|Trudging along the well-worn muddy path, Rhodes walked with no purpose other than to move forward in his current direction. His long blond locks lay pulled back in a rough ponytail, peeking from beneath a wide brimmed hat, that hadn’t been properly washed in days. Much like the uniquely ornate bastard sword across his back hadn’t been properly honed in months, it really didn’t seem to matter to him anymore. His booted feet continue to plod onward as his cloak flapped in the midsummers breeze. His tan-leather breeches were in need of repairing as well, mainly from the snags of briars and rough country crossings. Stopping by a brook to drink, Rhodes knelt and sipped at the cool clear water, pondering his fate as of late. Being a master swordsman is a blessing and a curse in itself. But being ‘cursed’ period, makes life nearly unbearable. It twas two years ago almost to the day that he met the challenge of another great master, and won, yet lost more than he bargained.
The battle was long and weary, neither army really had the upper hand. The numbers dwindled as the days grew long and the dead piled higher with each fall of the axe. Swords clashed and shields broke from minute to minute until there was finally only two. Rhodes stood that day atop the knoll in the field, blood dripping from his leather armor, mixed with sweat. The enemy stood a few yards away, likewise looking the same, except he wore a great dark metal helm.
Rhodes caught his breath momentarily just before his opponent set in to him. Rhodes dodged the first volley of swings, and countered with a parry thrust of his own. His opponent was just as fast as he, but was shorter and thinner than Rhodes. Thinking his size was an advantage, Rhodes pressed the man harder with more forceful swings, forcing the man to block with his sword, hoping to tire him quicker. The helmed warrior blocked easily the first few strokes but decided to dodge the remainder as tho he sensed what Rhodes was trying to accomplish. Switching tactics, Rhodes employed a few other tricks he’d picked up, kicking a shield from the ground towards his opponent then lashing out from the momentary distraction. This proved fruitless as the warrior completely ignored the distractions and was entirely focused on Rhodes movements. Getting frustrated now after several hours of stalemated swordplay, he knew that if he were to win over this masked man, Rhodes would have to employ some dirty tactics. Kicking dirt at the helmed man yielded little more than a slight head shake, spitting likewise too. Nothing seemed to break the concentration of this remarkable foe. Rhodes decided to just let his emotions carry him into the next exchange of blows.
Summoning all his rage, he began to beat furiously against the man’s sword, each blow becoming harder than the first. Screaming like a demon from Arulla, Rhodes beat the man back several steps, until fate stepped in and gave him the chance. The masked warrior moved to dodge one of Rhode’s overhand sword strokes but slipped on a blood slick patch of grass and fell backwards. Rhodes seized this opportunity and drove his sword into the helmed warriors chest. The warrior however, rolled just slightly ahead of Rhodes thrust and was pinned to the ground by his shoulder. Rhodes stepped back, withdrawing his sword, seemingly surprised that the man never cried out. Taking no chances, he moved to finish the downed man with a crushing overhand blow to the head. Rhodes sword fell downward with a flash, only to be caught in the hand of the fallen warrior. Eyes wide with shock and awe, Rhodes fought to pull the sword from this strange man’s grip. The warrior got to his feet, only a small trace of blood oozed from the shoulder wound. Rhodes watched in confusion as the man removed his dark helm, revealing the face of a very youthful looking man barely half his age. Dark black locks fell from his head around his shoulders as his steely blue eyes glowed at Rhodes, and an evil smile crossed his lips.
“The fates have smiled upon you this day warrior,” intoned the stranger thru perfect teeth in a soft whisper of a voice.
Rhodes gripped at his sword tighter still, waiting for the hand to relax its grip on his blade just momentarily so he may jerk it free and finish this demon sent to destroy him.
“No mortal man has ever challenged me as you have. Had the fates not stepped in and granted you the favor of luck, I would have slain you,” the man-boy said smiling, staring into Rhodes soul.
“You could’ve tried, aye. But I beg to differ. Just release my blade and I’ll make you see otherwise demon,” replied Rhodes with cold malice dripping from his words.
The man laughed a deep, bone chilling laugh that only a demon or monster could make thru the flesh of a human form.
“Ahhhhh. Rhodes, I like your style. I have watched you from the hell pits and admired your work. You fight on no particular side, as long as the pay is there and the body count is high. You’ll lead men into a hopeless battle and walk away with no remorse, no regret and put your faith in enough steel to fill your fist. Men like you walk a different path, and catch the eye and fancy of gods and demons alike,” chuckled the man as he snatched Rhodes sword from his grip as tho taking a stick from a child.
