“Sir, we have an intruder.”
“A single intruder? Why are you bothering—oh no.”
“It’s Cundar of Raelor again, sir.”
“For the love of the Dark, we haven’t even replaced the High Priest yet. Who’s he after this time, Kazregoth himself?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“…I was joking.”
“Yes sir, I understand that, but apparently he isn’t.”
“The man’s an idiot. He’s not even a mage, let alone a god. Does he think you can kill a Demon King by hitting it with a sword?”
“It’s difficult to say what or whether he’s thinking, sir. But the men are—ah—not in favor of assaulting him frontally.”
“Assaulting?! I suppose you mean defending the main gate.”
“You see, when he came after High Priest Arnock—”
“Yes, yes, I remember. Well. If Lord Kazregoth can’t handle one barbarian, then we’ve been exsanguinating perfectly good virgins for nothing. The hell with it, let him pass.”
* * *
Gold and scarlet leaves dervished in heaven’s pale blue breath as Cundar of Raelor paced into the courtyard. He was a tall, lean fellow in his thirties, dressed in simple browns, glaring out from blood-washed night-black hair, with eyes of evening blue and hands full of glittering longsword. The keep was quiet, and his stride was leopard-soft.
Far across the courtyard, higher than the croaking murders that flapped about the parapets, issuing an obsidian river of shadow in the uncertain sunlight, was a titanic ziggurat poised on its apex. What mad craft of wizardry or engineering kept it balanced, none could guess; but thus it had stood for generations. Four tiers high it rose, the topmost square sixteen times the size of the first.
The swordsman walked to the stout oaken door and pounded with his fist. Unlocked, unlatched, it creaked ajar. Words in the common tongue were graven on the arch. Cundar, though not a fluent reader, could make out “fire” and “hell,” and possibly “doom.” He pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The whole first tier was a vast open space, a pewless cathedral, dimly lit by a lurid orange glow from the center of the chamber. He headed straight for the source of the light.
Eight seals, all glowing orange, stood at the compass points, with North and South separated by perhaps a hundred feet. The seals were ovals, nearly flat and roughly ten feet tall, and appeared to be made of glass. And from a jutting iron perch at the top of each seal, a giant wing-caped bat hung by the talons of its feet.
Cundar frowned. He’d fought these things before, at the Battle of Sendroval. Every time they were wounded, they simply disappeared and returned a few moments later, fully healed. One of the mages had finally managed to banish them from the field; but this appeared to be their nesting-place.
Sixteen glaring yellow eyes snapped open.
“I’m here for Kazregoth. I’ll give you one chance to flutter aside.”
“Northman, Northman,” they crooned. Their faces were ghoul-parodies of babies’. “We know you, Northman.”
“Not well enough,” he said, and raised his blade. Her name was Queslavalaka—accent on the odd-numbered syllables. Imbued with neither arcane energies nor godly benediction, she was nonetheless Sorrowfen steel, both hard and keen. His plan was to hit them with this sword until they died.
With shrieking cackles, they spread their wings and sprang aloft. Cundar watched patiently as they wheeled through the shadows above, laughing raucously and flinging taunts. One of them hurtled downward, stretching out its talons, but veered aside before he could strike. One by one the others dove and turned away, each dive a little closer than the last.
Then four of them at once descended, trying to encircle him. He front-rolled between the nearest two and put his back to a seal, and they stumbled into single file as they attacked. His first swing nearly took the legs out from under one of them, and all four leapt back into the air with a harpy screech. He was warmed up now, and starting to enjoy himself.
Accustomed to preying on terrified villagers, these bat-demons had no training or discipline whatsoever. If they had coordinated their dives, he could never have countered them all; but random, untactical swoops were easily fended off. And finally, inevitably, one of them got too close and lost an arm to Queslavalaka.
Fountaining purple gore, the maimed creature screamed and vanished, just as they’d done at Sendroval. But this time, it rematerialized barely thirty feet away—in front of one of the seals. There was a blaze of ugly green light, and the demonic limb was once more whole.
