The water was waist-high, it rushed past him, around him, running forth and playing; he wasn’t playing, but the water surely was. In and out it came, he pushed through it, where the river met the ocean and turned brackish, the waters themselves didn’t know which way to go. He did, straight across the damned thing. He kept his sword above the water, any amount of saltwater was probably bad for it, it was bad for his mood too.
He swallowed it, and kept on, mood or water, it didn’t matter. The water pulled back rushing by him, against his steps, then, again it pushed him. It had been like that the whole way. He looked back, about two-thirds of the way across the channel and he hadn’t gone below his chest once. It had been a good spot to cross.
On the other side of these churning waters, he could see it. The fortress, or rampart, or castle, whatever you wanted to call it, was ahead. He could see it. It looked small, a dark and barren thing, it stood on top of a great plateau, which grew and towered above the water. A stone bridge led up to it, impossibly support-less. That was still far off, he was waist-deep in water, with the beach and hills to climb to get to that bridge.
The wind whipped across the water, furiously playful, it clipped bits and pieces of wave-tops, it tucked itself between his hair before flowing off elsewhere, as the wind does. He knew his mood was dark, and wet, a mangy thing. He was three weeks out into the Timberlands, southward, beyond Faulke Hill and against the coast. That was a week ago, he had lost his pack and food two days back. He nearly lost his shoes in this swim. Now, he had his sword, the clothes on his back, and wet wits.
It wasn’t long before he was stepping out of the water. Dripping and grateful. He looked back across the water, it pushed and lapped by, the ocean starting its march inward, the tide coming in. On the beach, he could see the tide-line a dozen yards up. Water-washed and dry. Grimwood clambered up the sand, uncaring of how much clung to his clothes. Though, he made sure to keep the sword free of the gritty stuff. It was everywhere, the sand. He could feel it wedging and working between his clothes, into his shoes, rubbing against his skin. It didn’t matter, he was out of the water. He stopped at the edge of the beach, large rocks lined the sand’s end. He stripped and laid his clothes out to dry, then sprawled out on the warm grass beyond the beach.
He woke about an hour later, the sun hadn’t moved much, his clothes were mostly dry, but more importantly, he felt better. Warmer thoughts too. The fortress was closer, he could start to make it out easier. That was where that bastard would be.
Tremmel had been coming this way, their month-long catch and run had been heading toward this place. The Blackened Wall, it wasn’t even a wall, but the name stuck and people called it that. Either way, the place was there, and he was going. At the port town on the other side of the channel, a fisherman had seen Tremmel heading toward it, not four hours before him.
He had him this time, bastard. Even after a fresh nap, and a swim, the asshole darkened his thoughts.
Grimwood donned his clothes, crisp from salt. It took him a few more hours of walking, and climbing, all the while he brewed on the ways he would repay Tremmel. He tumbled over the hundreds of ways of his revenge. Tremmel, he had burned his village down and killed his brother. Well, it hadn’t been him directly, but after years, he had found out Tremmel was behind it. Some folks would destroy everything. Not Grimwood. That was something his mentor had taught him. It had been posed as a simple question that had run with him, for the course of his life.
‘What won’t you do to get the things you want?’
He was sure as shit going to do a few things with Tremmel. He was good with a sword, but Grimwood was the best. He tried to be humble, arrogance was a fool’s trait. This time, right now, he fortified that knowing. It had taken him years. His whole life, moments of realizations, it had been hours toiled over one small detail, days spent missing a point. He had built himself and was grateful to know that was the way to it. To do it one piece at a time, to stretch, a fingertip’s reach. And then, once he had it, to do it all over again, and again. At first, that process had eaten away at his resolve. After all, what was the point if you never reached an end? He knew better — now, all men had their own end.
The trail led up from the sandy banks, through the sharp salt-grass, a few cuts, drawing thin red lines, that were too sharp to bleed, too shallow to drip. He stopped before the bridge that led out over a hundred-foot drop. Ocean water rushed by below. It seemed to draw at him, pulling him toward it. Sometimes a height can do that to a person. He pushed that feeling aside and looked around. The rock ran smoothly, as though the bridge was one piece. it wasn’t that it was small, or brittle. He would be about as vulnerable as a turtle on an open desert. Tremmel would use that if he could.