“Spare me your philosophies demon. Either kill me or let me go, but don’t bore me to death,” replied Rhodes as he gritted his teeth together, expecting his demise soon.
Shaking his head slowly, “No no no my good warrior. I’ll not kill you. On the contrary, I’m going to bestow you a gift, one worthy of your skill. Take my sword,” the creature said quietly, an almost fatherly tone to his child like voice as he stretched out his sword to Rhodes, hilt first.
Rhodes eyed the sword and demon momentarily before slowly reaching for the weapon.
“Be warned tho oh great warrior. If you accept this gift, there is no returning it. Such is the way of the gods,” quickly added the boy as Rhodes hand stopped inches from the sword.
Thinking to himself that the sword would fetch a nice price at the bazaar market in Shadizhar, Rhodes grasped the handle of the nameless warriors weapon and felt something odd. Just as his fingers wrapped around the handle a boom of thunder broke the silence on this clear day. Lightning flashed in the sky and suddenly, a bolt of purplish black lightning energy streaked from the sky, engulfing the strange warrior. The energy traveled from his small frame, along the sword blade and into Rhodes. Throwing his head back in anguish, Rhodes felt every muscle in his body coursing with a super current of energy. Lights and popping sounds flashed before his eyes and burned in his ears as tho all of the fibers in his body where going to explode. A single thought was burning in his mind in a voice not of his own, “gifts from gods ultimately have a price”. The icy darkness of death gripped at Rhodes as he drifted off into unconsciousness.
Waking sometime later, Rhodes looked around the field where he had been battling earlier. He immediately noticed he lay in the center of a large circle of burnt grass. Nothing remained, not a single blade of grass, no bodies, nothing but him and a sword in his fist. Looking down at the sword, he opened his fist and switched it to his other hand. In the palm of his right hand was a burnt scar in the mark of a symbol vaguely familiar to him. The scar was reddish and completely healed, but throbbed from the freshness. Glancing around the field, Rhodes picked up some equipment from the bodies of the slain. The air stunk of death and rotting corpses. The carrion birds had already begun to flock to the site of death, giving Rhodes a good time frame for how long he lay knocked out. No other soul was in sight.
Scratching his head in confusion, Rhodes began to take notice of the detail in the ornate sword given to him by the demon, god or whatever it was that empowered him. The hilt was plain wood, wrapped in a leather steel weave, the hilt and cross-guard were made as one piece with the blade, as tho the entire sword forged as one piece. There were strange markings on the blade that Rhodes did not recognize. The pommel bore the same marking as the scar on his hand. Looking up and across the field, Rhodes tried to decide what his next course of action should be. That action would be decided for him shortly.
Gathering his stuff up, Rhodes began to walk towards the end of the field where the road he knew would take him towards Shadizhar. Stopping among the dead, he found a few items that would fetch a coin or two at the peddlers market. Having not collected his pay for the battle, seeing how everyone was dead including his commander, he would have to make do with scavenging. Turning round the bend in the hill, Rhodes stopped suddenly at the approach of three very large, very unfriendly looking northland barbarians. Each carried a weapon as long as Rhodes was tall. Barbarians are known for their berserker rages and fierce strength in battle, only compared to their fondness for drinking, pillaging and raping. Rhodes was outnumbered and in no mood to get gutted after the rough time he’s had thus far. Keeping his eyes down and appearing unthreatening, he gave the men a wide berth, but one of them yelled for him to stop.
“Hold there dog ! My friends and I would have a word with you about what happened here,” commanded the redhead of the group, carrying a double bladed axe the size of a wagon’s wheel.
Rhodes stopped and thought about running for the forest, but decided to see what they wanted instead, seemingly filled with a strange sense of confidence.
“What battle took place here?” asked the short haired one, staring at Rhodes as tho he were a king, looking down upon him.
“Looks to be a great battle. Maybe you can’t see that for all the bodies lying around” replied Rhodes with astonishment at his poor choice of words.
“Hmm. No that fact didn’t escape me little man. I just wanted to find out what you’ve taken that might be worth something to us poor stupid barbar’s” chuckled short hair as he nudged his companion carrying the large cudgel in his belt.
Rhodes right hand toyed gingerly with the hilt of his new sword as the next words formed on his lips, “All I have is what you’re willing to give me”.
The three didn’t take too kindly to the threat from this little speck of a man. The one drew his cudgel from his belt as the other two took up a fighting stance with their weapons. The axe wielding red head took the first swing at Rhodes. In a flash Rhodes drew his sword and in one motion blocked the barbarians swing and quickly severed his arm at the elbow. The northerner howled in pain and clutched at his bleeding stump. His short haired companion snarled with rage and took a thrust with his large two handed sword at Rhodes side. Rhodes twirled quickly with near inhuman speed and agility, parrying the thrust and stepping into the barbarian with his shoulder.
