The Affliction

Nicholas Morine

Hatcher House, Paton College Residence
Apartment 530
St. John's Newfoundland,
Canada, A1B 3P7

Word Count (According to MS Word 2000) -

A shaft of golden light broke through the ebon darkness that was his existence, providing illumination to a world of sullen, silent night. The whorl of torrid colour broke before his glazen eyes to reveal the scene which would haunt him for the remainder of his days, and most likely his nights as well. A broken window, jagged teeth of frosted glass lie scattered like child's playthings. The cold hand of the North, with chill and desperate fingers, clawed its way into the room and caressed him with a lust for warmth, scarce respite in a barren world of white.

The floorboards beneath his knees had been stained to a near perfect maroon with the lifeblood of his kin, his Du'haut. Their waxen faces stared solemnly up at him with unblinking, yet caring eyes. Tathen, Kiarl, and little Lurja, her flowing mane of blond mussed and caked with blood that lazily inched still from the back of her skull. Tathen's battle-axe lie untouched, still leaning perilously against the base of the fireplace, which had gone cold long ago for lack of fuel. Lurja's gaze stared out at him accusingly from beneath the gentle crook of Kiarl's arm, even in the grim face of death his son had tried to protect her. Brother, son, and daughter, all gone to feast with Ti'Gauth. May his halls ring forever with the ringing crescendo of battle and the resounding echoes of merriment.

Jöhas unfolded his arms and unclenched his fists, letting massive arms rest for the first time since he had knelt here, how long ago he did not know. As he slowly stood to his feet, the muscles in his legs sprung to attention to support his immense body. At six and a half feet tall and three hundred pounds, Jöhas was large even for a Northman. His eyes flickered with a flame more dangerous than any that existed in the material world, burned with a heat that would thaw even the icy heart of Sova. He lowered his head in lingering shame, long golden hair hung in mourning and defeat.

His nostrils flared and his eyes snapped open with desperate rage. Yes, the metallic smell of blood still hung like a chained apparition in the room, but there was something else, distinct but obscure enough to confuse him. Memories flooded his mind, images and smells dancing in front of his consciousness. These were the days when he and Tathen were but mere boys playing with wooden swords outside of the windows of home. The days that he and his father hunted for herbs amongst the rocky crags of the Southpeak Mountains the winter Lurja had fallen deathly ill with The Affliction.

Nightshade. The poisonous herb from Northome. The mage. His eyelids narrowed in realization and he flung his head back in a booming roar, which nearly shook the walls of the small hovel. He leapt across the room and snatched up Tathen's axe with a flick of the wrist, inscribed with the ancient runes that proclaimed belonging to his Du'haut. It seemed to Jöhas that the leather bound pommel of the axe was warm and inviting to the touch, a gentle kiss of heated revenge that seemed so cathartic to indulge.

The door opened easily with a forceful blow of his fist, breaking the hinges with a creaking whine, sending splinters of wood hurtling outwards to dot the uniform white with speckles of brown and grey. Jöhas grabbed an oaken buckler from it's resting position on the horse tether, rapping it harshly on the side of the hut in order to break the sheen of ice covering the iron boltings. He then strapped it to his mammoth arm, feeling the leather guards bite slightly into his skin as if to remind him of the pain and hardship that was soon to become a very real part of his world.

The endless plains of snow and ice that stretched out before Jöhas chilled the warrior's heart and dampened even his high spirit for battle. The great expanse of nothingness, combined with the piercing frost and howling winds would make a formidable journey of his quest. It would not be an easy task, even for a Northman like himself, to travel all the way to Northome without provisions or some form of mount. With a slight grimace and a resolute decision in his mind, he decided to travel to the nearby town of Heia and attempt to barter some of the local merchants at the Bazaar into a business proposition. Setting off on his way, he began to let his thoughts wander.

The ice. On top of the snow dunes, the ice was like a translucent barrier to protect and maintain the bitter cold that was Caer'Thul. It served to ensure the existence of the picturesque yet deadly beauty of the land, and to slow the journey of the prey so that they could be made sport of by the many predators that spotted the far horizons of the tundra. The scattered, and mostly alike bark-stripped trees stood proud, erect and pointing towards the heavens, an accusatory finger at the almighty Ti'Gauth for cursing it with such a dreary and difficult existence. Ti'Gauth did not believe in living a soft life. Jöhas understood that all too well now.

With each step his fur-clad and leather bound foot penetrated the icebound snow, leaving a constant trail of marks that led in a straight line for an unknown destination. Before long, the sun began to droop like a sullen lord who has sat on his gleaming throne for too long, and the amber shadings of dusk began to pigment the sky above. Sweat was beading and freezing, beading and freezing upon Jöhas' brow as he neared the town, his journey having been arduous and taking the better part of a day. He neared the wooden logged palisade wall with a slight smile of exertion and contentment on his face for having braved the journey alone, and in such short measure.

