldiers. Soon, the putrid smell of boiling oil wafted up from the guardroom that lay above the entrance to the tower. The small fortress was finally ready for any assault that could come.
          The rainwater had finally seeped into Olric's padded clothing that supported his armor. He would have to personally set the entire suit of metal into a vat of oil to clear off the metal-eating water that it was immersed in. Feeling his flesh tense up against the cold, he turned back to the small door through which he had entered. A servant stumbled through the door as he approached, and fell to one knee. He quickly stood back up, with bright red trickles falling from his knee like tears across a soiled cheek.
          "Your lordship," he said, his voice nervous and uncertain. "There has been an accident."
          Olric followed the child down the stone steps, using the wall to support himself when a step proved too wet to support him. As they entered the Great Hall, four other servants gently placed the body of one of their fellows on the table, near the black-stained spot where Jorik had died. Olric approached, and looked at the soft, pale expression of bliss on the young servant woman's wet face. For a moment, she appeared to Olric like one of the gentle statues of the Saint Mary that graced the cathedrals in York. Then, suddenly, he realized that the face that he was adoring was that of Corwin. Her neck and back were twisted, and her eyes stared into the nothingness that was above them. The priest entered the room heavily, led by a servant girl.
          "What happened?" Olric finally said, breaking the deadly silence.
          "She was found by the north tower, milord," one of the servants ventured. "When she did not return with His Lordship's meal, as he had bade her, I went looking for her. I saw her from the tower window, laying much as she is now, but on the stones at the bottom of the tower."
          "It is the sacred and dread Hand of God we see at work this night," the priest began. "He shall punish those who sin against His Law, as he hath with this one." His thick fingers pointed solemnly at the body of the servant girl.
          "What was her crime?" Olric said, attempting a steely monotone. His voice cracked against the strain of his emotions.
          "Lust," the priest said simply. "She came to me and spoke of her bedding with a man of this tower to whom she was not wed. Her courtship with this devil resulted in his seed being sown in her Hellish fields. She certainly dashed herself on the rocks below the tower, knowing that she was forever now without Grace."
          "Who is this man?" Olric said, suddenly realizing a horrible need to keep his emotions in the deepest, most painful hole in his chest.
          "I know not," the priest said. "If t'were not young Jorik, we shall find out tonight, when the adulterer's lifeless body lies on this table, venged by the wrath of God."
          "Take her to the chapel," he commanded the servants, who quickly complied. The priest oversaw the transport of the crumbling body.
          As Olric went to the Baron's chambers, his heart pushed against his chest, defiant of the reality it had experienced. Olric had seen several men disemboweled on the huge swords of the Scots and watched solemnly as steam rose into the snowy morning air. He had seen several men beheaded, two of which under his sentence. He had even watched as a man's skull exploded under the heavy hammer of a Norseman. But no image of war prepared him for the sorrow of Cerwin's death, nor the death of his unborn child. Olric began to wonder if that was the dread secret she was keeping as he approached the Baron's chamber door.
          Pushing aside his thoughts, he pushed the dark, heavy door open. The Baron was standing in the room, before the fireplace, pulling at a leather strap that would hold his breastplate in place. He nodded to Olric as he entered, and fastened the strap into place.
          "Your Lordship," Olric began, his palms extending before him. "You need rest. You have seen much this night, and the storm has ravaged your body. I beg you, rest."
          "Now is not the time for rest, Warden," the Baron said, his voice steady and calm. "I have not donned this armor in years, though it hung on this post," he said, indicating the cross that had held his armor. "I have not entered battle for years, prefering to remain in my safe tent. If there is to be a battle this night, I shall be present to either die or to succeed, and, regardless, to lead."
          "Yes, milord," Olric responded.
          "I wish to inspect the soldiery, Warden," he said simply, pulling his scabbard to his waist. "I want a report on the standing of the servantry. If we enter battle, we will need all available men armed and ready. Find weapons for the women, if need be."
          "Yes, milord," Olric responded again. He turned sharply and moved to the door. The Baron's hand rested on his shoulder as he reached for the door handle. The touch startled Olric, who believed that his lord was standing on the far side of the room. The Baron wore armor designed and forged for him in London, and was not composed of the noisy, loose mail that hung on Olric's body.
          "Report to me in the Great Hall," he whispered into his ear. Olric could feel some of his fiery locks brush against his neck.