Knocking the brute back a few paces, he turned to meet the downward crash of the cudgel with the edge of his blade. The cudgel split in two as tho a stick of butter landed on a hot iron. Rhodes could have sworn he heard a hissing sound as the wood met the blade. The weaponless man quickly snatched up a large spear from the ground as the other barbarian rushed at Rhodes from behind, trying to skewer him in the back. Leaping upward, Rhodes did a somersault and landed feet first into the charging barbarian, knocking him to the ground, face first. Standing atop the wriggling man, he swiftly slid the sword thru the man’s back, severing the spinal column, and splitting his breast bone, all in one fluid, perfect motion. Rhodes was amazed at his prowess, nothing seemed to escape him in the swirling melee of battle.
Every movement, every motion, was sensed and processed a thousand fold better and quicker than he ever had imagined possible. The barbarian with the spear began to circle Rhodes, waiting to get an opening to impale him. His one armed companion had found his axe and picked it up, blood oozing from his stump.
Rhodes stood still and waited patiently. Both men now circling like wolfs around their prey. The spear wielding northerner thrust quickly at Rhodes chest, just as the axe-man charged in on his flank. Rhodes deflected the spear thrust with a parry of his sword, cutting the shaft on the down stroke, then turning sharply towards the axe swinging berserker and sidestepping with a side stroke that disemboweled the man. Standing with his intestines dangling around his knees and ankles, the man staggered and fell a few steps away as the spear man screamed a war cry in his native tongue and tried to grab Rhodes with his bare hands, as if to tear him apart. Rhodes sheathed his sword and grabbed the man by the wrists and kicked him sharply in the shins, dropping the large man to his knees. Flipping over the kneeling barbarian, Rhodes pulled his arms behind him and out of their sockets with a sickening ‘pop’. The man cried out as Rhodes marveled as his amazing strength. This tree trunk of a man knelt helpless before him.
The man screamed at him, “What kind of demon are you?!,” he asked.
Rhodes shook his head at the question then simply replied, “I don’t know, but you’ll need’nt worry,” as he twisted the man’s head to face him.
As he stood there looking around, he realized he never got a scratch. Normally he’d faced men such as these and fared much much worse, but his skill and strength were unprecedented now.
Standing momentarily, Rhodes looked at his hands and body as if they were a foreign object to him. His new sword gleamed in the morning sunlight. Thinking to himself, he wondered what price he was to pay for this new ‘gift’ bestowed upon him. After picking the near empty pockets of the barbarians, Rhodes gathered his belongings and began the week long journey towards the city of Shadizar. His new senses astounded him, his sense of balance, smell, hearing, and sight were remarkable if not short of inhuman. His strength was that of 10 men easily, and his speed both of body and mind were beyond comprehension.
Rhodes had traveled half the distance he knew towards Shadizar along the major routes. He decided to steer clear of most travelers, for he wasn’t all too sure of his gift or if there were some penalties associated with having it. Journeying off the beaten road, Rhodes made camp near a clear brook. He wanted to spend some time resting, as a deep embedded sense of weariness had worn into him. Fishing for trout was a simple pleasure he seemed to enjoy most in life, next to hunting for venison. Patience had never been on of his strong suites, but his uncle taught him thru fishing. Remembering back to years long ago, Rhodes, could see himself as a young lad standing by a small pond, fishing stick in one hand, a furrowed brow of impatience as he watched his line sit motionless. His uncle watched from a few feet away, lying on his side, watching the stick for the slightest twitch. Rhodes kept pulling the line in checking to see if his bait had somehow disappeared.
“You know lad, the more you fidget and pull that line in, you disturb the waters around you and that in turn lets the fish know your intentions,” chuckled his wise uncle.
“But Uncle, they aren’t biting. Are you sure there’s even fish in this old pond? Look at it, full of leaves and twigs, I don’t see anything,” whined the young Rhodes as he tossed his bait and hook back into the water with an audible plop.
Laughing deeply, “Yes boy, there’s most definitely fish in this old pond. Many a day when I was your age, your grandfather would bring me here with your father and spend a day just fishing. No talking, no fidgeting or fussing, just simple pleasure of a quiet day of fishing.”
Flopping down beside his uncle, Rhodes pouted and looked at his feet. His uncle ruffled his loose blonde locks thru his large calloused hand. After a few quiet moments, Rhodes line twitched suddenly, just once, but it was enough to excite the boy.
