Of Spirits and Spirits
By Gerry Torbert
Darmon lit out from the Cursed Crater quite smartly, not wanting to remember what he had seen and felt, but still trying to piece together what he surmised might be a lesson for him. He had killed over a hundred undead, tormented people, and freed their souls. . . .Was that my purpose. . .or did I evade the real reason I was drawn there?...Would I have been allowed to leave if I hadn't fulfilled my real ive?...what did I learn?...
He began to understand a bit more now the constant sound and vibration coming from Dragonslayer. The humming entered his brain as words, as feelings. The sword talked to him in an old, probably forgotten tongue that he seemed to understand. As the Creag stopped for a rest or some contemplation, he brought it near his head, where the slab of steel would quietly hum and babble, almost endlessly, about the lives and stories of those it helped to kill. One was taken there, a very good man who was falsely accused of treacherous deeds; two of the men were there to atone for accidents that ended the life of someone; a few were there because of the endless torture of some god; some were there because of the evil they led in their lives; one (besides Darmon) was cursed for infractions of the Pantheon; several were drawn there to die, to be released from pain and suffering from diseases or war's toll; and a few were just far too curious.
Dragonslayer picked up their lives, their remembrances, all the way to their earliest thoughts. Their loves, their hates, their greatest contributions, their foolish actions, their transgressions. He played them back to Darmon in a soft, endless hum, each detail of the people he killed and released. The language was strange. . ."Hocktoo frelemok (click) watagul medmuk takaleen, perbit nembuul, (whistle) hemoolpana gleptis, gleptis, (hoot) ok-ok-ok glwarlsh emnepthi ghoolootah (gag) (gag) oom. . .", but somehow, Darmon understood and was comforted. Dragonslayer saw to it that its master's psyche was at rest, as much as a cursed one could be. The sword continued talking to him, day and night, continuously.
The two wandered west toward Norville, along a road that slowly became more and more developed the closer it came to the little town. They passed a few people - an old man with two young children, two young men and a donkey driving a cart of food, a lone soldier. Each time he neared someone, Dragonslayer would stop talking for a short time to prevent any uncomfortable situations, later continuing where he left off.
They passed a dirt road to the north, breaking through the trees to what appeared to be a burned house and barn. There was little but a melted, rusted weather vane to distinguish the barn, and what appeared to have been a thatched roof leaning against the inside of the stone walls of the house. Dragonslayer stopped talking for a few seconds, seemingly almost as curious as the Creag himself. But they continued on their trek.
After a few more miles, Darmon heard a particularly interesting retelling of one of the cursed people's lives. It seems that one of them was a fairly high-ranking official in Wawmar - Darmon remembered one dwarf among the zombies - and he betrayed the public trust with some of his rowdy, sinful antics. Darmon stopped, noticing a man coming from several hundred yards toward town, and sat along the road on a rock, the sword held up but resting against his head. He chuckled as his new friend related the sordid tale that led to the dwarf's banishment from the great volcano.
He was listening carefully when Dragonslayer stopped in mid sentence, interrupted by the stranger. "It can't be that bad, Creag, that ya have ta take your own life! Put that sword down, before ya hurt yourself, friend!"
Darmon looked up quickly, almost cutting his ear. He dropped the sword to his side, embarrassed. "Oh. . .uh. . .sorry, sir. . .I was deep in thought, jus' rubbin' me head, thinkin', is all. Dinna hear ye walkin', is what."
The old man smiled courteously and warmly, one hand on his hip. He seemed to have been walking for a long time, his clothes marked with smears of the dust from the road. The tatters on his old, torn pants fluttered in what little breeze blew around them, the ends a little burnt. He had a sack in the other hand, filled with vegetables - some lettuce and carrots peered out over the top, as did a loaf of fine, freshly baked bread. The dust of travel also marked his cheeks.
Darmon slid his metallic companion back into the scabbard on his back, standing. "Looks like you've been on the road awhile, sir. Good day fer it, is sure. Darmon's the name." He extended his hand.
