“A fine place to find yourself…”
Deadrius reached forward once more, clawing and scraping at the earth for a better hand-hold than the one before. His hand, cut and bleeding from the treacherous rocks of the area, finally settled upon another rocky protrusion from the earth that seemed to be able to support his weight. In the pitch-black darkness and the torrential rains and wind, he tightened his unsteady grip upon the rock and pulled, his arms serving as makeshift legs as he struggled to drag himself to the top of the hill where, he hoped, his steed would be waiting for him.
The only light to guide him, a large fortress that burned behind him, was growing more and more dim by the minute. When the darkness ruled the area once more, the creatures of the night would come out of their hiding places, with the perceived danger of the fire gone. They would be hungry, and Deadrius was certain that the scent of his blood would be carried on the winds throughout the deep woods to the north. If he did not make it to the top of the hill and find a way to climb one last time upon his horse…
He preferred to not think of such dire moments until he absolutely had to do so. Using his arms to drag his beaten and battered body up the hill, Deadrius was becoming more aware of his mortality than ever before. Many, many moons ago, back when he heard about a cult trying to raise an evil god from death, he chuckled and thought he could make a few coin from a young group of upstanding adventurers he met at the tavern one stormy evening. They were wanting to take out the cult and put an end to their madness.
“Well, back then, I was a different man…”
Deadrius was a mercenary, and he had always been proud of his profession. Once upon a time, he had served in the king’s armies, making it all the way to the rank of captain. After his dispute with a baron, and the king’s subsequent betrayal of trust, Deadrius threw his sword and armor at the stammering king’s feet, disavowed his oaths, forfeited his lands and holdings, and just walked away. Ah, to be young, headstrong, and full of morals! He allowed himself a slight chuckle at the thought.
Morals? He lost those somewhere along the way from the throne room to where he found himself now. No, he lost them until earlier tonight. For over twenty years, he sold his sword and services to men of both great aspirations and unthinkable greed and evil. His master was no man, but the coin on his side. When the coin was gone, then so was he. When the enemy offered more than the employer could pay, then he had a new employer. Tonight, however, changed everything.
Truly, he thought, the change had been happening for all of the previous year, to be honest. He was being honest, which he felt that he needed to do now. He had been being paid by a brave young man who was now burning in the stronghold behind him. They were all there. All but him.
“I had never been one to make friends…”
Joaquin had been the son of a merchant, and was far more wealthy than any other in the group. Whenever Deadrius needed more pay, he would simply go to one of the magical vaults and send message to his father and his generous father would send the boy whatever he asked for. That boy paid a high price for his hired blade to be sure, but he then felt that he earned that price for all of the cult members and priests that he had killed on their behalf.
Deadrius was, by and far, the most proficient fighter in the group. He had always killed three enemies to their one. As his hand fumbled for another place to grip in the slick muddy hillside, he realized that this might finally be “the one”, the job where the pay was not enough for what he ended up getting out of it. Death was the one thing he singularly avoided, as one could not buy women and wine with treasures if one were dead.
He thought of the meals he shared with them. He thought of Maudireen, the lovely young elven sorcerer, how her eyes shined with anticipation of the sight of every new inch of the kingdom that they covered that she had never seen before. She walked into battles with a determined smile, as if by doing so she would always walk away victorious. He thought of Jokkyn the drunk and Chanciffer, Jokkyn’s twin brother that looked nothing like him. He thought of the group, hanging on Joaquin’s every word whenever he delivered one of his motivational speeches about stopping the cult and sealing away the evil for good (as he was oft to do).
He knew he would never see that group again. He would never hear stirring tales from Joaquin about the heroes of old, the giggle of the young elven girl, the constant bickering of the twins. He watched them die, one after another, as the cult’s chanting was reaching a fevered pitch. Joaquin was the last to fall, and as he did, he tossed the ancient spear to Deadrius. Joaquin opened up his defenses to do that, knowing that it would seal his fate. He died to get that spear in Deadrius’ hands. He thought that he shouldn’t have cared. The money was over. He knew he should have tried to escape, just toss the cultists the spear and hope it would distract them enough for him to get away relatively unharmed.
But he didn’t. Instead, he found something that he thought had been sold away a long time ago. He found his morals. Without so much as coin exchanged, Joaquin gave them back to him.
“You do the job you were paid to do…”
Turning his attention back to the creature rising up from that dark pit those idiots were chanting around, Deadrius knew that he had to take the exact same risk that Joaquin did to get the spear to him. Many times on the trail, he tried to teach the boy how to throw a spear correctly like he did in the army, but Joaquin just wasn’t adept. He had given his life to toss him the spear because he knew that he was proficient. He placed his hope and trust into a mercenary he barely knew. So the boy was more of a gambler than he thought.