Grimwood took his first step, a small hollow thud reminded him of the long drop, he could survive that as long as he didn’t smash himself to bits on the rocks below. He didn’t. Nothing happened besides a tugging wind, the howling call of it resounded below the bridge, running, bouncing and crashing between rock and water. He placed his foot on the other side, onto the Blackened Wall, well, really the Blackened Plateau. He felt it, like sickly grime that slipped between his shoes. Just his kind of place. Something that repulsed his presence, was usually where he found himself needed.
He held his sword, it wasn’t hard, he had nothing left besides it. Sunlight glistened and gleamed from it, etchings ran the length of the blade, and it seemed to whisper through the air as he moved. An Ezrano blade was nothing to shrug over. He was sure he could cut clean through the bridge if he wanted. That man, Ezrano, he was something else, a master of silver. Who could make silver that didn’t dull? Only Ezrano, it was harder than steel, more durable, worth more than a King’s ransom, in fact, some had been acquired that way. Maybe that was why Ezrano had stopped selling them. He shivered at the thought of someone trying to steal one. There were worse things than death.
He climbed, his muscles cried out to stop, to take a break; soon they quieted themselves, accepting the fate that was theirs. He pushed through that, then kept going, a cadence grew, he fueled it with fury, and tempered it, steeling it, removing the flailing revenge that burned within it. Anger had no place in his hands, only his thoughts, for a moment, long enough to see it, then he banished it. Tremmel was a bastard, and his death awaited him, called forth into Grimwood.
Grimwood walked, he was Tremmel’s death. Too many times he had slipped and escaped. Too many times had he gone on destroying the world around him, uncaring, unheeding, working his defilement wherever he went. That sickly feel from the ground resonated, it fought to seep into him. Grimwood was impermeable, that was a part of him. No magic, no shaping, or influences could reach him, besides what he chose. He was physically magic and had never met another like him.
The tattoo on his arm burned, suddenly alight with a fury of its’ own. It did that when he knew he was getting close to the edges of death. Tremmel was undoubtedly a furious foe. Twice they had come to blows, and Grimwood had only the slightest advantage. He had narrowly escaped the first time. Thinking Tremmel an easy adversary, he knew better now. Two years they had waged this fight, one fleeing, the other searching. They were undoubtedly drawn together, like the cold that seeps into warmth. Maybe, somehow, they had made each other.
The wind was stronger up here, the plateau was barren of life. It was a place that Tremmel would have come anyway. His footsteps crunched on gravel and dirt. Dust flew over the edge, whispered away, the plateau was slowly being eaten by wind and water. The air had a decaying taste to it, mixed with the salty air, he coughed, repulsed. The ground ran up from the bridge, rising toward the higher ridges, where the black fortress stood. It was a solitary structure, only crumbling rock and sharp stones littered the ground beside it. He was nearly there.
He walked beneath an overhang of rock, looking for a place to climb. With sword in hand it wouldn’t be easy, he had lost the damned scabbard too. Eventually, he found it, a cleaved bit of rock, and chiseled stairs, those crumbled even as he climbed as if the life ran from them too. This was an old place. No wonder the locals stayed clear. Some had signed curses at him for even asking about it. Others paled and ran, fear-stricken plainly on their face. Anyone going there was cursed, few returned, and those that had…
The next ledge proved to have a similar set of stairs, though they were more decrepit, one broke clean off and nearly sent him tumbling with it. He paid it little attention, quick-stepping to the next stair and focusing on the fortress. It towered above him, made of black stone, a dull kind that seemed to swallow the light that found it. It was a place that consumed. It ate the world around it, spitting out malice, death, writhing anger. Oh yes, this was a place that Tremmel would use. He stopped before the great doors. One hung slightly open, a slow moan of air escaped.
