Se’rov woke suddenly as the daylight slowly died behind the western mountains.
The young man had spent the day in restless sleep, bitter visions of the hateful dead haunting his dreams as he awaited the coming night. Startled from his tumultuous rest, he now jumped to his feet, glancing about for whatever had roused him; his panic slowly soothed as he saw his companion’s twitching tail curled atop the bedding he had just leapt from, the sudden movement of it shocking him from his nightmares.
“Ava’,” he said in resignation. The great feline raised her head in response, her gleaming red eyes staring innocently back at Se’rov. He sighed at his own paranoia, reclining again beside the nerak and gently scratching at the silky fur behind her ears with one hand, and tenderly picking at the dead flesh on his shoulder with the other. The enormous beast’s purring calmed her master as he felt that eldritch wound and as his mind wandered back to the sudden assault that left it on him.
Shadowy images consumed his thoughts as Se’rov remembered the night, less than a month ago, when the silent sillouhettes of nameless men emerged from a dust storm, one of them reaching toward him. Its icy touch had unknit skin and rotted flesh in a moment. The same curse would have killed Se’rov that night if not for Hek’ot. The elderly sage had rebuked the phantom, dispersing it like smoke in the grit-filled wind. He had been wounded in his defence of Se’rov, leaving the young man to embark on his hunt for the specters’ source without the sage. Instead, he had sent him with a single ceramic bottle, its alchemical contents a final resort in Hek’ot’s absence.
After briefly musing on that night, Se’rov rose to his feet again, casting the memory aside. He untied the wind-worn entrance of his tent, and stepped through to greet the evening. He walked across the swiftly cooling sand to the top of the dune before him to observe the darkening sky and the dimly lit desert around him.
By now, the sun had fallen past the immense alpine range to his left, and its light quietly ceded the heavens to the lunar illuminations that followed. Above the peaks the cerulean crescent of Palan hastened after the dying light. The pale orb of Tasan straddled the boundary of the darkening sky, with the soft colors of dusk cradled around the one half and its own pearlescent light rousing the sleeping stars about the other. Far in the east, the scarlet glow of Salan broke through the distant tide on the horizon.
The three moons quietly replaced the harsh light of day with their own luminescence, comforting Se’rov’s night-favored eyes. He briefly closed them and took a deep breath of the cool, dry air of the desert night, embracing the calm isolation around him as the heat dissipated from the arid ground. The peace of the evening let the lingering dread of his dreams fade from thought, turning to the journey to come.
As he stood atop the dune, Avakhusol stepped through the opening in the tent and climbed up to her master, her vast paws sinking lightly into the sand. Se’rov opened his eyes and looked down to the beast as she sat next to him, her head nearly level with his shoulders. The nerak was still purring, and he raised his hand to stroke her fur again.
“At least one of us is content,” Se’rov said to the Avakhusol, blissfully unaware as she was of his fear, “Better that my worries not disturb you, Ava’.” He glanced again to the lands ahead, and the barren path before them.
The expanse of wandering dunes in which the pair had made camp began to grow thin a few hundred paces from where they now stood, gradually giving way to the dense, dry pavement of the wider desert. The west-borne wind could be seen to drive the dunes forward into the waste, grain by grain as the sand was blown over the crests. Countless ages beyond the reach of the creeping dune field glimmered a narrow river in the distance, the mingled light of the moons illuminating the dull crimson blades of tall grass around the water.
On the bank of that river stood a solitary hill – almost a mountain in the flat plains surrounding it – raised in ancient times by men whose names are forgotten. Within this barrow-mound had been laid the flame-licked bones of the fallen, adorned with gold and jewels and sung to rest by their brothers.
However strong these songs might once have been, though, they now are sung no more. The names once borne by the buried bones of the barrow have been lost to the living, and the ancient songs have fallen silent from the air. Without the watchfulness of their kith and kin, the dead were doomed to wait beyond the world, those lost spirits lingering near, bare before the fickle whims of Fate.
From his arid perch, Se’rov could see little of this barrow, and knew naught of its history. All the same, he knew his course – the silent cries of the desecrated dead called him forth as he gazed toward the river.
Se’rov turned, his fetid shoulder stinging at the sudden motion, and strode back down the dune toward his camp, purposefully ignoring the horizon now before him and the memories he had left beyond it. There stood the hallowed Bethabar, the isolated mountain that rose from the barren earth around it to join the land and sky. There dwelt the Vekatu, the nomads of the vast desert among whom Se’rov had been born and raised. There lay the ashes of his parents, of his wives, and of his sons.
They had fallen victim to the other phantoms on that same night when Se’rov had been wounded. Where the young man had been agile enough to evade all but the barest touch of his wraith, his family had all been caught in the chilling grasps of the others before Hek’ot had banished the spirits. Even as the ephemeral forms scattered in the wind, his parents’ dust-scoured bones tumbled into the sand, his wives’ skin sloughed from their rotting flesh, and his infant sons fell from their mother’s arms, gray and cold. Se’rov and Hek’ot had cleansed what remained of their bodies in a hasty funeral pyre before he had left, spreading the mingled ashes to the wind.