The older man moved to shuffle his goods to the other hand to free his right to shake, but the groceries tilted and almost fell. He grabbed the sack with both hands, keeping it from falling. "Oops, sorry. . .name is Lucius. . .Lucius Lucinius." He didn't manage to shake Darmon's hand, but the Creag didn't take offense, as he could see it was a handful the old man had. He dropped his hand.
"Am I getting' close ta Norville, sir? I'd like ta sample the spirits in the bar."
"Uh. . .why, yes, about a mile. You're close to some refreshment, Darmon. Just don't take the right fork, it leads too far north, along the river. If you're lookin' to get across the Greatwash, they have a dock there, for a few coins they'd be happy to ferry you across."
Darmon smiled and nodded. Though he stood downwind from him, he couldn't seem to detect any smell from either the old man nor from his bread. It seemed curious, as Darmon always had keen senses. He noticed a few nasty scars on the man's wrists, leading almost to his elbows. He dismissed it as unimportant.
Lucius continued. "I have to rush along, Darmon, although it's been a pleasure to meet you. I have a party at my farm - my son is coming home tonight from far away, and the whole family is very excited. Lots of things to do, you know."
Darmon smiled. "Of course! Such an event is a great time fer'a family to get togetha and rejoice in the retairn of a loved one, Sir. It's been nice talkin', an' I 'ope your party is a grand one!"
The old man smiled and began walking away, backward at first. "Thanks, friend. Enjoy some drinks at the bar, Mr. Darmon. Left fork, remember. Have a safe trip!" He turned and continued walking.
Darmon smiled. Ahh, the people you meet along the road. . .simple people, no worries, no troubles hanging over their heads. . .oh, to be one of them. . . He continued his walk. "Where were you, blade? Ah, yes, the dwarf's rendezvous with half a dozen maidens. . ."
The town loomed ahead as he crested a hilltop. He followed the proper fork and soon found himself walking down what had to be the main thoroughfare - it was the only road that wasn't covered with grass where wagon wheels should be. There were few people on the road today, and the ones he passed gave him little more than a look or smile. They seemed to have seen a few Creags passing through, and his appearance didn't startle anyone. He took comfort in the fact that no one knew him by name - at least, they didn't seem to.
The larger houses were made of a mix of stone to the second floor and wood up to the thatched reeds comprising the roof, while smaller domiciles were made entirely of wood. A crusty old sign, half-hanging from a rusted nail, indicated where the bar should be - it simply said "BAR," in worn letters. Out of courtesy, Dragonslayer had finished one story in an appropriate place and fell silent. He turned into the bar, the mid-afternoon sun beaming down and creating a necessity where there once was just the possibility of refreshment.
He turned the latch and opened the wooden cross-buck door to the bar. The creak of poorly-kept hinges announced his arrival, and the door stuck on the uneven stone-flagged floor a bit. The sun silhouetted his form, casting a large shadow, and he turned to swing the door closed, with the crisp sound of the latch falling into place.
The keeper looked up from wiping some spilled ale from the hardwood bar. His stained apron flapped as he continued housecleaning. Two men sat on stools at the left end of the bar, deep in conversation, while two other parties sat at tables in front of early dinners. The smell of braised tenderloin and heavy spices filled the air. A few looked up, but quickly returned to their eating after a moment's look at the tall man. Food must be good here, thought Darmon. He bellied up and pulled a wooden stool close to the bar.
"'Allo, bartender. Might ya 'ave a tasty ale ta wet me lips this fine aft'noon? The dust is 'eavy along the road, sir."
The barkeep smiled slightly. "Sure, stranger. An ale, comin' up." He wiped in front of Darmon and placed a mug beneath the bung of a well-coopered cask, starting to fill it. "Been travelin' a while, eh?"
"Could say 'at. Been in the Deadlands, now 'eaded back ta Creagland. A lot longer than ya'd think, if ya look on the ol' maps."