Shifting his weight back onto his right leg, Deadrius swung his sword wildly with his left arm to clear a path for the throw. As the cultists dodged his blade, they also cleared his path toward the creature rising up from the pit. When he threw the spear, in his mind he wasn’t throwing it at the creature he saw before him. He was throwing it at the demon that he had become over the years. He wanted to destroy that part of himself, the part which took over his mind and body, that made him become the man he could no longer stand to see in reflections anymore.
The spear flew straight and true, just like Weapons-master Kintallus had taught him. He would have been damn proud of his last throw. The spear buried itself almost a foot deep in the creature’s chest. It let out a piercing, menacing scream and began to fall into the pit. The followers and priests began to panic and run. Tentacles spewed forth from the pits and began a desperate attempt to not go back from where it had been imprisoned. Many of the followers were dragged into the pits; some screaming, others still chanting.
Deadrius ran from the building as quickly as he could, but the explosion was faster than he was. Flying through the air in a ball of fire, smoke and the stench of burning flesh, he landed with a crash into the lower portion of the hillside. The torrential rain luckily put out the flames on his body. His landing had been the final blow, however. He could no longer move his legs.
“You have to focus on the here and now…”
As his hand reached forward once more, he felt grass. He had made it to the top of the hill where they left the horses. In the darkness, he heard slight sounds of movement, and felt the rushing jubilation of at least one thing going right in this adventure. Forward he crawled, thinking hard on the necessary steps to climb onto his horse with his arms and body as exhausted as they were.
He thrust his arm out and, grabbing out with his hand, he wrapped his sore, bleeding fingers around what was unmistakably a boot. So one of the followers survived and beat him up the hill? He slowly lowered his forehead to the wet grass beneath him. If it were a follower, his death would probably be swift. Relaxing, he made peace with his situation and waited for the inevitable end.
He wasn’t expecting the kick that rolled him onto his back. As the sheets of rain fell and washed the dirt, soot and blood from his face, his eyes began to adjust and focus on the figure that stood over him. He recognized the face. He knew the form and stance.
“So, you lived.”
“The worst kind of pain is caused by…”
The figure squatted down and examined Deadrius’ features more closely. “Well, you live for now. I could walk away now and chances are that you wouldn’t make it up on that horse. You’re too weak, too injured, and too tired. Besides”, the figure said with a slight grin, “the load that you still carry from your past is too heavy for you to get yourself back on that horse.”
The figure was right. He didn’t have the strength to climb straight up onto that horse, even if his legs were working. He waited as the figure circled him.
“It doesn’t have to end this way, you know that, right?”
Deadrius watched the figure as it paced slow circles around his body.
“Go to hell.”
“You made me wait for you up here and now you want me to have to wait for you down there as well?” The figure smiled deviously. “Tell me your price and I will pay it. I will heal your wounds and make you stronger and better than before. I will make you wealthier than any king in the twelve kingdoms. Tell me your price, and I will pay it. Sell me your allegiance, and I will make you new again.”
“I am a mercenary. I sell my sword to the highest offer.”
Deadrius closed his eyes for a moment, thought about the offer and made his decision in a matter of seconds. He was a mercenary. It was what he was good at. He gets paid, and things just work out for the better. He tried being a hero and this was what it brought him. Pain, suffering and nearly death. He opened his eyes, staring into the eyes of the figure towering above him, and summoning the last of his strength, tried to speak the words to his salvation.
In his weakened condition, he could barely manage a whisper, and the deluge of rain carried his words off into the forest where the creatures lay in wait for him to die. The figure knelt close to him, straining to hear the words they longed to hear.
Taking one last breath, Deadrius quickly raised his dagger from his hand hidden in the mud to the figure’s throat. Falling back into the grass, she clutched at her neck, her deep crimson sins beginning to stain the ground of the hilltop.
She had been their spy. She had betrayed all of them, but had underestimated Deadrius. Maudireen, the young elven sorcerer, lay upon the ground, unable to utter the magical words to heal herself as he had silenced her forever. Slowly, she collapsed to the ground not too unlike him, facing the unforgiving sky.
Deadrius watched her chest stop rising and falling. She was dead, and as he heard the creatures of the forest draw near, he used his dagger and the last of his strength to loose the horses and give them the chance to run.
“He paid me the highest offer.”
As he stared into the void of the night, Deadrius knew he had sealed his own fate when he sealed hers. The reason that he could not accept her offer was simple. His employer gave him something that she could never bargain against.
In one daring move, Joaquin had returned to him his honor, his pride, his self respect, and his courage. Those invaluable things that he had sold and squandered away in his youth were given back to him with nothing asked in return.
As Deadrius let himself become one with the hillside, the rain slowly became warm, his body felt lighter, and his pains were fading away. In the distance, he could hear the bickering of the twins. He could see Joaquin offering him his hand, and as he reached out to take it, he never felt more relieved to be home.