Returning to his small camp at the base of the dune, Se’rov began to pack what few supplies he still carried with him. Among these, however, he choose one item to unpack instead, pulling a ball of silk from his bags, and unwrapping it to reveal the same ceramic bottle that Hek’ot had given him. He tied the bottle to his belt in anticipation of his journey’s end, and began to finish his preparations.
Taking a large slab of salted gesat from his now empty bag of travel rations, Se’rov threw the meat to Avakhusal. She leapt high in the air to catch it, almost swallowing the slab whole. Se’rov himself ate nothing – he had finished his own rations last morning, and would consider his next meal after his task was finished.
Instead, Se’rov took up his spear. Its head was crafted from the horn of the same gesat that had provided Avakhusal’s rations. The gently curving horn, as long as Se’rov’s forearm, had been carved, sharpened, and polished over the course of the pair’s long journey, and fixed to Se’rov’s bonewood staff a few nights before. The man had poured all of his grief, his fear, his pain, and his anger into the weapon as the death of his family drove him onward to find their killer.
Avakhusal, oblivious to her master’s ashen mood, soon finished her meat, snapping into the air as she swallowed the last of it. She continued down the dune toward Se’rov as he strapped the tent and the rest of their supplies onto her rough saddle – little more than a thick sheet of leather with stray cords and straps hanging from it. The feline beast briefly rubbed her head against his arm before lying down in the sand. After he pulled the last cord tight, securing the supplies to the saddle, Se’rov lifted the bulky mass of it over the nerak and began to wrap it around her.
“Up, Ava’,” he said. “We still have many miles between us and the hunt – there’s no sense wasting moonlight.” Avakhusal slowly rose again, hesitant to leave the fading warmth of the sand so soon.
Before long, the pair was hastening northward through the barren land, the soft glint of the moonlit river in the distance guiding their course. Avakhusal ran swiftly – the field of dunes was far behind them when the last light of day had faded. Se’rov leaned low over her back as she made her way across the dusty pavement, clutching onto the thick fur around her neck with one hand and grasping his grief-sharpened spear in the other.
The night had grown dark and cold when the nerak and the man stopped at the banks of the river. The stars hung heavily in the heavens, glittering like dull flames in the distance. The soft blue glow of Pasan had long since faded from the sky, and Salan, now high overhead, bathed the world in its crimson moonlight. The dark river flowed like an open wound, halting the travellers’ course as they wandered upstream in search of a ford.
Se’rov softly muttered to himself as they walked, anxious and terrified of the coming conflict that lay beyond the water. “Barad, Marad; Amura’, Asera’; Pas’ud, Per’ud.” The whispered names of his family fell softly from his tongue, the pain of their loss stoking the smoldering fire in his heart.
After a few minutes, the search revealed a low, rocky bar leading across the river – the crumbled remains of an ancient bridge. With the encouragement of her master, Avekhusal waded along the path, her nervous claws scratching deeply into the soft stone. On the other side, Se’rov dismounted and unstrapped the saddle, releasing his companion from the burden and leaving her to hunt for herself while he sought his own prey.
“Farewell, Ava’,” he said softly to the nerak as she began to wander off into the crimson grass. He turned and strode toward the earthen tomb.
That ancient barrow-mound stood ominously before him. The rune-carved pillars that once sur-rounded the hill were now worn down to gravel and the long-sealed entrance was now rent open. Se’rov slowly approached the roughly torn hole in the dark gray soil, spear held ready for the unseen threats within.
Before he could descend into the barrow, Se’rov heard soft footsteps ahead. He stopped, standing as still as stone while the faint sounds grew slowly louder. Before he could think of what to do to prepare, his gaze caught the faint reflection of a pair of sable orbs within the barrow. As those dark eyes met Se’rov’s stare, a bone-chilling chuckle echoed out from the hillside tunnel, and an icy voice followed after.
“Selavsurov, is that you?” The shadowy figure chuckled again as Se’rov stood in utter silence. “It would seem that I underestimated you. I had thought your ashes would be drifting in the wind with the others’; I suppose that I will need to be more careful in the future.” As he said this, dark, hazy figures began to emerge from the darkness beside him. Faint voices whispered alongside him as he continued to speak to Se’rov.
“If you have come to find me, at least of one of the others must have fallen. A few of them? All?” Se’rov still did not speak, his rage slowly building as he stared at the silhouette of the man who killed his family. The man laughed in cruel glee at Se’rov’s silence.
“Perhaps it is better this way then. You suffer more from their deaths than if you had fallen yourself. A fitting punishment for you then, Se’rov.” His voice then suddenly lost all of its dark mirth as he continued. “But then, I do not think I have the patience to see it through. Give my regards to Amura’ and Asera’, and ask if they still stand by their choice.”