He stood before the Blackened Wall, deep rivets of pitch-black ran up the base of it in random thick streaks. No wonder the locals stayed away. He knew he had to go in. That was the point. It was never easy, simple yes, but easy. Tremmel wanted to do this on his terms. So did Grimwood, but a deep resolve pushed him. He threw the door open. It was heavy and crashed against the stone wall loudly. Stone against the stone.
“Tremmel.” He stepped into the Blackened Wall.
Tremmel was there, he knew he would be. He stood near the center of the room, as far as Grimwood could guess. It was dark, and the light seemed to warp, distorting itself and falling short. “Took you long enough.” The bastards voice was even grimy. Slick with contempt.
“Well, you could have waited.” Grimwood took a few cautious steps toward him, deeper into the shadowy fortress.
Any weariness fled, he felt static and settled his breath. It took some effort, the sight of Tremmel boiled his blood. He focused his attention, to Tremmel, the ground, his feet and where they were; he felt his breath, then he felt it. A string of calm, he moved, as purpose.
“You can’t beat me, Grimwood, you never could.” His voice cut the silent room.
He shifted from Grimwood to the sword in his hand, he was his brothers’ memory, he flowed. Tremmel screamed a treacherous sound, but Grimwood ignored it. They fought furiously. Tremmel bore down on Grimwood with spite, and a mad, unfettered wrath. It didn’t matter. He had been ready for this moment, he had prepared himself. There was a saying for times such as these. He recalled it, as he moved between form. His motion gained momentum, speeding up, his sword flickering, tattoo burning.
‘Become a Purpose.
Use all your might.
Fury will fall.
Resolve is as the ocean.’
Each stroke, every strike, moved to the next, like continuous motion. Grimwood hummed, a solid note that didn’t resonate from vocals, it flew from him. His momentum was palpable. Tremmel back-stepped, Grimwood was relentless. He wouldn’t let him escape this time. Not again. He felt an anger bubble up and ignored it. Instead, his attention was to each strike, his sword thrummed. Even as it flurried, Tremmel was able to repel his attack. They strained against each other.
“Something’s different this time, Grimwood.” His voice rankled his ears, cringed his hearing.
“Yes.” Grimwood said, “Everything is.”
His attacks continued, and Tremmel fought back viciously.
Grimwood could always tell when someone tried to use magic on him, it was like a faint touch, it would trickle by, on the edge of feeling. A scowl grew on Tremmel’s face, it stayed, solidifying each time he tried to use a Shaping or Moving. Even Illuminating didn’t work, the magic-worked light would rebound into its true form for his sight. A stone crashed to the ground inches from where he stood, Tremmel raged, his eyes wild and wide. He’d pull the place down if it would finish Grimwood.
He started to. Great chunks seemed to rip themselves from the ceiling, and walls. Breakings, each one a furious form of raw magic. The Blackened Wall dropped cursed stones. Grimwood ignored them, he had to. A black sword nearly caught his cheek, then again narrowly missed his thigh. Their blades caught.
Tremmel swinging down, a deathly blow aimed at his neck. His thoughts flashed to his training, position five. Not that the words were his thoughts, it was an image, a feeling. Like instinct. His sword was suddenly there, murderous blade catching Ezrano silver.
Sometimes a moment slows, and stretches, casting depth and clarity. Grimwood watched as the blades snapped at each other. Tremmel’s crushing strike scrapped, spitting dark sparks, sliding toward Grimwood’s hilt, away from his head. He pushed the swipe aside, sweeping Tremmel’s arm wide across his body. He twisted, flipping his strike, his momentum pivoted. He was Tremmel’s death. His sword bit, deep, slashing across his chest. Everything stopped, for a breath, even the crumbling building paused.
Tremmel’s chest heaved, catching wide breaths, he eyed the redness that spread the length of Grimwood’s sword, a hand drifted absently to his chest. He seemed to finger the slash, unbelieving. “Death is yours to keep.” The words were muttered, barely audible. Maybe Tremmel said it as the wind fled his lungs. He fell to his knee, catching himself there.