"Yeah, quite a journey. Hear they had a big battle back there. Sounds like the orcs got their come-uppance, from what tales I heard. Seen any action?" The bartender apparently could tell a mercenary from a distance.
Darmon smiled. "Yea, ya could say 'at. Farland troops routed 'em, then took Borderhold back. Lot less baddies a'roamin' the land today, I'd say. The world's a lil' safer today. Guess ya'd seen quite a few of 'em 'ere in the north, eh?"
The barkeep tipped the mug to finish a silky head then shut off the bung, letting the last few drops shear through the frothy head and disappear into luscious bubbles. "Actually, not as many as you'd think. They never made it this far when they had Borderhold, more from laziness than anything else. Sure, if they had, they'd probably have torn down this little town and would have done their orc-things. We don't have much of a guard force here, and the only thing that would keep them out of here is the fact that we're close to Wawmar. But it's good to hear they're gone - Borderhold is too close for comfort." He slid the delectable-looking mug toward his guest, who slid a coin back. "This one's on the house, friend, for fightin' the Shadow."
"Why, thank ye, sir. Mighty friendly o' ye, an' proud to fight for good people." He hoisted a salute and swigged down what seemed to be an ale of Dwarven origin. He gasped an approving "aaahh," smacked his lips, and wiped the froth moustache from his face. "I can taste a lil' dwarf in this mug - a recipie from the volcano?"
The bartender frowned. "I'll have you know, sir, that this is no Dwarver ale! I brewed it myself!" His face softened, then a smile crept on his lips. "Yeah, I learned a lot from the little guys, to be sure. But I put a little of myself in each batch. . .maybe you can taste the secret ingredient. . ."
Darmon thought, then said, "Heath. . ."
"SHHH! You'll have everyone brewin' it, if you tell them!" He leaned over the bar to Darmon, whispering. "Yeah, it's heather - got a few Creags picking some for me every spring, and I float it in the cask just a few days before I finish it off. Kinda lends a nice finish to it, don't you think?"
Darmon took another sip. "Yea, lad, tastes like good Buchannan heather, north side o' Bein Craggus, picked about Mid-Thros, eh, wot?"
The bartender smiled, shook his head in disbelief, then laughed a little. "Friends o' yours, or are your tastes that good?"
"I know the boys 'oo pick it. It's good stuff, some of the best. Dun wairy, friend, yer secret's safe wi' me!"
The bartender smiled and extended his hand. "Aedan O'Limm's the name. Been tendin' bar here for twelve years. It's a good town, Mr.. . .?"
"Oh. . .Darmon's the name. Darmon Stuart, of Slaughbaetha. Yea, it's a good place ta settle doon 'ere. You've even got a port, must be a lotta trade along the Greatwash, eh?"
With the exception of several requests for more libation, Aedan and Darmon struck up quite a good conversation, with the bartender describing life far from his South Zeland home and Darmon relating tales of his experiences in battle. Darmon soon ordered a side of lamb, marinated in riverweed sauce and resting on a bed of chopped, roasted root vegetables, with a hearty helping of spiced bread pudding soaked in whisky. He ate at the bar and discussed finer points of life in Creagland and the differences between it and Aedan's former homeland, Eire.
The dialogue continued for hours, and the time flew by. The two discussed many things. Darmon was happy to have someone other than the slab of steel strapped to his back to talk to - he mentally asked for forgiveness from Dragonslayer, so as not to hurt his feelings. The subject of the surrounding countryside came up, as well as the comparisons of farm life with Creagland. At this point, Darmon asked an offhand question that he would come to wish he didn't. "I met a man t'day on the road - very strange man - carryin' groceries, said he's from a farm up the road, but the only farm I saw was burned doon. Know what 'is story be?"