A grimy face with a stupid grin peered over the sturdy ramparts of the main gate and bawled down to the Northman.

"'Ey you! Jöhas! What th' hell er ye doing out har so late? Tradin's near done for today and th' wulfs 'll be ut fer ya soon 'nuff! Show yer gild and cmin!"

The winch caught with the sound of taught rope and the wooden portcullis slowly lifted, shaking off a thin layer of snow as it cleared the ground. As it reached it's apex, Jöhas strode into the town to the welcoming scent of seared meat, camp smoke, and the clamour of the Bazaar a few shunts down to the west. Jöhas offhandedly looked up to Wilhels the gatekeep and tossed him a rather dented gild mark, which Wilhels caught deftly, and whom with a quick wink returned to his post.

Jöhas turned to the town entrance and saw a crowd of people returning from the Bazaar, as it was near to closing hours and people would be bedding down very soon before the oncoming of night. The Affliction would come out and claim it's victims in the bare streets as night came about. Most Northerners were suspicious enough as it was of the strange order of happenings, let alone for the idea of self-preservation, and thought very ill of travelling alone on the streets at night. Many a strange death befell those that wandered out into the darkness, and of those who came back from the brink of death, few retained even a shred of sanity.

With this common lore in mind, paired with the telling exhaustion that had transformed his normally proud and erect posture into a weary slump, Jöhas walked down the street, past the armory and militia barracks, and took a left before he reached the smithy, heading into a well kept side street. The ground was muddy with the day's traffic, the earth having been churned into the brown slop by droves of shoppers and drunks, warriors and bards. Loretellers and Bards were revered positions amongst his people, and Jöhas was especially fond of the stories they would tell of the lands of the south, impossible fables of a land with no snow, no ice, and no metal weapons.

His hand pushed against the solid pine door of the "Cleaver's Inn" and immediate gave way to a scene of drunken, bawdy singing, dancing, and general merriment and good cheer. A skald was singing on the stage, a classic Caer'Thul tragedy of a Northman who had lost his wife to a pack of ferocious wolves while she was with child. The sad notes that sprang forth from the dais the bard was placed upon seemed to reach him alone, and he lowered his head as a single tear inched it's way across his craggy face, until it seeped into his moustache and disappeared.

Raising his head whilst at the same time brushing away the glistening trail of his weakness, Jöhas strode over to the barkeep, who was affectionately known as Cleaver, for the number of wolves he would slay each summer with his bastard axe, which hung precariously and ominously over the bar, easily reached and frequently used. His complexion was darker and he was squatter than most Northmen, and his hair was a solid black that was seldom seen in these lands. Murmurings and gossip went around that his mother was a dwarf, but such gossip was quickly hushed around Cleaver, for it was well known of his easily lit temper.

Raising an eyebrow at Jöhas, the typically reticent barkeep uttered a single word that bespoke the pain and empathy that Jöhas himself felt.

"Dead?" the word alone seemed to silence the bawdy singing, even seemed to cast a hush upon the melodramatic climax the bard was just about to reach in his tale, until it seemed as if all eyes were on Jöhas. Word travels fast in a country as small as Caer'Thul, especially when his father, a well- known and respected trader, had not been to the Bazaar this morning for the first time in twenty years.

"Yes. All." Jöhas gulped the words out, almost choking with humiliation and defeat as he pushed coinage unto the bar with a faint ringing sound. Peering speculatively into his eyes, Cleaver studied the young man carefully before reaching out with a massive paw and batting the coins back towards Jöhas with a sympathetic grunt.

"Tonight, you sleep and eat for free." Strong words from a strong man, and words that one would find very scarce in the frigid land of Caer'Thul. The economy, to term the bartering system with a very grandiose word, was localized and stable, but consisted of subsistence trading and harvesting in order to survive. There was very little luxury in the North, and the harsh men and women that came from the outlands were testament to the lifestyle that had produced them. Jöhas simply answered with a slight bow in thanks and turned away from the bar in order to take a seat at table nearby the dais upon which the bard sat, cross-legged in the storytelling fashion of the Northmen. The bard had continued his tale of Elika and Ywain, and a strange flicker came to his eyes as he spoke.

"Elika, with her furrier's knife in hand, stood alone on the grand sea of nothing. The only ones to bear witness to her peril stood uncaring, withered branches clutching at leaves that had died and departed long ago in the age of fantasy. Circling the brave lass, a trio of shockwolves, named as such for their manes of grey seemingly "shocked" with bands of white and coal black. Teeth bared, paws gripping the exposed earth whilst streams of hot malicious breath spewed forth from dread jaws."