The ground trembled, the walls too, more stones crashed to the ground, spraying deadly shards. Grimwood ducked, a large piece whipped by. Another fell, he felt a sharp pain in his leg, wetness in his shoes. He looked back at Tremmel, the ground around him grew darker, deeper, it seemed to pull downward. Whatever it was, Grimwood needed to finish Tremmel now, he felt it. His thoughts screamed it, the air seemed to pull him to it. Suddenly he was moving, heedless to the black rock that stuck from his leg, two bloody footsteps and he was screaming, swinging his silver sword down, it flashed, tip first.
Tremmel raised his head, eyes stark black, ground blacker, the light faded pulled into them, he smiled. The ground swallowed him, the Blackened Wall consumed Tremmel, it welcomed him, malice to fury, cursed to damned. Grimwood’s sword struck stone, the ground warped, swallowing it. He plunged it further, shouting and throwing his weight into it. Suddenly, it stopped, the sword broke, and he crashed to the solid ground.
He lay there, holding the broken sword, it was shattered and brittle at the edge, pieces flaked off and fell to the ground, like paper. He breathed in ragged breathes. They burned, just like his leg, and tattoo, his arm too. The other piece of his sword was buried in the stone, only a serious of broken silvery shards showed to mark where it was. Dazed, as though his energy was drained he lay there. For long moments Grimwood struggled to remain awake, the Blackened Wall continued to shake and fall, some too close and sprouting new gashes. He needed to move, he was going to die with this place if he didn’t.
The effort it took to push himself up off the ground seemed more than the whole trip. His body wanted to give up, his thoughts agreed. They battled with him. He pushed back, no. He wasn’t done. He had a little more in him. He started moving, slowly at first. Even as more rocks fell, more stone ceiling, the whole place was falling in, giving into its destruction. Maybe he had done it, that smile though. It stuck to his thoughts. It seemed to permeate to his hearing, a burst of low laughter that grated his ears. It wasn’t long before he realized it was a tangible thing, it seemed to come from the very walls. It grew louder, there seemed to be an odd glee to it, cruel, twisted. It felt like Tremmel. He grimaced, and ran, the plateau shook, it was destroying itself, a consuming desire to swallow Grimwood. All the while, that deep-set laughter followed him, it harried his flight.
It wasn’t long before Grimwood watched, heaving and panting. The bridge crumbled and fell. The whole plateau shook, great pieces breaking off, like shelves from a glacier. For a second the air seemed ready to shatter. Then the plateau shook off great swathing chunks, they rained into the ocean, spraying pillars of water high into the air. The echo of Tremmel’s laugh lingered.
“Tremmel you bastard! I am coming for you!” He cried, his voice coarse -nearly rasping.
He needed help and knew just who to go to. There was only one person he knew who could help him now. Whatever he had just seen, was beyond him alone. Oh no, he wouldn’t like it. Not one bit, he was ready to settle down, live his life, call it quits and chase women and fine wines. Grimwood winced at the thought of asking. Then he looked back. The shattered land, plateau, or what was left of it, drifted off. Suspended, molting in on itself. It seemed to concentrate. Blackness, growing darker, and darker, smaller. This was beyond Grimwood.
He ran. Ezrano’s broken sword in hand, tattoo burning, a searing sharpness he’d not yet felt. One day, he would find out just what that was, just who he was. Today, before the consuming thing behind him, he ran. Whatever Tremmel had done had swallowed him, and he had done so willingly, Grimwood cursed. He could hear a low whine grow behind him, like a kettle about to boil. The water was lapping at his feet, soaking his shoes again when he turned back. The whole plateau was gone, something small hung in the air in its place.
Over the washing waves, the low wind, he could hear it. A high, cruel, pure laugh. It pierced his ears. Grimwood stopped and turned back, he wouldn’t have time. Tremmel was drifting in the air, a maniacal laugh coming off him in waves. He didn’t know what the hell type of magic this was. He realized he was laughing too and running.
Like a damned lunatic, he ran toward Tremmel, a white-hot burn embedded itself into his tattoo.