          "Yes, milord," Olric responded, and the Baron let him depart.

          "Fire!" a servant's voice echoed through the corridors of the keep. Olric turned in surprise. He had wandered through all the servant's wing, insuring that they were battle ready. He had already sent two of the servants, the porter and the butler, to don armor and join the soldiers above. Olric moved to the door of the kitchen through which he had been walking and leaned out of it.
          "Fire, you say?" he said to the young man running through the corridor.
          "Yes, milord," the servant replied through his heavy breaths.
          "Where?" Olric asked.
          "The North Tower," he responded. Olric nodded to him and turned to run down the corridor. He could already smell the thick smoke that had begun to slide down the hallway.
          There were few things a castle could not withstand. Given time, and good, strong defenses, a castle could last indefinitely. However, calls of flame had harbinged the utter destruction of many of the Crown's greatest castles. It was the one true fear of a warrior, to be burned like Satan in his Pandemonium. He thrust open the door to the interior of the tower, and a wall of bright flame welcomed him. He pulled back, his face stung by the smoke and the heat of the conflagration. Beyond, he could see five armored bodies, their flesh blackened and cracked from the heat. Olric turned and moved quickly to the stairs. He ascended quickly to the second floor and stopped at the steward's door. His leather gauntlet slammed heavily into the door.
          "Steward," he called into the door, "there is a fire!"
          No response came from the old man's quarters.
          "Steward!" Olric called again. He pushed the thin, wooden door open, and the putrid smell of urine and feces assaulted his senses. In the center of the room lay the old man, his stomach torn open in four long slashes. His entrails had spilled their contents, and the soupy mixture had begun to mix with the thin circle of white powder in which his body lay. Olric stepped to the body and reached his finger to the floor, touching a clean section of the circle. He smelt the grainy powder.
          Salt.
          A ward against demons.

          Olric climbed the stairs to the roof, which was still surviving the assault of the weather. Thick, black pools had begun to coalesce near the floor where the roof met the towers. The North Tower smoldered with it's thick, rumbling voice. No flames were visible from the roof, though the light from the fire within could be seen reflecting in the black smoke. Suddenly, Olric realized that there were no guards on the roof. The arrows that they had placed before them upon entering their watch would have been stowed at the first sign of rain, so no sign of the soldiers remained. Olric stepped briskly around the battlements toward the North Tower, and suddenly noticed a figure standing near the East Tower; lightning reflected briefly against a drawn blade.
          Forgetting the burning tower, Olric drew his wide-bladed sword and approached the figure quickly, almost running. His feet slipped beneath him, but he held his balance on the hard stone. "Name yourself!" he shouted, realizing that the figure was armored, and stood over the bodies of two of his men.
          "I am Ilkley," the figure said, "Lord of Barden Tower and Baron to the King. Hold your blade."
          Olric quickly dropped the point of his blade and rose from his battle stance. From behind a barrel, the heavy priest lifted himself awkwardly.
          "These men have been slain," the Baron said calmly, pointing with his sword at the men laying at his feet. One had four long slashes across his face, which had broken through the incredibly strong bone that normally protected it. The other had four slashes across his arm that had peeled back to reveal the bone underneath, and another set of slashes across his abdomen, through his chain armor. "Our defenses have been breached," he said, solemnly.
          "It is the divine Will of God that--"
          "Father," Olric said to the drenched priest, his deep voice catching him in mid-sermon. "We need your temporal abilities right now. Go down into the tower and get the servants in order. The steward is dead, slain in the same manner as these. Get them to line up with buckets to the North Tower and put out that fire."
          The priest nodded and opened the door to the tower. Olric moved to follow.
          The Baron put a hand on the Warden's shoulder. "What are you doing, Olric?" the Baron said simply. Olric was stunned for a moment, at the use of his proper name by his superior.
          "I am going to search for our assassin," he said simply. "You must remain here, it is the most defendable position in the castle. If you see anything, call for me, and I will come."
          The Baron nodded, fear obviously coming back into his eyes.

          Olric moved effortlessly through the corridors of the castle. In his many years of service, he had traversed all of the corridors many, many times. He knew every last cobble that made up the floor and the location of every torch sconce. As he searched the small keep, he noticed that the torches had begun to run low. Unless the servants were quickly successful in putting out the fire in the North Tower, he would have to work his way through the corridors in the darkness. The thought made him move quicker, he thought, but time seemed somehow twisted to him. He wondered if the events around him were actually happening so quickly, or if he were moving more slowly. He forced his thoughts to return to his search.