The audience, which had been loud in private conversation throughout, slowly fell prey to the anticipation and quiver of fear that was so expressly emphasized by the bard's trained voice.

". She blinks, and it is enough for the wolves to surge forward, all a- once, and a bright crescent of steel marks the time of her ultimate destiny. A wolf slumps to the ground with a high pitched whine befitting the cur, but his fellows rip their ivory teeth into Elika. It is short, and quick, and not long before the ice is stained crimson with deep trails of her lifeblood."

His eyes closed slowly and with great reverence. A single shining tear made its way down his shapely face until it came to rest, pendulous and hesitant to make the journey earthward. There was a great sweeping silence that took the crowd in a wave of respect for one of the great legends of the North. Time for each man to think about those he had slain in battle, and the families that had been left behind without a warrior to defend their honour. In unison, one throaty voice after another took to the song of the Northmen, which if one listened close enough, told a story of frugality, battle, and all manners of custom and tradition that had become rooted in the history of this proud folk. The booming bass of a stout barbarian in the corner began the song, with a tinge of sorrow mixed with his gravelly chords, the bard remaining silent on the pedestal.

"In frost and hardship do we dwell, The sons of mighty mountain kings, Not labour, not the axe we sell, Our voices join for we now sing,

Of times ago when fathers fell, Still hands rest 'n pommels of ice, Cut from the castle of frozen hell, Tir Go'thu S'aijes.

Tir Go'thu S'aijes, The Frostblow, The axe of diamond, Glittering from an arctic foundry, Forged from chill flame.

The North has lost its liberty, The Affliction, voracious and, As sap flows from a wounded tree, So do we lose our fertile land.

Trees became husks, Dawn become dusk, Flame became dust, Steel became rust, Love became lust, Caer'Thul begot us.

The Northmen."

As the ballad ended and the room slowly recovered from the sombre mood that had settled like a thick fog upon the raucous men of the inn, Jöhas took his last draught from the foaming stein placed before him, and tapped it twice on the side as a signal for the serving wench that he was done in the common room and would like to be show to his room for the evening. As the rather attractive attending lady led him upstairs slowly by the hand, there seemed to be a warmth within her that bespoke her willingness to bed down with him for the night. This was a cold and harsh world, and lust was not uncommon to melt the ice that would perpetually settle on a man's heart, chilling and bending it to malice and depression.

As they reached the door, he turned brusquely to look at her face in closer detail. It was not unpretty, holding strong lines and a weathered smile that bespoke years of profession. It would be his honour to be with such a woman tonight, and her smile was mirrored by him as he entrusted her into his strong embrace, kicking open the door to invite the long and torrid night before him. The night swallowed the lovers up, an inviting luxury in a world of scarcity.

In his dreams he thought little of her, as only a phantom reflection superimposed upon a world of grief. Flickering images of an axe rising and falling, the sprinkling of nightshade and the beginning of The Affliction. Spectres of blustering snow grasping at him, trying to pull him forever downward into the Ner'ghu. Ice giants and rock trolls hurling flaming balls of fodder at him, searing his flesh and causing him to scream out in agony. Always the accusing eyes of his daughter as she looked out from under the protective crook of her brother's arm. Why?

The world appeared as thin, indistinguishable crescents before clearing and revealing a dun coloured ceiling stretching out above him. The twine sheets had felt good against his bare skin over the night, and many of the aches and pains of his journey had been washed away in a night of lovemaking. Thinking immediately of the barmaid, he looked over at his bedside and spied his coin purse. Snatching it quickly into his hands, he noticed that the drawstring was slightly slack. A quick rush of fear stole into Jöhas as he opened up the coin purse and was immediately released when he found his savings complete and accounted for, along with a small note written on a scrap of birchbark. Scrutinizing the runes carefully, Jöhas was able to make out the name of the serving girl, Ilja, and a crude diagram of her dwelling in town. He smiled to himself and tucked the note carefully into his boots as he put them on to meet the day.

The sun seemed eager to sit upon its throne again today, as no opposition to his rule was represented in the bluest of skies, cloudless and as warm as it gets in Caer'Thul. Jöhas rubbed the sleepsand out of his eyes as he strapped the massive battleaxe to his back with leather thongs, along with his buckler, the bolting having been completely thawed from the night in the inn. Walking downstairs, he noted that the common room was near empty, breakfast was well over with and Jöhas had slept late from overexertion.

