Volume One - Pulp Questing and the Mafeking
"There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears.
Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically.
He couldn't speak, since he didn't have a mouth. Neither did he have a nose.
He didn't even have any arms or legs. He had no stomach and he had no back and he had no spine and he had no innards whatsoever. He had nothing at all!
Therefore there's no knowing whom we are even talking about.
In fact it's better that we don't say any more about him."
The Red-Haired Man, Daniil Ivanovich Kharms
Quest (kwst) n.
a. The act or an instance of seeking or pursuing something; a search.
b. An expedition undertaken in medieval romance by a knight in order to perform a prescribed feat: the quest for the Holy Grail.
c. Archaic A jury of inquest.
The man that watched the low sandy plains wore a shapeless and heavy overcoat that masked the thickset frame of a man in his later forties. The duster lapped at his thighs and shins sluggishly, the original bleached tan threadwork overlaid with grey moulting wolf-furs and battered treated leather hides, a long coat that had seen the walker over hilltops and mountain peaks to desolate shores and cold grass ranges for decades at a time, a patchwork quilt of a garment that could be thankfully warm or generously loose given a needle and yarn and the right lull in time and travel.
He smoked a blackened cigarillo without succour, the deep-set lines carved about his slanted jaw an ugly memorandum to the iron vice of addiction that addled his aged form. There were criss-cross scars zig-zagging over his blunt stub face, and a criss-cross of tooled belts over his chest and tall overcoat. A rifle, of oiled wood and dry steel, hung over one shoulder. The ram-rod jutted from a carefully crafted notch on his hip-belt, and a horn of fine powder was slung loose against his thigh. Greased cartridges - of which there were uncompromisingly few, as ever was his complaint in life - were collected in a grim sack-cloth wallet that rested on his rump, carefully protected from possible rainfall or downpour more so than the brute's own thinning rust-coloured hair.
What was strapped to his leg was a broad and brutal hacking sword, an anachronistic relic in the zany juxtaposition with his spiral-bore rifle. It would have been less so out of place in the Children's Crusades of this misshapen pilgrim's youth, when the butcher's blade was rough and blunt and gangly adolescents had been sent by the boat-load to far off lands to do holy and unholy works of war against discoloured foe and many-headed bestial guardians of the foreign wastes. As a boy of teenage years the man had been taught to fight with heavy steel that broke bone rather than severed it, taught to bite and kick and brawl more than prance and parry. It was an oddity of his disposition that he had kept his blade honed and sharp for cutting work, and a nuance of his bloody single minded grit that he kept the habit even after he had become proficient as one of the last keepers of the powder-shooters' trade of this world's many war-mongerers and fighter-men.
He was a misshapen pilgrim of the highest order. A laconic, drawling stalwart of the bitter anti-hero's archetype, a wanderer and quester and savagely able killer of men. His name was Judas Paladyr Cyhyraeth, a name portentously granted and portentously lived. He had come from the far-off lands of sandstone castles and red-brick steeples, which was called Yorkshire and the Humber in its day but was better called the Bricke Lands now.
He had spent the early years of his life as a wastrel in the furious tide of the Crusades, an era of innumerable writs and legislation from the Holy Chapel in the Wider Lands that sent man after man overseas to fall as fodder against the walls of the discoloured empires of the Easter Lands, which had in turn led to a want for fighting menfolk and which had brought the war to the adolescents and the prepubescents of the Wider Lands with the call for a Children's Crusade. Cyhyraeth had seen the people of Yorkshire and the Humber slump and decline as smithies burned bright for war industry and as menfolk departed with Chapel recruiting patrols and had answered the call willingly, disliking the growing poverty of his homeland and with no desire to stay penned in the orphan factory in which he was raised.
Judas Paladyr Cyhyraeth had seen through four Children's Crusades until he was no longer a child himself, and had seen no sign of the Chapel's law taking hold amongst the fortresses of the tsars and vissers and khans of the Easter Lands, and so had turned back, travelling into his early thirties across the seas to the Wider Lands again, only to find no peoples left to come home to.
While Cyhyraeth had been away at war, the Wider Lands had folded and crumbled for whatever reason civilizations and people do fold and crumble, and his return had been to a lawless land where the remnants of the Chapel's agents fought wyrd gothicery beasts and other demons of the night, and where pockets of strange folk had begun to birth from the ashes of the older kingdoms and fiefs.
He had wandered for a time again, in the lands that were no longer his familiar home, and had found boredom, though not a boredom short of warfare and killing. It was in this time that Cyhyraeth found himself another calling, one that struck him hard, as it affiliated with the greatest oddity and queer happenstance of Cyhyraeth's character.
Cyhyraeth came into the possession of a ring, an enchanted ring of archaic and deep magic foreboding, and was charged with the destruction of said ring in the one place it could be destroyed - the place of its forging, and citadel to the old and terrible power that delved into dark lore to design it - the place of Mafeking.
The need to destroy such a ring was urgent indeed, and day by day and year by year that Cyhyraeth walked the world on his quest with the ring unbroken on a pendant about his neck the world grew that little dimmer, that little darker, as the signs of its coming apart and ending grew in evidence.
The ring - as to how it came to be Cyhyraeth's charge, as to its properties and capabilites for havoc and despair, and as to its place in the ending of the world Cyhyraeth walked now - can be discussed later.
What matters is that Cyhyraeth had this quest, that he had assembled fellowship for it (who had followed him here to the low sandy plains he over-looked as he smoked a blackened cigarillo without succour) and that the events to come must echo this fact.