          As he moved towards the servant's quarters, a rumbling sound filled the castle, and it's walls shook. He moved quickly to the underground well that lay beneath the servant's quarters, hoping for news of the battle with flame. He stepped into the room, and found that all was silent. Five buckets hung from their positions on the walls, untouched since the feast earlier, and the well dutifully held it's water deep within it's stony walls. However, no servant was nearby to drain it of it's lifeblood.
          Olric could feel his anger moving through his face again, contorting his muscles. He moved up the stairs again, toward the chapel. The heavy doors did not move when he pushed on them, and a chain rattled from the other side.
          "Father, it is Olric, I bid you, open these doors," he said to the room beyond. He could see the flicker of candlelight play against the stones on the floor under the door, and thought he saw someone moving within. Olric slammed his plated shoulder against the door, and it groaned against him. He pushed again, and one of the hinges snapped, permitting the heavy door to fall inward.
          Through the small, triangular opening he had made between the doors, he could see the chapel, all it's candles lit. He slowly moved under the door and entered the room, but stopped upon looking at the alter. Laying against the balcony-like pulpit from which the priest had admonished the soldiery and promised eternal damnation, was the heavy, golden cross that was normally hung above the pulpit. It lay right side up, leaning precariously against the wooden pulpit. Hanging from the crucifix was the form of the priest. His body had been sliced several times, all in the same quadruplet of red ribbons, and his fat had begun to slide through the openings. His face was fixed in horror and shock, and his skull had been cracked open at it's bald pate. Christ-like, his arms and feet were nailed to the cross with thick, wooden quarrels, and he wore a crown made from his belt-rope on his forehead.
          Olric coughed, dryly, and suddenly thought of his Lord again. He rushed from the chapel, clumsily knocking the door to the ground in a profound thud. Water had begun to coagulate at the base of the stone stairs that led to the roof, and he clanged as he moved jerkily through the pools and up the stairs. When he reached the top, the Baron moved from behind the barrel and slashed at him. Olric parried the blow, though his mind reeled in disbelief. Suddenly, the warrior's visage that the Baron had inflicted on himself, disappeared, and was replaced by shock.
          "Olric, it's you," he said, stumbling back and grasping his side, which was covered in new blood.
          "What has happened, milord?" Olric asked, his breath barely willing to form itself into words.
          "It was here," he said simply, the horror glassing over his eyes. "I felt it's sting, I smelt it's breath, I stared into those endless, crimson eyes. It was here, Olric, but it did not kill me." He looked down to his hand, which was holding a large, metal object with four curved blades protruding from it. "It dropped this." The blades dripped horribly with gore and blood, and Olric almost feared as if the blades themselves would come alive and attack the both of them.
          "We must depart, milord," Olric said, looking to the remnants of the North Tower. The rumbling Olric had heard was it's falling, it's wooden skeleton ripped from it's fleshy stone body. "This place is accursed," he said, suddenly realizing that he had been wrong those so many years ago. He wished that he had known before all this, before the killing and the years of unhappiness, he wished he had known.
          The Baron nodded and Olric moved to the door at the top of the steps. The torch at the bottom of the staircase had dwindled into a small, red, glowing spot, which hung in the darkness like a demon's eye. Olric moved slowly down the first step, when the Baron called to him.
          "Olric," he whispered from behind. Olric turned around to his master, who had placed the metallic object over his hand. "The End is here, and I am its first Harbinger," he whispered over his bloody teeth. He pushed the blades into Olric's abdomen, and they cut deep into his flesh. Olric felt the armor hold the blades back, however, and moved to defend himself with his heavy sword. His traitorous, leathered foot flung itself across the wet stone, and out from under him. He felt himself fly backwards, and suddenly realized how strange he felt. His stomach had become warm, almost like a dry summer's day, or the embrace of a woman next to a fire. He smiled to himself, and he struck the hard stone of the stairs. The darkness swirled around him, the only sight he could see was the fleeting silhouette of his master standing at the top of the stone stairs, the long, silver claws at his side. Olric struck the floor, and saw the world jolt around him. He wondered briefly why he no longer felt the warmth, or the pain he knew must have been there. His vision narrowed to two unfocused spots of light, and he heard, somewhere between the splashing of the rain and the roar of God's rage, the sound of someone laughing.