The door opened with the ease of an oiled hinge, and once again Jöhas plunged into the frigid outdoors. Keeping a quick pace and attempting to dodge the many curs that were playing with dirty children in the streets, Jöhas counted the coins that he had managed to save in the event of an emergency. Thirty gild marks, a near fortune and well enough to buy what he would need, if he bargained right. The mercantile skill had always been his father's forte, a trader's skill, and Jöhas was unaccustomed to the social workings of the Bazaar. He reckoned, as he neared the shambled huts and merchant criers, that he would be able to figure all of the detail out soon enough. Bright splashes of blue and green fabrics raced through the square, the soft glitter of polished and gilt iron weapons, and the odour of roasting flesh permeated the Bazaar. Scanning the various booths and eliminating the ones who were selling cosmetics and food, Jöhas quickly was able to pick his marks and move in for the trade. Pushing past a group of youths and getting more than a few curses directed in his honour, Jöhas found himself in front of a soft, sneering man clothed in the newest finery of the South.

"Hello, friend." said the dealer, like a snake says to the rabbit as it nears its unsuspecting haunch. His eyes were alight with the scent of profit, and his eyes perked at every word that stood poised on the tip of Jöhas' reckless tongue.

"I am no friend of yours, nor wish I to be in any case." Jöhas knew he had made an error in saying this, when the dealer immediately put on a show of being slighted and began to pout shamelessly, like a scolded child slapped upon the wrist.
".However, I noticed that you are selling some of the finest wares this shanty town has to offer, and as such, I am very interested in striking up a deal with you." Jöhas continued, the last caught the merchant's eye; he seemed to approve of the approbation he was receiving from Jöhas.
"Look friend, for friends we are in terms of bargaining now, upon these, the finest of all Kle'don's the Warsmiths armors." laughed the merchant with a vaudevillian air. With a grand flourish of the arm, and a conspiratorial sidelong glance at a few audiences who seemed to be paying more than their fair due of attention, the merchant returned to meet Jöhas' gaze, firmly locked upon the armors. The dragonscale armors were indeed the finest made on the continent, and Kle'don was reknowned for his dragonworking skill. The helmet and breastplate set was shining dully under the midday sun, polished to a gloss by expert hands.

Lifting the armor up heavily, which elicited a sharp cry from the merchant, and then unhinging his axe from its holdings on his back, Jöhas narrowed his eyes in experienced examination. Nodding to himself and tossing the armor the slightest bit into the air, he brought his axe to bear with a grunt and struck it in the midst with the flat of the weapon, drawing from the armor a resounding clang and a heavy thump as it lay still at his feet. The merchant stood nearby, cringing, his eyes wide with terror.

With a slight look of scorn on his face, Jöhas knelt slowly and picked up the breastplate in one hand, muscles bunching and tensing as he raised the hundred pound piece into the air like a plaything.
"Well made, but nothing special, merchant. I will give you twenty gild marks for the set of the two. And you'd better have a larger size than this my friend, because this armor would not fit around your fair sized paunch, let alone mine." Jöhas smiled and the crowd that had assembled laughed in appreciation of his daring joke.

The merchant scrambled to gather his pride, which had been fairly diminished by his cringing and further so by his outcry at the standard Northman measure of testing armor. He would not last another week in Caer'Thul at this rate, and he knew that unless he remedied this offence, he would do no more business today at any rate.
"For you, my large and able friend, it is yours. The size you will need is in my trunk.." and at this the merchant scrambled into his wagon nearby and emerged hefting the breastplate, clutching it tightly and leaning heavily away from it to counterbalance himself against its immensity. Wiping the sweat from his brow before it could freeze, the merchant lay the armor down and placed his hand out, palm up, in the fashion of business.

With a curt nod and a secret smile, Jöhas placed the twenty gild marks into the merchant's hand and then gestured for the helmet as well, which was thrown to him by a large lad who worked as a grip around the Bazaar. Quickly he held the breastplate to his chest and allowing the grips nearby to place the fittings for him. Then placing the helmet on his head for good measure, Jöhas noticed the cool touch of the dragon against his skin like a whisper of frost upon a pane of glass.

He now had the upper hand, with the crowd looking on amusedly and almost adoringly, Jöhas decided to play his hand a bit further. Spotting the packhorse that stood bridled to the front of the merchant's cart, he noticed the strong forelegs and erect posture that marked a good horse, of lineage and stock. A horse bred for battle but confined to a life of drudgery and postulating to a fat and shallow merchant. No life for such a wild spirit as the horse that lay chewing on the bit of discontent as Jöhas seemed to feel into its feral soul, much like his own barbaric voice that cried for vengeance, adventure, and liberty.

"Oh, and friend merchant.." Jöhas began with an edge of danger in his voice. ".. the horse, I will have it as well, if I may."

The merchant looked up out of haunted eyes and began to stammer uselessly, "B-but she's my mount, raised by my great-.."