The man’s gaze broke and he began to whisper alongside the hazy voices around him. As his dark eyes closed, dozens of pairs of violet lights opened around him, and the whispers grew louder and more inhuman.
Se’rov was torn between running into the tunnel to exact his revenge and fleeing for his life. His wrath and his terror nearly pulled him apart, and the indecision between the two held him rooted in place: unable to speak, to move, to act.
The ghosts of the forgotten dead began to drift toward him, their minds empty of any thought but the cold hatred of the warlock who commanded them. As they emerged from the darkness, the scarlet moonlight revealed their forms, recalling the same smoky shapes he had seen emerge from the duststorm. Their limbs were thin and insubstantial, like the smoke of a dying flame, and their bodies were cloaked in the ethereal scales of their funerary armor.
Around the eerie violet glow of their eyes danced a myriad of faces, each subtly fading into the next –a decrepit man became a young woman, then a crying infant and a snarling nerak. The images of the warlock’s countless victims silently screamed and wept as his un-living weapons drifted ever closer to Se’rov.
As they surrounded him, each of the dancing faces froze, along with Se’rov’s heart. Staring back at him with expressions of agony and sorrow were each of his fallen family.
He saw his parents to his left, their visages contorted in grief, tears seeping like blood from their ghostly eyes. To his right, his wives, Amuraburod and Aserathurod, screamed in pain and anger as their flesh peeled from bone. Directly before him were his infant sons, unnamed in life and remembered as Grief and Sorrow in death. They did not weep or scream, they only stared into their father’s eyes in cold judgment as their images slowly burned in memory of their pyre.
The twisted faces of his lost family broke Se’rov, driving him beyond sanity and scouring all coherent thought from his mind. He charged forward into the dreadful embrace of the simulacra with fey wrath and mad laughter, his spear swinging wide through the smoky figures and their terrible countenances.
Se’rov felt the incorporeal touch of the ghosts as he leapt through them. He felt the life quickly drain from his flesh as it grew cold and rigid. His skin began to rot and slough from the dead flesh beneath and raw bone was exposed from his wounded shoulder as he passed the ring of figures, but his madness drove him forward still. His voice rasped from his crumbling throat as he laughed in defiance of Fate and shouted to the warlock hiding in the shadows of the earthen tunnel of the tomb.
“Chahavsurov!” he said, naming his traitorous brother at last, “You have betrayed your kin, you have betrayed the gods, you have betrayed life itself. You offer me the death that I covet, but I will not face judgment alone.”
Se’rov brought forth Hek’ot’s ceramic bottle and crushed it in his hand as he charged toward his brother. Blue flames consumed the skeletal hand that had held the bottle, and Chahavsurov’s dark eyes shone with fear. In the blink of an eye, the warlock was impaled by the sharpened horn of Se’rov’s spear.
The two brothers fell to the earthen floor of the ancient tomb as death began to overcome them both. The ghostly curse of the forgotten dead had finally crept into Se’rov’s heart, and his body fell into crumbling rot as the warlock slowly soaked the ground with his lifeblood.
The arcane fire in the corpse’s hand spread rapidly, immolating flesh, bone, and earth alike. The two bodies were swallowed first by the ghostly blue flames, before they crept across the ground and bit into the now crumbling walls of the barrow-mound. In moments, the chamber collapsed, burying the brothers alongside the bones of the ancient dead. And still the eldritch fire burned.
When the sun rose from the distant tide in the east, the whole of the barrow-mound had become a pyre, the blue blaze rising high above the crimson swath along the river. As the crackling flames ate bone and flesh, earth and stone, reducing all to pale ashes, the jubilant sighs of relief of those nameless spirits bound to their buried bones rang out from the inferno.
Avakhusal alone watched in the end, gnawing at the bones of her prey many miles away as she saw the blue column of flame in the distance. She knew nothing of the bitter and murderous conflict between the brothers, neither beneath the barrow nor in their youth, when they fought each other for the right to take wives, in the old tradition, and Chahavsurov was left to wander on his own. She knew only the years of companionship with Ser’ov, of hunting beside him and travelling across sand, stone, and field. Avakhusal instictively felt the sorrowful loss of her master and friend as his ashes drifted into the heavens in the voluminous plume of smoke above the pyre.
As the nerak left to return to her wild origins, the spirits of the dead, ancient and recent, nameless and remembered, passed beyond the bounds of the mortal world. Those forgotten souls who had been drawn back into false life rejoiced in the blissful rest of death, but the destiny of the brothers is separate. Chahavsurov and Selavsurov met again in the trials of the dead, and even now stand in eternal conflict before the throne of Fate.
Jacob Prevenas is an aspiring high-fantasy fiction writer living in Omaha, Nebraska. He is currently pursuing his first publication.