Aedan's face turned pale and his jaw dropped. He turned away behind the bar, grabbing a short, pewter mug from below. Thinking a little, he stopped, reaching for another. Without a word, he reached between two ale casks and produced a dusty bottle. He blew the dust off and coughed at the swirling remnants of thousands of miles of roads, trailed into his bar and swept into the air as he cleaned the place for a dozen years. Returning to Darmon, he winced as he pulled the cork. He filled the two mugs half full of a beautiful but jet-black elixir. He stopped pouring, staring at the mugs as Darmon waited for a response. He seemed to think again about the drinks. He then continued to pour, reaching three-quarters full in each vessel.
He thumped the bottle down on the bar, then taking a deep breath, looked at Darmon sideways, his head lowered. Darmon slowly moved his hands outward, palms up, as if to say, "What did I say?" Aedan pushed one mug toward Darmon, grabbing the other. He finally spoke. "I thought I'd forgotten old Lucius Lucinius, he and his son, Sumus. So, you saw him, did you?"
Darmon looked confused, surprised and wary. His claymore hummed slightly, almost as surprised as his owner. "Well, I. . .saw 'im. . .yea, talked to 'im as well. Is that wrong?" He took a sip of the drink and looked surprised - it was a very pungent version of a uise-beatha he had never tried.
Aedan tasted his. "It's an experiment. Riverweed whisky, twelve years old. Barley base, but with a little extra. Old Lucius. . ." He shook his head. "Did you touch him, shake his hand? Did you notice his smell?"
Darmon shook his head as well. "Nae, 'e stepped back, and nae, he dinna smell like anything. What's 'is story, mon, yer worryin' me." He smelled the particularly pungent, musky odor from the mug, but decided his taste buds wouldn't mind. He took another swig - he figured he'd need it later.
Aedan smiled a sorrowful smile. "He's dead, Darmon. As dead as the bolt on that door. As dead as the tree this bar came from. Dead. Five years ago, as a matter of fact. A sorry story, the old man."
Darmon put down his mug. Now, I'm seeing ghosts. Was I the only one in the crater who saw the phantoms of the soldiers? Dragonslayer, why didn't you tell me? A hum emitted from his steely friend - I didn't get to him yet. "Okay, so I've got time, an' I love a good story. A tradition in Creagland - a story and a good whisky." Aedan sipped his mad elixir. "Alright, friend. Old Lucius lived here all his life. He inherited the farm you saw from his father, he from his, so on, back a dozen generations. They made good produce - beets, potatoes, turnips, swedes, all the vegetables you can think of this far north. He had a good wife, a good life, and everything seemed to be going well for him. And they had a son, a strapping lad, tall and mischievous. Sumus was his given name. He was a wild one, no doubt. Don't know where he got it either. Some say he couldn't have been of Lucius' seed, since Lucious was thoughtful, satisfied, dedicated and hardworking. Maybe the kid needed to rebel, I don't know."
They both took another drink. It was the perfect drink for a sordid story, they both thought. "There was always something about the kid. He tortured dogs, was a rowdy one in school, and no one could seem to reach him. His old man just turned his back, always proud of him. What for, I don't know. Guess he was a house angel, street devil, if you ever heard of that saying." Darmon nodded - he knew of one or two.
"So Sumus got into trouble. He was headed for Farland, to join the army. He was a handful one night, right here, in this very bar. He mistreated our waiting staff, got drunk and beat up another man. I kicked him out of the bar, as best I could - took two men, burly types, to get him out. And me - I've learned a trick or two in all these years. Anyway, he wasn't finished. He walked down the road and started another fight. This time he went too far - he killed a man and his child. Details are sketchy, but it was pretty graphic." Aedan looked at his mug, then to Darmon. "Don't worry, Darmon, it wasn't this that I served that night. Never had a bottle of this opened, till now." Darmon nodded and hoisted the mug in a salute of honor.