"Fool!" Jöhas breathed with rage, "That horse is a warhorse, of great and noble ancestry, of valorous stock! Bred for battle, not for dragging your doddering carcass all across Valeja!" At this the crowd started, laughing and siding immediately with Jöhas, many of the men in the crowd speaking of the virtuous physique of the animal and the shame that it must be content with it's pitiful role.

Walking up to the merchant ominously, Jöhas narrowed his eyes to mere slits behind his helmet, looking like a man possessed as the faint clink of marks could be heard sliding into the merchant's palm.

"Ten marks for the horse. A good trade between . friends."

Turning on his heel and ignoring the multitude of eyes that looked upon the imposing figure, Jöhas strode straight out of the Bazaar, leading the horse easily by a leather binding. The horse balked at first but smelling the oil of weapons and the scent of the warrior, almost seemed to come alive with energy. The pair rode out of the voices and murmurings and cries, through the muddied and desolate streets of Heia until they were well beyond the gates, where society ceased to exist. The land, the sun, and vengeance were the only things that existed to the barbarian now as he struck out in search of the one who had murdered his family, and no man on earth would stop him from reaching Castle Northome.

Part II

The cave offered great shelter against the fevered pounding of the torrential rain which swept across the land. With his flint and tinderbox, and the tiniest bit of grace from Ti'Gauth, Jöhas managed to fan a sputtering and weak flame into a fair sized campfire. Flickering spears of impermanence graced the basalt walls of the cavern, making shadow caricatures from the imagination. The horse, whom Jöhas had decided to name Lurjen in homage to his lost Du'haut, stood silently in the corner, passively chewing on some trailweed they had discovered growing on a rocky outcropping nearby. The flame seemed to make her dark mane reveal a tinge of chestnut brown, casting a different hue on the warhorse than had been seen before by the warrior.

Hefting the meaty haunch of a mountain lion in his hand, he splayed it briefly over the fire so as to let the meat sear a bit on the outside before eating. As the flesh sizzled and popped to an inconstant tune, Jöhas lie on his back and stare up at the cave ceiling. It had obviously been used by wayfarers before, as many runes and simplistic paintings were etched in the tough rock above, hours of dedicated work as meat cooked or fellows slept when one was on watch duty. Kulullin, Conan, Barbajos, Ysave. All names that had come and gone to this safe haven of transience. Bones of yak, ox, horse, and lion all lay gathering dust in the rear corner of the cave, no doubt watched over by bright and greedy eyes that came out only in the most pitch of darks.

Looking back to his catch, Jöhas noted that it was cooked well enough and lifted it from the coals of the flame, giving it a quick swat backhanded to knock most of the ash off. Tearing off a meal size chunk in his hands, he sunk his teeth into the meat and was rewarded with a flush of gratification at the energy that seemed to fill his body. It had been a very long time since he had last eaten meat, so scarce in his area due to very short mating seasons and the amount of population growth as of recent years. The juice of the lion dribbled down his chin and unto the flame below, sending up brief bubbles and spurts of steam.

The meal was not long being through. With the remainder of the kill, Jöhas stripped the useful fat and meats from the bone, and placed them in his saltbag for keeping. The bones he threw into the fire as a respectful motion towards Ti'Gauth for his assistance in finding food for the night. Jöhas stripped the furs from the carcass and placed it high above the fire to dry and smoke. It would be ready in the morning at any rate, and Jöhas quickly lay down to think of the day to come. He had seen the gates of Northome Castle not far in the distance from the cave, and revenge would soon be his for the taking. As his thoughts consumed the better part of him, so did the sleepsand, and soon Jöhas fell to its insistent lure.

With the sound of the wind howling, screaming out in impotent rage, Jöhas started awake. The fire had long since been out, untended during the long course of the night. Ash and charcoal were all that remained in the semicircle pit, and with a slight pain in his joints Jöhas rose and grabbed the mountain lion's fur from its drying place. It was reasonably dried, and he wasted no time in attaching it to his breastplate as a warming agent against the dread chill, its velvety texture feeling reasonably nice against his skin.

Leading his mount outside gently, Jöhas looked northwards to see the spires of Northome Castle standing proud against the growing dawn. Reaching blades to pierce the sullen blanket of the sky, it seemed almost poetic that this would be the place of ending, the place of resolution, the place of vengeance. This hall of gods, the stronghold of magi and warlords. Ti'Gauth be with him, but what a sight!

He was in no position to be wasting the day meandering about and wondering about the ironic beauty of a place from which evil radiated like a demonic stench, a foul blemish that festered and devalued the crystalline beauty of the tundra. The gates, wrought iron and laced with tarnished brass, leered out at him with misshapen faces of horrid, sadistic glee. The faces grew more deformed and insane as he approached ever nearer, his steed bouncing beneath him like an animal transformed, eyes wide in apprehension with a tinge of battlefear.