It also matters, though without satisfaction of cause or reason as of yet, that Cyhyraeth knew that his quest was a derived one. A derivative and shallow sham of a calling. Namely in that it stole copiously in nature and theme from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which books sat on a bedside table where Cyhyraeth (in another world more familiar to ourselves) slept. Such is the dichotomy of Cyhyraeth's being.
But this is by the by for Cyhyraeth as he stands in this queer and fantastical world right now, over-looking the low sandy plains and smoking his blackened cigarillo without succour.
He takes a final drag, blinks slow as a lizard might, and then grinds the glowing butt of the bacco wrap into the heather. He is careful - of course - to ensure that there are no sparks or remnants of glowing ember to catch any powder trails he might have caught in his clothing or person.
Then he raises a hand and shouts. His shout is rough, and barking, and close to incoherent but it is a shout that his fellowship recognise and attend to with all the cohesion and discipline of a well-oiled clockwork machine.
The seven spread out in a long skirmish line and race down the hillside. Cyhyraeth is silent now, but for his body's grunts of protest as it is hurled into sudden leg-pumping action. His fingers click ever so slightly and uncomfortably as he unslings his rifle and cocks it, his two uneven eyes blazing as he picks his mark.
The creatures on the plain, some twenty odd half-human beasts that name themselves the Hostile Freisians, take time to register the assault. The bull of the pack bellows, low and iron-like in its authority as the misshapen pilgrim's own shout of command in its way, and the pack gallop of oddly hoofed legs, closing the gaps in their numbers and raising from idle pasture to military square.
The misshapen pilgrim drops, kneeling on joints that scream with age as he does so, and fits the rifle butt to his shoulder with a practised ease that takes nothing from how angular and ugly an action the shot is.
The bull of the Hostile Freisians roars again. He is a monstrous hybrid of a creation, one of the many multitude of species that emerged and flourished in the wastes left in the Wider Lands after the fall of the Chapel and its associations kingdoms and fiefs. A mercenary force of brutes, the cow-men travel as nomads seeking employment in thuggery and death-dealing where they can and stripping plains of grasses as they go.
The bull has not seen powder weapons for a long time. Few have in these days of this world, as they only gathered popularity in the best parts of the Wider Lands and some parts of the Easter Lands, and fell into decline when the civilized fell. The bull does not know that bunching together makes targets easy and ripe for even the most mewlish shooter.
Cyhyraeth jammed the trigger back and the rifle erupted with a terrific crashing of noise and smoke. The bull staggered back, blood oozing from a smoking hole over one bulging round brown cow eye, and collapsed heavy against its cohorts.
The misshapen pilgrim floored the rifle, biting on a cartridge and spitting the lead shot ball down the rifle's hungry muzzle. He tipped the powder down with a deliberation that came without thought or effort, and then took to ram-rod to hammer the shot ball home. Rifle-loading was a slow, and vulnerable process, but also a most happily rewarding one.
The other six of Cyhyraeth's fellowship came racing by, whooping and wailing their individual war-cries as they went. Terrahaunt, the arm-less axe-man from the mountains, reached the Freisian square as Cyhyraeth sent a second cow-man stumbling to the earth. He roared and bellowed as angry and as wildly as his bovine foe, his snaggle-toothed axe head thudding hard against fur and flesh and bone, crashing and swinging free as though of its own accord while Terrahaunt gnashed his own teeth and swung and sprang where it went.
Yryian, the witch and telepath of the party, shrieked her arcane spells as lightning crackled and spat about her frail form and she broke into the shifting square. She was followed by Gurthad, and Hodhand, twins and dwarfish terrors from below ground, brandishing spear and sword with a fury that was unsightly to behold.
Cyhyraeth watched his fellows' progress with an uninterested eye, his brain and soul transfixed by the process of the loading and the killing, which had felled four of the bovine thugs already, and now it turned its attention to the broad and wicked blade that his hand moved to, the rifle lain with a lover's care on the grassy floor along with powder horn and cartridge sack to be collected after the fray. He drew the sword and shouted once more, drawing to him the final two of the fellowship who ran to flank him as he charged the square.
He killed with the passionless intensity of all aged killers, and he did well in it, for salvation or damnation. His fellowship killed with appropriate fury, if not as able then more keen and more willing to please the idolic wanderer than anything.
It was a day not unlike others the fellowship had seen. The bovine mercenaries were troublesome ruffians to have roaming unchecked in the Wider Lands, and in the slaughter the fellowship would rid the peaceable denizens of that area an unwanted and unwelcome bully. It was a good deed, and befitting of questers such as they.
What was not so commonplace and fairstance - at least, in the realms of fantasy quests of knights and good deeds - was the slaughter that overtook the fellowship on the plains.
The Hostile Freisians had not been so small a number as the misshapen pilgrim had assumed. It was a fair mistake to make, given the trickery and deceit the bovine thugs were apt to deal in, but it was one that cost six of the fellowship their lives and the seventh his - relatively - unbroken body.
The herd had been a vanguard to a larger host of Freisian half-breeds. The war party that mounted the ridge and saw the fellowship's bloody deed in action came roaring and bellowing with a fury that even the questing warriors could not match, and tore the party apart.
Cyhyraeth hit mud, and retched warm sickly blood that caught in his crooked teeth. A hoof exploded in his ear, and he heard cracking sounds and rendering sounds that could have come from his own twisted self or from the witch and telepath of his earnest fellowship, whose skull fractured and splintered in Cyhyraeth's face as a bull sergeant stamped his vengeace on the sandy grass.
Cyhyraeth felt death grip him, and passed out. What thoughts he had in that world ceased, for a beat, though continued to run along in parallel on that other more familiar world, where Judas Paladyr Cyhyraeth had woken up and was making breakfast in the kitchen.
It was a strange a queer thing that must be explained, somewhat.