”Did you see that Uncle !!! Did you see the line move?!,” asked Rhodes as he started to reach for his stick.
His uncle stopped him quickly and motioned for him to be silent and not move. With his finger to his lips, he pointed to the line then to his eyes. Rhodes glared at first then decided there might be something to his Uncles madness. So he relented to his elder and patiently watched. Moments seemed like hours to Rhodes, but finally his line jerked yet again. His uncle smiled broadly as Rhodes quickly looked between the line and his uncle. Soon the line twitched a few times, and the boys uncle motioned for him to pick up the stick gently and carefully. Rhodes did as instructed, listening to his uncles instructions carefully.
“Now listen to me boy, when that line jerks again, you must jerk back hard and quickly, to set the hook in the fish’s mouth. When you do that… start pulling the line in. But if he’s a large one, you might have to just hold on until he tires. The line could break, or the hook could pull from his mouth. This is where the real skill begins,” whispered his uncle into his ear as the two both stared intently at the silent line.
No sooner had Rhodes nodded, and the line jerked heavily. Quick as he could, Rhodes pulled back on the stick and felt the line grow tight and as a sudden weight had been attached to the end of the line. Rhodes felt the fish pull back, yanking his arms down to in front of him. Rhodes excitement was barely containable when he started to reel the line in, hand over hand. The fish struggled against him, but was no match for the adrenalized boy. Rhodes’ uncle stood by with his hands on his hips, waiting and watching as he pulled the fish up to the bank and flung it behind them. The fish was a largehead, a beautiful specimen by all accounts.
“Look !!! Look Uncle !!! I caught him. I caught a largehead!! Boy he’s huge!!,” beamed Rhodes as he marveled at the catch.
“Yes lad, he’s wonderful. He’ll make a fine meal too. Largehead, when cooked, tastes better than any venison,” replied his Uncle as he stooped to admire the fish.
“Patience will always serve you well boy, don’t ever forget that. If you have a dilemma or something you’re not sure about, sit on it and let the answer present itself,” advised his
Uncle as he picked the fish up by the gill and strolled to the cooking fire.
Rhodes barely noticed his line twitching, lost in thought of days long past. He quickly snagged back on the line and started pulling in the catch. A nice sized trout flopped and flipped on his hook. Smiling to himself, he whispered a pray of thanks and remembrance to his dear uncle as he added some sticks to the small cooking fire.
After the meager meal, Rhodes finished kicking dirt over the extinguished small cook fire pit when a faint twig snap behind him and to his left caught his attention. Sniffing at the air as it changed, he could identify several sweaty bodies trying to approach him undetected.
With a light sigh, Rhodes went about his business as if nothing was amiss. Picking up his small bedroll, he slung it over his shoulder, adjusted the fine sword on his hip and began walking up from the stream when the stretching of a bowstring made him stop. An arrow landed in the tree beside him a moment later. Glancing about, Rhodes, now keen eyesight, picked out several shadows lurking in the undergrowth.
“Drop your weapons and throw your valuable in front of you!” called out a voice from the trees off to one side.
“And if I refuse?” replied the warrior as he let a slight grin part his lips.
Another bow stretch from his flank and an arrow whistled by his face to embed itself in another tree. Rhodes turned and tilted his head towards the bowman.
Rhodes slowly sat his bedroll on the ground in front of him and untied his belt purse to throw it a few feet in front of him. Raising both hands he waited.
“Lose the blades!” came the order a moment later.
“I’ll lose my dignity then, besides…you have four archers amongst you. Are you really that cautious…or just cowardly?” replied Rhodes as he yelled back with sarcasm.
A few seconds passed before a rustling in the trees to his right produced a masked bandit in dark greens and blacks in a pattern that made them hard to discern from the foliage around. The man crept with a short sword drawn and pointed at Rhodes as he approached the purse, eyes on the warrior at all times. Stooping down, the bandit reached for the purse straps when Rhodes suddenly kicked his bedroll right at the man’s head.
The man batted the rolled up blanket away and snatched for the coin bag, but only found Rhodes booted foot stomping down on it first. Looking up with shock at how fast the man could’ve moved from his location to within a foot, the bandit lashed out with his blade. Rhodes hadn’t drew his sword yet, but blocked the man’s strike with his scabbard as the first arrows shot towards him.
Time slowed down to Rhodes the Cursed during combat. His heightened sense of awareness made it seem like everything moved slowly…giving him the ability to assess, react and plan his moves. The arrow racing at his back left flank would miss, striking the ground a dozen yards away, his sense of hearing told him thus. The arrow from above and to his right would impact him roughly in the hip if unimpeded. The third arrow coming from the front would strike him dead center in the chest.