Now they were furious, and it pushed the limit of his skills to keep the skull on his spine. As he ducked and dodged, he felt a needle-sharp slash across one shoulder blade. The sputtering burn in the wound told him their claws were tainted with glurrig: one of many venoms to which he’d built up an immunity. He scored two more dismembering blows, a decapitation, and a gutting; each time, his enemies teleported to their seals for instant restoration.
But he was learning as they fought. Every demon had its own seal, and he had now seen enough of them at close quarters to distinguish among them. It cost him two more talon-cuts across the arm and chest, but at last he maneuvered himself and his foes into the opportune position.
When the occupant of the Western seal came in range, Cundar sliced open its grotesque bowels—and as it disappeared, he raised Queslavalaka high over his head and flung her with both hands toward the corresponding seal. The bat-thing appeared before the target at the exact moment the sword arrived and was pinned to its seal like a bug.
The other demons froze, staring. Slowly, the West-bat slumped onto the double-edged blade, and its own weight divided its upper torso and head in half. It collapsed in a purple puddle, and the seal cracked down the center.
One of them landed in front of him as he lunged for his sword, but their wings made perfect grappling holds when they weren’t airborne. He grabbed them like the folds of a training shirt, stomped a foot into its kneecap, and flipped it to the ground. Then the longsword was back in his hands, and he turned to face the other six.
And he smiled.
* * *
“My Lord, a challenger draws nigh.”
“Ha! Some muttering librarian of a mage, no doubt. Or perhaps another outraged cleric, waving talismans?”
“Nay, my Lord, we sense in him no eldritch powers. A mere swordsman from the North.”
“Eh? What manner of fool—oh no.”
“He bears a peasant’s name, Lord. A barbarous name.”
“I know the name. How fares his challenge?”
“The Eight Blades are slain, but the Northman shall now face the Three Flames. His paltry intellect cannot prevail.”
“Hmm. All the same, make ready the Portal.”
“You fear this son of clay?”
“I—that is—of course, what I meant—”
“Come closer, friend, and feed me your counsel. Open your heart more fully to me.”
“My Lord—my Lord, wait! Please, all my centuries of—no!”
* * *
The second level, quadruple the size of the first, was also an open area without inner walls or furnishings. But this level was neatly split into three zones by some invisible force. To the left was a rampaging tempest, a never-ending deluge like fifty maelstroms falling from the ceiling and vanishing into the floor. Straight ahead, the floor itself writhed and heaved in terrible quakes, rearing up into mountains and toppling into landslides again and again. And to the right, a hundred howling cyclones. High above the middle of each zone, a sourceless flame hovered, dancing, lighting the tormented space.
Cundar stood at the top of the stairs, considering. He’d found these steps at the far side of the first level from the front door; presumably the next set would be on the opposite side of the second level. He was tired and hurt, of course, but no more than he’d expected. Of the three zones, he judged that his best chance of making it across was to brave the tempest. Gripping Queslavalaka, he stepped into the hammering rain.
The waters enfolded him—suspended him. He could breathe, and his belly was full. He was warm and safe. Peace came.
What is… what…
My child. Oh, my child. Rest now. Be at peace.
Peace? No. No peace.
You’re safe now, dear one. You don’t have to fight anymore.
But I… I fight. I always fight.
Must it be so? So many joys await you, beyond the point of your blade.
My blade. My blade! Where?
Stirring, struggling, thrashing. There: the hilt, still in hand.
Yes. I’m Cundar of Raelor. I am the fight.
Beneath his feet, a bedrock. Inhalations of pride filled his chest. The sword looked far too clean of blood.
Ah, my friend. You serve too soft a master in the City of Wisdom. Battle for Glorm, Demon-Keep, and you shall slay the weak in their thousands. You shall be the very hand of Lord Kazregoth, earth’s conqueror.
Why would I want to fight the weak?