"Anyway, there were several witnesses. No one could get to him quick enough - he ran off down the road, toward his house. We saw what happened and talked to the witnesses. We woke up Mayor Delphus, who went door-to-door to gather a posse. Y'see, friend, you have to look at this like we did at the time - this town had never had something like this happen, as far back as any of us can remember. We didn't know how to handle such a thing. We're just simple folk."
Darmon moved about in his stool, uneasy. Aedan spilled a drop and grabbed his cloth to wipe it away. "So, Aedan, wha' 'appened then?"
The bartender took a deep breath and continued. "Well, we walked to the old farm. Torches, bows, swords, we were prepared for anything. Anything but what happened. We barely got out of town when we saw the fire. The thatched roof of the barn lit up like the noonday sun. We started running, but by the time we got there, it was out of hand. Two of my friends went to the well and jumped in, getting soaked, and ran in to see if they could help anyone. They braved the flames and smoke. Lucius' wife was dead on the floor of their main room, her head bashed in. The old man was hit too, but not fatally - we got him out. There was nothing else we could do. We managed to get some water on it, and the roof was saved. But poor Lucius was never the same. No sign of Sumus. Some say he made it to Farland."
Darmon drank again. The brash taste of the whisky lingered on his tongue, wreaking havoc with his senses. He made a mental note never to drink this stuff again, and never to tell Aedan of his failure in the fine art of distilling. "So, what happened to Lucius?"
Aedan shook his head. "Poor devil. He was a good man, and now he had nothing. He loved his wife and son. He fumbled around through life for a few weeks, coming to town and telling everyone his son would be back from the war soon. He seemed unwilling or unable to cope with the facts. Then one day he came to town and traded a sack of food for some bread and other food. Someone said they saw him leave for his house. He must have taken his own life that very day, because a tax collector came by the next day and found him. He sliced his wrists, clean as a whistle."
Darmon felt a chill run through him. He felt Dragonslayer start to hum behind him, but he thought to him, telling him to stop, that this wasn't the right time. But the sword had the last words. . . You set him free. . .
Darmon downed the rest, then slid the mug to Aedan. The keeper hoisted it toward his friend, but Darmon waved him off. "You look a little pale, friend. I guess I would too, if I had seen a ghost."
"You dunno the 'alf o' it, Aedan. I've seen Sumus, as well."
Aedan looked concerned. "He's still alive? Where did you see him? He's very dangerous, Darmon!"
"Nae wairies, friend. He's quite dead now." Dragonslayer hummed in agreement. This time, Aedan heard the hum, looking over the Creag's shoulder, but he ignored it as the effects of his home-brewed mix. But there was a tentative, doubting tone in this particular hum.
Darmon stood up. He reached inside his kilt's folds and pulled out some money, sliding it all across to Aedan without counting it. "For a wonderful dinna, a good Aedan ale, an' a frightenin' story. Oh. . .and the whisky. I have ta be goin' good man. I've taken too much o' yer time already. I promise I'll be back again, soon, ta trade more stories."
Aedan smiled slightly, forlornly. "Yeah, I guess it's time to close up. Got a room upstairs, if you need a rest. It is the middle of the night, you know."
"Nae, many thanks, but I travel best a'night. Good luck ta ya, Aedan O'Limm. Stop by in Slaughbaetha on yer next trip south, an' I'll see to it ye get yer fill 'o 'aggis, neeps an' tatties!"
Aedan smiled. "I will do that, Darmon. I have a hankering to see what the old family is doing. Travel well, friend."
Darmon left the bar and hoisted his blade a little higher on his back. He hated to leave the bar and his new acquaintance, but he knew he had talked enough. He would find another way across the Greatwash further down. He had enough of the town of Norville for now. He began to walk down the road, thinking he might cross it and follow the river south for the night.
He had only walked a minute when Dragonslayer began to hum. He expected a continuance of the histories of his conquests, starting with Sumus. But the hum began to get louder, less smooth, more frantic. He stopped to listen. The words were clear. . .something was wrong.