Rhodes in the span of a heartbeat stepped off to one side to avoid the chest arrow yet towards the hip one, now threatening his shoulder. Reaching up with his hand flat, the warriors timing was perfect and slapped the arrows shaft in the middle and deflected it into the stooped bandit’s thigh.
The man screamed out in pain as the wooden shaft imbedded itself in his thick thigh muscle, toppling him over to his side. Swift as a cheetah, Rhodes raced to the small tree where the upper archer was perched and in two swift cleaves with his drawn sword, took a lumberjacks chunk from the tree’s trunk. The tree began to utter a loud cracking sound as it started to topple. Turning around Rhodes sensed the rear archer had drawn and was aiming for his center mass. The bowstring snapped and the arrow sped towards him. However the archer didn’t take the light breeze into account and the arrow missed Rhodes by about three hand lengths. The falling tree came crashing down on top of the front archer, but the man managed to dive away from harm but his view was blocked now. The poor archer in the treetop, leaped clear only to suffer a broken leg by the sound of the snapping bone that only Rhodes could hear.
“You low life’s should really find another, safer line of employment,” said Rhodes with a chuckle as he strolled idly towards the rear archer.
Seeing this skillfully insane man come idly strolling toward him, the archer dropped his bow and drew his short sword and a dagger.
“Flourentine eh?” asked Rhodes as he reveled in his senses, smelling the man’s fear like a heavy perfumed tavern wench.
The man hunkered and tried to circle Rhodes, to move him with his back towards his companions coming thru the felled tree. The bandit lunged skillfully with the blade and made a small sideways slash to Rhodes midsection. Leaning back, the blade missed his tunic by a fraction of an inch. Giving no ground, the man weaved back and forth before lashing out with a kick and snaking his sword arm out again. Rhodes saw the move coming long before the man started his attack and stepped in quickly, grapping the assassin by the ankle and jerking him forward off balance. The man did a split, losing his blades, mid attack, and caught himself on the ground. Looking up quickly, the man only briefly saw Rhodes boot slamming into the side of his skull…sending him into blackness.
The archer from behind Rhodes now, fired two arrows simultaneously, hoping the warrior couldn’t defend against two arrows at once. Rhodes grinned at the challenge and turned sideways to let the arrows pass by him. Speeding forward, Rhodes simply impaled the archer with his sword. The highwayman’s eyes widened with shock and horror as Rhodes’ icy blue ones stared back with no remorse. The weight of the man’s body grew heavy as the life faded from him. Rhodes stared into his eyes a moment before reaching up and pulling the hood away to reveal the man’s face.
Horror gripped Rhodes in an instant. Expecting to face some weathered assassin, he was stunned to see the face of a young boy, barely 16 summers old. The youthfulness of him was like a sword stroke to Rhodes’ soul. Slowly he let the boy down to the ground and glanced at the others. Body to body the cursed warrior went and revealed them to be all youths. Only one, the one writhing in pain from the arrow in his leg, was of the oldest.
“Why? Why so young to resort to a life of thuggery?” asked the warrior solemnly.
“Because…it’s all we were taught from birth…by our father. They were my brothers and you…you killed them all!” the young man cried as he clutched at his bleeding leg.
Staring blankly at the boy, Rhodes looked around with pity. Truly this curse he carried was to be a torment and not a gift. Rhodes knelt down by the man and plucked the arrow from his wounded thigh, eliciting a round of screams and howls. After a few moments, he managed to get the bleeding stopped. The man stared at him with malice and raw hatred in his eyes.
“Why don’t you just kill me and be done with it?” he asked darkly.
“Because this wasn’t your fault. You never had a choice just like I had no choice in the matter in which I slew your brethren,” replied Rhodes softly with remorse in his voice.
The man arched a brow and deadly as a serpent, shot out his arm that concealed a dagger at Rhodes.
Before Rhodes could think, his hand shot out at blinding speed and caught the youth’s wrist and snapped it. The boy screamed and rolled around, trying to cradle his ruined wrist.
“Do you see what I mean boy?!” yelled Rhodes with hot anger.
The young thief didn’t hear as he continued to scream in agony. Rhodes looked at the shattered wrist bones that almost protruded thru the skin. Shaking his head, looking down at the bloodied earth, he silently cursed the demon that gave him that sword.
“What…what kind of demon are you?!” the boy asked thru gritted teeth.
Rhodes got up and walked to retrieve his bedroll. Looking over his shoulder at the boy, he replied with a sorrowful tone, “The cursed kind.”