How true! How wise! But when Sendroval is crushed, we march on Sorrowfen, hallowed to the War-God. Now there’s a fray fit for Raelor’s best!
That does sound good, but my word’s already given. Today I cut the corpse off the ghost of the Demon King.
But—but the conquests. You could reign over empires!
Emperors hire others to wage their wars. Now, enough gabble from you.
The foundation dropped away beneath his feet, and he was plummeting. Plummeting forever, wracked by banshee gales. He couldn’t stand, couldn’t wield his sword. Strength left him. His eyes grew dim and his hair white. A lifetime’s combat was behind him.
Why? moaned the wind. Whyyyyy?
There is no why.
Why have you lived? What have you left, but a churchyard stone? Have you created anything, preserved anything? Fathered any legacy?
Legacies die. Creations die. Even gravestones crumble. There’s no why, there’s just the fight.
A whisper: Hell endures. You can be a part of something everlasting.
If you wanted to last, you shouldn’t have made enemies with a swordsman of Raelor. It’s time for me to wake from this dream.
Unhappy fool, your mind is our prey. You’ll never wake until—
Cundar stabbed himself in the head.
* * *
“High Priestess? It seems the Northman has gone to Glorm alone. Again.”
“Bless the day he offered us his steel! May Sendra, Wisdom-Goddess, guide his steps.”
“But my Lady, he’s already slain the hateful Arnock. Whom can he mean to challenge next?”
“Were he any other, I would think him a lunatic. But having come to know this Cundar, I can hazard a guess at his object.”
“You don’t mean… My goodness.”
“Could he possibly succeed?”
“The Cosmos is a strange, strange place.”
“My Lady, there’s something I don’t understand. If he plans to face Kazregoth directly, why did he not do so during his last assault on the Demon-Keep?”
“Perhaps—mmm. In truth, I do not know.”
* * *
When he woke with a start on the cold stone floor, he was dry. There was no rain, no wind. All was still, and the floating fires had gone out. He groped in darkness till he found the far wall and the stairs leading up.
As he climbed, he began to realize what that second bout had cost him. There were no fresh marks on his body, but a profound weariness was settling over his mind and will. He caught himself cataloguing injuries from the bat-fight—arm, chest, back—and despite his weightless buoyancy of limb, he yearned to flop down and ruminate on bygone victories. A lifelong reflex of fury at his own limitations kept him trudging upward.
Level three was lit by crisscrossing shafts of dust-shot day. High in the dark walls, thirteen rectangular slits lured in the autumn sunshine, pouring it like a libation over a forest of branching stone columns. Filling the space that stretched for hundreds of yards in every direction, each of these jet-black pillars rose from a single thin base and ramified outward into scores or hundreds of winding lengths that grew wider and thicker as they rose. Like the ziggurat itself, they seemed insupportable, yet they stood.
As Cundar reached the top of the steps, he heard the jingling of small bells. He paused to let his eyes adjust, and the sound drew closer. A few moments later, man-shapes came shuffling from the black stone trunks, clad in tatterdemalion robes of white. There were thirteen of them, each with a bell around its neck on a rusty chain. Veils hid their faces, but the smell of rot preceded them. As when, in nightmares, a simple smile or unremarkable hallway contorts the very bones with terror, the mere sight of these figures sent a gelid frisson from his scalp to his knees.
At a distance of ten paces, they came to a halt. In a voice like sickness, the figure in the middle spoke.
“Man destined for horrors, face the nightfall of your eternity. We are the Stewards of Death.”
He nodded. “Cundar of Raelor.”
“No. That name, and all that you are, is forfeit. We will gorge on your soul.”
“You’re right. You will.” He brandished Queslavalaka.
The Stewards rent their garments. From the leper-white flesh of their torsos came a growling gyre of flies. The flies rose high, a cresting wave of corruption, and crashed down, swirling, toward the Northman. The fight-smile lit his countenance, and all fatigue and fear were gone.