Until they stopped. The portcullis loomed before them, rusted and gothic in its own right, hiding a secret that no one would ever know without first having dared its deadly reach. It began to open slowly, lifting from the ground and carrying with it great clumps of frozen soil, blackened and dead with the poison of The Affliction. It was strong here, The Affliction, Jöhas could smell its rotting odour, could taste its bitter palette, could hear its weeping torture. He urged Lurjen forward, her shodden hoof striking echoing notes against the hewn stone blocks of the inner courtyard. As Jöhas took full view of the scene before him, his eyes widened first with confusion, and then with immense disbelief.

There was a water fountain before him carved intricately from the finest ivory. Tropical birds bathed in the crystal clear water that arced from the fountain in tight and intertwining nets. Trees of all shapes and sizes dotted the courtyard, verdant and strong, leaves green with the strength of a southern summer, and with the scent of fresh fruit that hung invitingly from some of their bows. A terrace walkway began at the foot of the courtyard and wound upstairs into the main chambers of the hall. Flanked by marbled soldiers at their posts, and torches lit with lilac perfumed incense that seemed to lull his senses into a near lethargic state, Jöhas forced his conscious self to be on guard.

He shook his head and tried to control himself. He was here to destroy Mithansal the Archmage and end the pain that cried out in his soul. He was here to lay his axe down on the cold dead body of the demonic archmage and burn them both into nothingness with a firebrand, along with the whole foul castle. He was here to destroy what had destroyed him.

He looked at the paradise that had unfolded before him through tear-blurred eyes, panting with rage and internal conflict. Something flashed before his eyes, a slow trail of blood inching its way hesitantly across a cracked and weathered floor. Dead eyes and blood-caked hair. The scent of Nightshade, a telltale sign of The Affliction. A mage, head thrown back in maniacal and absolute laughter, no other feelings but self-gratification and amusement.

The utopian mirage that dared to exist before Jöhas flickered and faded a bit, superimposing itself upon a scene of a fountain, covered in mildew and grime, spewing tiny rivers of black and murky slime. Trees long since dead, branches like arms curled tight in pain and faces that could not scream for the horror that they saw each and every day. Marbled warriors slowly lifted from their resting places on the walls and darkened gradually as the four of them made their way ominously from the descending terrace, which was now wreathed in boglillies and no longer carried the sweet perfume of lilac, but rather the sour tinge of the swamp.

The warriors finally came before Jöhas and advanced slowly, rocky spears in hand. Bits of dust and pebbles continuously fell from their joints as they worked out a five-hundred-year ache. With a look in his eye of wild rage and anticipation, Jöhas pulled his mighty axe from its holdings and readied the buckler to his fore. The monoliths neared close enough as they dared and the barbarian knew they would attempt to use their spears in a fending strategy. Jöhas moved so fast it seemed he nearly disappeared, lines that outlined his body faded, and immediately he was behind the tallest of the rock men. With a mighty arcing fall of his axe, the top half of his enemy was cloven neatly in two. His axe made not a sound until it had nearly stopped, a grinding chord that signalled the warrior's death as it crumbled into dust at his feet.

Whirling about and throwing his axe with a bloodcurdling roar, Jöhas stooped momentarily to pick up the rock man's spear and also threw it with amazing accuracy. Jöhas was one of the best and most decorated warriors of the North, and it proved itself useful here. The axe, sent on it's way as if with the power of a thousand souls behind it, seemed to shriek with malicious glee as it traveled through the air, then severed the rock man's torso in the middle, hewing him in half. The axe itself thunked into a fallen column a few meters behind the man and then was still. A whistling line of death headed straight for the two remaining conjurations, both of whom were too slow and clumsy to even hold a snowball's chance against the skilled and enraged Northman. The spear took the warrior by surprise as it turned to meet the streak of silver. With a comical look of nonchalance befitting a practiced courtier, the golem took the lance fully through it's stony head, tripped on a rock, and then was still.

One remained, and Jöhas seemed out of weapons. Balling up his fists, clenching them so tightly that blood oozed slowly out from under his fingertips, he beckoned the last warrior forward, who did so with amazing speed. Jöhas sprung neatly to the side of the spear attack and struck the rushing figure such a blow with his meaty fist that it flung the rock man back a few steps, spinning him around and causing him to wobble. Jöhas took the opportunity to move in close to the rock man, and wrap his immense arms around him. Flesh fought rock, and Jöhas thought he would be nearly spent by the unforeseen strength of the automaton, which pulled with a ghastly determination that signified the lack of fear in his soul-less body. With a battle cry to Ti'Gauth, Jöhas took the last of his strength, lifting the rock man off the ground, and held him high above his head. The obsidian warrior dropped his spear and began to struggle to get free, but it was of no use. As soon as Jöhas had fully extended his arms skyward, offering the stone man to Ti'Gauth as a battle sacrifice, he simultaneously brought his foe downwards while raising his knee in a vicious kick, which met Jöhas' doomed foe in the middle.