He saw a light flash out of the corner of his eye. A fast-moving bluish light ripped across the sky, moving in an erratic pattern. It swooped above a house, twisting around and diving toward the bar. Darmon turned fully to see a young man, his head sliced into two, both halves splayed out to the sides, wielding a sword, bathed in a white-blue light and laughing demonically. The demon drove right through the wall above the door, leaving a wisp of light and flakes of shiny, glimmering dust, burning as they floated to the ground. Then he heard the scream.
Darmon headed back to the bar on a dead run. Aedan's scream filled the night, even through the wooden portal. He tried to unlatch it, but it was already locked. He reached for the sword. Dragonslayer was already humming louder, almost at the level of normal speech, as Darmon slammed the hilt onto the latch. The door sprung open, and there, slumped over the bar, was the hull of what had been Aedan. He was completely dry, lifeless and charred, as if he had been in the house as it burned to the ground. Darmon knew he was dead. His sword issued a moan.
Darmon turned and ran from the bar, looking all around, but saw nothing. Everything was quiet again. A light was lit on the second floor of the next house down the road. Then, splitting the silence, a scream announced the return of the ghost. It appeared from behind a tree, swooping down toward him.
Darmon moved to hold his claymore in front of him, but he moved a little too late. The wisp that once was Sumus hit him fully across the back and arm, sapping a little of his strength. His sword groaned, more in failure to strike its mark than anything else. Darmon twisted around to face it, but it was gone again.
The battle-wise Creag turned left and right, back and forth, pivoting on his toes and bringing his now half-mad blade in front of his body each time, looking for a sign of anything that looked like a ghost. Nothing. "I had my feelings about that one", said the sword. . . . Why didn't you say something?... You wouldn't have listened, Darmon. . . , replied the weapon.
Darmon searched the road, the sky, everything for anything that looked like a spirit. He realized it could materialize from anywhere, in any direction, and would keep attacking no matter what he did. Then he thought of a better way. He trained his thoughts on Dragonslayer, looking through its own powers of perception, its own feelings, watching. He held him high over his head. He began to feel a presence, behind him.
He waited. The apparition sliced through the air, streaking toward him from behind. He waited. . .waited. . .endless seconds. . . wait, Darmon, I'll tell you when. . .
Sword and man wheeled powerfully, cleaving through the light as the ghost laughed and howled, flying to within a few feet of them. The howls turned to a groan as it split in two, each half landing with a shower of sparks on the dirt road. The parts writhed in pain, sending spurts of bits of light in arcs that ended in sizzling bits of ether as they hit the ground. A final moan was heard, ending in the words, . . . No, sword, you can't have me. . . Darmon's sword hummed loudly as it dispersed the light. . . .I don't want you, Sumus. No one does. . . All was quiet and dark.
Darmon slipped him into the scabbard. He turned to walk to the bar. One man walked toward him from the next house. He was glad to see that this one was human. "I saw it all, stranger. Was that a ghost?"
Darmon took a deep breath. "Yea, mon, a ghost. Sumus, I believe. He returned. An', I'm afraid, killed Aedan." Their attention was suddenly taken by a flame leaping above the trees from through the woods, in the direction of the Lucinius farm. The final fire, the final revenge of the spirit that was Sumus. "I guess thas' our answer, mon."
Darmon and the man walked into the bar. The man gagged at the sight of Aedan O'Limm, an old acquaintance, draped over the wooden table from which he dispensed condolences, congratulations and happiness for a dozen years. Darmon choked back a tear. Dragonslayer was silent.
The Creag reached across the bar for a mug and the almost-empty bottle. He fit the mug to what was left of the bartender's hand, filling it with almost all of the nauseous stuff in which he took so much pride. He knocked back the last few drops. "This is for you, brave one. I hope ya find solace, friend."
He turned and left, leaving the man as the sole witness to the tragedy. He thought to curse Tanarus, but realized that this wasn't his doing. . .maybe. . . Not this time. He restarted his long walk home. Both he and the sword were silent for a long time.