Slicing through bee-swarms was a standard training exercise for the youth of Raelor. The current trial differed in only one way: there was no keen-eyed swordmaster poised to belt him for cheating if he used the flat of his blade. He sketched a bright diorama, slitting and swatting the flies in their multitudes.
A bite on his forearm.
He was fighting, fighting. The Forallan revolt had devolved into riots and rapine. The avaricious Duke was in two pieces and Cundar’s work was done; he wanted only to slap the dust of this rat-hole city from his cloak. Hacking his way through the jungle of looters in the street, he felt a tug on his pant-leg from behind—turned and swung and watched the tiny head go sailing through the dusk. Four years old, maybe five, no doubt searching frantically for Papa.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”
The buzzing. He was still here, still cutting away at the stormfront of maggotry. He shook off the bitter memory and bent his focus to the task. With each balletic footfall, fly-bits crunched.
Another bite, and he was back in Raelor. Ulock, his friend—a boyhood quarrel, hard words and one expert punch to the temple. Then shaking the body, sobbing his name, and the face of Ulock’s mother.
His sword-arm faltered. More bites, more will-clogging grief and remorse. From the leper-demons came a slow-building hum like lovers nearing climax. He couldn’t think. He ran.
But not back down the stairs in rout; they’d only chase him and drain every titch of his essence. He hurled his sword high in the air, made the flying bound of a mountaineer, and scrambled up a black stone trunk to a branch—caught the falling hilt and sprinted up the multiplying path. He just needed a few seconds to clear his head.
The flies came looping and coiling through the branches in pursuit, intelligently steered. The branches glistened dully in the sun. Thirteen windows.
As with the bat-demons, these soulless things would never voluntarily risk themselves. The Stewards of Death must send out their filthy swarms to do their hunting. One had to carve a path into the nesting grounds to find their vulnerability.
Fly-wings in his eyes: he missed his footing, fell, half-caught a branch, and fell again. The stone floor kicked him like a horse. Mind and flesh begged for respite—to lie there for the space of just one breath. Unadulterated spirit rolled him to his feet.
The bells, obviously. It was often so, he’d been taught, with weirdling creatures: for all their sorceries, they relied on some mundane object to anchor them to the terrestrial plane. As with the bat-demons, the difficulty was not so much spotting it as hitting it.
Biting, biting. He roared so loudly something popped in his throat and shoved his willpower past the breaking point. Unscabbarding a dagger from his hip, he charged. A long-practiced throw parted the flies and pierced the bell, and the middle Steward’s torso vaporized. Four limbs and a skull dropped in a heap of robes.
The flies began to falter as he slashed his way closer and closer to the other twelve. By the time he was once again within ten paces, they were spiraling to the ground before he even touched them.
“Don’t tell me you’re tired already. Aren’t you getting your daily sacrifice of innocent blood?” Grim silence. “Oh yes, I forgot—you’ve been without a High Priest, haven’t you? Bad luck.”
* * *
“O Dark One, hear my voice. O Mighty One, hear me. O Dread Master of All Things, hear my call. It is I, King of Glorm, your herald in the mortal sphere.”
“Young Kazregoth. This is irregular.”
“I crave your pardon, Dread Master. I had hoped, you see, to visit the Infernal Realms today. But I, ah—I cannot seem to activate the Portal.”
“What business summons you to the Pit?”
“No business, Mighty One. Some days I, ah, ha ha, I grow homesick.”
“I see. Play a game with me, Kazregoth.”
“Imagine a town. A town with the fighting spirit of Sorrowfen, molded by the brilliance of Sendroval.”
“Formidability’s paradigm. That town exists, little king. Its name is Raelor.”
“Yes, I… believe I’ve heard the name.”
“I feel most certain that you have. You think me ignorant, perhaps, of what transpires in my dominions?”
“No! Of course not! I—I merely—”
“You merely wish to flee a lone human with no speck of preternatural capacity. You’ll face this son of Raelor, demon. If you triumph, you’ll garner more respect than any mage or cleric’s death could bring you. If you fail, then I’ll be rid of a weakling.”