The result of this attack left the last obsidian warrior cracked in two, jagged edges and all, with Jöhas panting and bleeding from various cuts on his arms and in particular his leg after the vicious battle. He tried desperately to regain his breath before any more opponents showed themselves, and quickly moved over to regain his axe from it's place in the granite column. Standing back on to the column, resting wearily from a fight against demons he had never seen in all his life, he saw the doors resting in the middle of the terrace open portentously. There was a flicker of fear in Jöhas as he slowly made his way up the winding stairway to the doors. He had fought all manners of men in the world, knights, archers, martial artists, rogues, and mercenaries. But never before had he needed to fight a mage, with their dark arts and lethal surprises. One always knew from a warrior that they would have to meet you on the field of battle, but mages followed no such code, spineless and cunning, they would as soon kill you from a mile away as fight you on the battlefield.

As Jöhas turned the corner and entered the antechamber of Castle Northome he knew instead that this mage would face him man to man. The room itself was illustrious, floors made of icy glass that would never melt nor mold to human feet, chandeliers and ballroom lights of the most crystalline and intricately carved ice Jöhas had ever seen, each piece as if forged by the maker of worlds himself. Tapestries and hangings long since forgotten, of the ages of fantasy and the age of makers. This place dwelt with the history of the Northmen; he could nearly feel Ti'Gauths' mailed fist offering him a gauntlet, a boon, for having made it to his hall of kings.

And then the illusion was shattered. As his eyes trailed along the walls to the very center of the room, upon a godly throne carved from the finest and most pure of ice, sat a figure dressed in the reddest of robes. A wispy lock of greying hair made it's way out from under a pulled-forth hood, and withered hands clasped each other on top of an emaciated and skeletal frame.

"Jöhas." it was the mage who spoke, though from his body it was not certain. The very walls seemed to speak his name, horrible mouths forming the syllables from within the columns of the antechamber.

"Mithansal, the cowardly, the foolish, the murderer." Jöhas sneered at the mage with contempt, attempting to goad the mage into a foolish and unplanned attack. His axe, dusted with the remnants of the mages' minions, lie at the ready to his side.

"Ah." The mage chuckled to himself, which called upon him a fit of coughing which brought a dribble of blood to his lip. He licked it clean. "The young warrior has a tongue appropriate to a sycophant. You flatter me, sir. But for what? What did I do to you to deserve this. intrusion?" The mage gave a quick and heartless smile as he pulled back his hood to reveal his face.

Jöhas had never seen a more aged human being. The wrinkles seemed to dominate Mithansal's face, his eyes and mouth mere slits in a parapet of lines. This surprise was quickly counterbalanced by the mages' inability to admit his deeds, and brought new flame to Jöhas' dying heart.

"You know damned well what you did to my Du'haut, sorcerer. Dead, all of them, from the stench of your cursed Nightshade." Jöhas could barely contain himself. He had taken enough time for talk, and his muscles bunched in need for action.

Mithansal noted the alarming physique of the warrior in his head and dismissively waved it off to himself. "Jöhas, my dear boy, you are mistaken. I can see the vision in your mind as clearly as if I were there, but I assure you, I was not." The old man smiled sagely and patronizingly at the barbarian.

"Lies! You will pay for the suffering you have inflicted on me with your old blood, whether you care to admit to your sins or not! By Ti'Gauth!" boomed Jöhas as he rushed forward, axe at the ready.

Mithansal's eyes widened and he quickly raised a hand. A ball of blue-green fire spouted from his fingertips and shot forwards at the bullrushing warrior. Jöhas, using a speed technique taught to him by his father, seemed to blink out of existence for a second and re-appear almost directly in front of the mage, axe whistling downward for the kill.

Mithansal uttered a word in sheer panic and crossed his arms to complete the spell. An aura of translucent red bubbled in a semicircle around the mage, and the axe bit deep into it. There was a sizzling and sparking, and the axe slowly seemed to melt, the runes fading into the orange-red of smelting iron. The head threw Jöhas back, singeing his arms slightly and forcing him to look away.

Mithansal took this opportunity to summon a pure white ball of energy into the palm of his hand, uttering mystic words and reaching into his splotched leather satchel of spell components. Pulling out some birchbark Mithansal hurriedly dropped it onto the surface of the ball, which immediately took on a sick green hue. Raising the ball without a look of compassion nor rage on his face, he flung it out towards the blinded Jöhas, where it splashed itself across his breast, and the room exploded in a flash of painful green and white light, flicking strobes of power emanating both from the mage's hand and from Jöhas, who had fallen face forward at the mages' feet upon the slick ice.