“I… Yes, my Lord.”
* * *
Bleeding and exhausted, he reached the tower’s top and was met by snarling hellhounds. Queslavalaka gleamed in the torchlit corridor.
This level was laid out differently, with actual doors and walls. As Cundar trod the smoky passageways, varieties of monsters assailed him—wyverns and minotaurs and trolls. He killed them.
No more puzzles, no more glamours now, just pure battle. He’d found his way at last to a place he’d always known was there: a place beyond all weaknesses and limits. His ceilings were broken, and pain was of strictly academic interest. Transported, transcendent, he laughed as he fought, and the monsters began to flee the sound of his approach.
At length he reached the final door. In this fortress whose denizens thought themselves untouchable, there seemed to be no locks. He pushed his way into the chamber and beheld his enemy.
Reclining on a massive pile of beating hearts, Lord Kazregoth had the body of a six-armed man and the heads of a wolf, a serpent, and a crow. Rising to his feet as Cundar entered, he stood twelve feet tall and held two axes, two hammers, and two scimitars. The room was lit by candles made from spines.
The Demon King of Glorm said, “So.”
Cundar sprang. To his enemy’s six weapons, his blade was fifty blades. Kazregoth flailed wildly, and scalding magma spouted from the snake-mouth, but the swordsman gashed him in a dozen fatal spots. By the time the cuts were finished, though, they’d healed.
Sheer joy, sheer glory. This ultimate showdown, this was why he’d come.
He ducked another swipe and struck the axe-hand from one of the demon’s wrists. A new hand sprouted before the old one landed, but Cundar had a hunch. Sheathing Queslavalaka, he gathered his strength and lifted the huge fallen axe. As he struggled with its bulk, Kazregoth kicked him in the chest.
Flung backward, he landed hard and swallowed teeth—dazed and winded, coughing blood. But there: on the giant shin, a dribbling wound from the demon’s own ensorcelled axe. It didn’t heal.
Grinning redly, Cundar got to his feet and hefted the axe again. “You can’t beat me, Kazregoth. I don’t care if I kill you or die, as long as it’s a good fight.”
For a long moment, the Demon King held the Northman’s gaze. Then, with a deafening clatter, he flung his weapons to the ground. “The hell with you.”
“…Pick them up.”
“To entertain you with my death?”
Cundar bared his teeth. “Coward, pick up your weapons!”
“No, son of Raelor. Consider this my revenge.”
Lord Kazregoth closed his eyes.
* * *
“Oh Northman, you have done such a deed. Your swordsmanship, your valor, truly surpass compare.”
“Cundar, how are you not yet satisfied? You defeated the monster we’ve battled for decades.”
“No, I only killed him. He beat me.”
“Well, it may be for the best. Contemplate the peril of complacency, if you never lost a match.”
“You’re a wise lady.”
“It would ill befit my office if I weren’t. Now come, my friend, there must be something you desire. Let me reward your magnificent service.”
“I’d like a great many beers. And then I’d like a better opponent.”
“We could always smuggle you into the Pit to fight the Dark One himself.”
“Cundar, I was joking.”
“…I’ll see what can be done.”
J.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He has published two novels, Whisper Music and The Shoreless Sea, and has great plans for Cundar of Raelor. Toner lives in Massachusetts with his lovely wife and their daughters Sonya Magdalena and Rebecca Eowyn.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Fight”:
As fantasy pieces go, this one was really different, and it manages a wry bit of humor at the end.
Author J. B. Toner has previously submitted several pieces, and while we have loved his excellent writing, those stories didn’t quite grab us enough. What drew us to this piece was the strong character and the wonderful visuals of the fight scenes, something that not every writer can pull off this well in a short story.
We’re very glad to have found the right piece for us to show off his writing skills. And we hope that what he tells us in his bio that he has plans for his character of Cundar is true because we’d love to read more of Cundar’s adventures (in a novel perhaps?).