The mage turned away and began his ascent back towards his throne, preparing to summon his gargoyles from the pedestals above to dispose of the body, when he heard a scraping, and a grunting, from behind him. Whirling about, eyes wide in surprise, he saw the warrior gain his footing, getting to a crouching position. One of his eyes was completely white, the eyesight lost due to the flash of light. His breast was exposed; rivulets of blood from a shattered breastplate seeping down his muscular chest. One of his legs seemed to be twisted at a near impossible angle, and yet the warrior had the gall to live, as no other had, and to smile at the wizened and omnipotent power of Mithansal.

The mage quickly regained his composure, realizing that Jöhas had only postponed the inevitable.

"Jöhas, you've only served to further your own pain. If you had've died, you wouldn't have had to hear this." Mithansal adeptly put on a worried tone and began to pace, ignoring the warriors' scrambling.

Jöhas looked down, through his pain bleared eyes, and saw something unbelievable. Deep beneath the ice, almost just a mere outline, he saw a legend. From the forge of the arctic, by God, he saw it. Tir Go'thu S'aijes. The Frostblow. It would make him immune to the magicks of the sorcerer, and with it he could reclaim his honour. It would seal his fate, and the mages, for the end of all time. He need only wait for the right time.

The mage continued. "You, Jöhas, killed your own family. Taken in a fit of rage at the lack of food, or work being done, and the laziness and failure of your own children. The barbarian rage that serves you so well in battle is also your curse. The red film of malice allowed you to kill them all and then forget, forget about what you've done. Feel it now. The look that Lurja gave you is no accident Jöhas. The way that Cleaver at the inn asked you about them, think about that as well Jöhas. And how about the crowd, why they so uneasily laughed at your jokes. They all knew Jöhas. Knew that you were a madman and a murderer." The mage paused to cough again. "You are The Affliction, Jöhas. It is you and a select few others who cannot control their rage that are overtaken at night and murder the lonely and the weak in the streets. The reason that you smell Nightshade, an insignificant and weak spell component, is because you harvest it yourself for your work."

The mage smiled, seeing in Jöhas' eyes an indescribable pain and disbelief. Smiling however, he noted the fact that his searing spear of words had pierced Jöhas to his very core. He had done his work well. He turned his back and started preparing his coup de grace. Jöhas was racked with pain, his mind broken and searching for the answers. Lurja, little Lurja, no! He could not have ever hurt his daughter whom he loved so much! He saw himself, kneeling over a broken body in an alleyway, blood upon his hands and a predatory smile on his face. Lies! The mage is twisting my mind! But what if, what if he is telling the truth. It all fits. No! I am the son of Ti'Gauth, a warrior, and honorable man. But. what if.

Jöhas raised his arm and brought it downward with all the rage he could find in every last inch of his writhing soul. The lies would end now. His mind would rest now. No more death, no matter who the murderer was. No more death. He would eliminate all possibilities.

His hand wrapped around the axe that had lain in wait for centuries, and with it came a renewed sense of power. He stood on his good leg; it seemed to take an eternity for Mithansal to turn around, a look of disbelief and fear on his face.

"For Lurja! For Tathen! For Kiarl! Ti'Gauth help me! Gods help me!" Jöhas rushed forward, and brought the axe to bear. A glistening trail of frost followed the flight of the axe, speeding it with spectral power. The great bearded face of Ti'Gauth appearing in the chamber, rousing laughter and a haunting cry of his daughter gone to the great halls of feasting and everlasting battle. A glow of ethereal blue filled the room, whilst the mage wove sigils in the air and cast bones outward with amazing speed. A red dragon appeared and fought against the god of blue. Ti'Gauth drew battle against the dragon, his ethereal mail glistening in the torchlight.

The axe neared Mithansal, a deadly blow from the mailed gauntlet of honor from Ti'Gauth and the vengeance of the mighty barbarian Jöhas. The dragon's sigil neared Jöhas, a piercing arrow from the learned scrolls of wisdom from The Dragon, and the hatred of the wizened archmage Mithansal.

There was a bright flash of prismatic light, and then a dread silence as the sound of a body falling to the floor filled the room with uncertainty. A stark and ominous wind from the south crept into the room, sweeping the floor with frosted straws, turning to slush in the forming river of lifeblood. The murderer was dead, cold and stiff, eyes staring out at a world that would he would see no longer. The victor of the horrendous battle stood over the body, lingering only to erase the image of his enemy from his mind as he had with so many others. With a slight cough that acknowledged his need for rest, the man stalked from the room, slowly and with a pained limp that would forever be his burden, alone in the the terrible white North.