by: Lewis H. Montaug

Part 1 of a 3 part journey takes us on a hunt, through dangerous terrain, for that which is pure…..

Part One: Inferno

The Custodian could feel it about to kick in. His stomach began to rumble as a fire built within him, releasing its spell to the far reaches of his limbs, until it finally encompassed his summit with a dizzying surge. He breathed in the new-found comfort deeply with his eyes closed and his head tilted back, a silent ahhhhhh escaping from his lips. He then took another sip, as the journey ahead would require unyielding alertness.

There is little else that made living in these frigid conditions possible. Without the wondrous elixir simply known as ‘Inferno’ a man could not survive in the wilderness this far North for long. With enough of it however, you could prosper.

His brown custodian smock was torn and frayed beyond wear, and was instead fastened to his leather holster like a mechanic’s rag.  Upon his chest sat a breastplate, fashioned from the skeletal remains of a Tiffon, and stronger than any metal known to man. Besides this he was equipped with no additional armor, and his trousers and steel-toe combat boots had seen better days. The only object he wore that remained unweathered by the forest’s commanding might was the hammered copper bracelet his master had dressed upon his left wrist, armed with a homing beacon he was instructed to activate when he had located her.

He couldn’t be far behind he reflected, no more than a few hundred kilometers at best. But that still, he quickly reasoned, leaves her several hundred kilometers ahead, alone in this treacherous forest. With this thought he propelled himself forward, launching into a full sprint, his skeletal armor passionately dancing upon his chest and his trusted flail strapped crosswise upon his broad shoulders.

The forest was thin, consisting of deciduous trees competing for life so efficiently that all of their lower limbs had long become obsolete, which now lay littering their surroundings with jagged thorns, leaving just a puff of live growth upon their crowns. The visibility in a forest such as this was befitting, but movement through it remained onerous. The Custodian barreled through the woods with purpose, mindful of every stride, pausing only to observe his surroundings for evidence of her movements, and for any indication of danger.

As night fell his pace slackened. The unmistakable aroma of a campfire infiltrated The Custodian’s nostrils, halting his stride entirely. Dropping to his knees he withdrew a 9mm pistol from a concealed crease in his boot. Slowly, he worked his way through the brush, the olfactory hues of the burning moist pine as his guide. Within moments the flickering dance of a flame caught his gaze and he approached with stealthy reserve. A man, who had seen many seasons come and then go, complacently warmed himself by the fire. Further inspection revealed the old man to be a small game hunter, as the carcasses of squirrels, fehans, and rabbits dangled from a rope tied between two pines. The Custodian, discerning no viable threat, returned his weapon to his boot and announced his presence as he approached.

“Stranger, I mean you no harm. I am just passing through these woods and I came upon you and your fire. May I approach?”

“Why yes, please. Approach. Come into the light so that I may see you.”

The Custodian confidently advanced into view and only paused to allow the old man time to digest the entity before him. The old man, with a hand cupped above his eyes, inspected the man before him. Seemingly satisfied he invited The Custodian to join him.

“Please, sit. Join me. I am sure that you are freezing. Warm yourself young man.”

The Custodian nestled up to the fire, an agreeable relief. “Thank you Sir. This is a most welcome respite on my journey.”

“I have no doubt” said the old man. “Fire, as I am sure a man such as yourself knows, is not easily composed with the muculent vegetation of these woods.”

“Few and far between I have come upon……”

“And thus,” the old man interrupted “due to the rarity of a such a pacifying blaze you must be familiar with the cost associated with such a luxury?”

“Of course. It is only fair. What is it you seek in payment?”

“What is it you have to offer me young man?” The old man replied with haste.

The Custodian steadied himself, in tune with the fact that he was dealing with a seasoned tradesman, and pulled from his pocket a small vial, its contents clear in nature. He handed it over to the old man with a knowing smile. Without hesitation the old man gingerly removed the cork from atop the vial and breathed in its contents. His eyes lit up upon recognition of the fragrance. Inferno.

“Where did you get this young man?”

“Its origin is not relevant. I am sure this will suffice in exchange for an evening’s recess with you and your flame.”

“Do you have more?” asked the old man.

“This is what I offer you and I am confident that it is more than enough. If this agreement does not please you I will be on my way.”

“Settle yourself young man. This vial is adequate. It was merely a question. It has been some time since I have happened upon the genuine article.”

The Custodian allowed a silence to fill the air between them, and to simmer the boil of the heightened conversation.

“What business do you have in these woods young man? The old man asked.

“The King’s business, and for that I am not at liberty to share.”

“Hmmm, but which King I wonder? Is that something you are at liberty to speak of?”

“There is only one King old man, and implying differently could part you quickly with your tongue, or worse.”

“Not in these woods my young friend….in these woods a man need not serve a King of any kind.”

“Every man serves a King. I feel sorry for those that do not even realize it.”

A calm eventually settled between them and the hour grew late. Huddled by the fire, both men slowly drifted off to repose.

The sound was subtle, but to a custodian, trained to detect even the slightest of dangers, the sound of a gun being removed from its holster would ring in their ears like cathedral bells. He was also well aware that the allure of Inferno could turn even the most charitable of men hoggish with desire. Without pause, and from his horizontal position, The Custodian unsheathed his flail and dispatched its iron head through the old man’s skull, decimating bone like a rock through glass. The old man’s body fell with a thud to the ground. The Custodian set his flail beside him, closed his eyes, and quickly fell back to sleep.

The sounds of dawn breaking aroused The Custodian from his slumber.  The embers of the dwindling fire crackled and hissed as he gathered himself. The frozen ground of the prolonged winter deprived The Custodian of the capacity to do what was right. The old man would not be buried. Instead, The Custodian covered his entirety with a blanket and fastened it in place with the stones of the campfire. Briefly he prayed, reciting the words his father had taught him as a child when his mother was lost. An offering to the Gods of a soul shackled no more by the binds of flesh. Then, he fled.

The memory of her face was as lucid to The Custodian as the events of an hour past. Although it had been almost a decade since he had last glimpsed her, there was nary a moment since then that he had not thought of her. Her form was a scourge that had infected his mind, burrowing itself deep into his psyche much like the hooks of the burdock seed will set itself in the fabric of one’s tunic. She was a hitchhiker of the soul and he could not wait to lay eyes upon her again.

That one moment they had shared, all those years back in the darkened hallway off the castles Keep was so fleeting, so brief that it bordered on the ephemeral. He had just taken on the responsibilities of The Kings Custodian and was ferrying a satchel of parchments to the old Magister when he had passed her. Her beauty instantly arrested him, stopping him in his place, causing his page boy–always a step behind–to crash into the back of his robes. The tightly rolled parchments tucked within his arm sent flying about, littering the floor of the hallways narrow pass.

She had bent down to help him, a forward gesture for a woman of her time, and as she handed him the final scroll their eyes had met. It was like an explosion of light had gone off behind his eyes so powerful was her glance and it penetrated him fully. He was slow to rise, staggered by her spell, and as she continued on her way he stared intently at her, attracted to her power. Comforted by a fresh and slowly radiating feeling that their paths would one day cross again; that the long lines of their lives would once more become entwined. And as The Custodian ran through the wood, the damp underbrush of the forest slapping heavily against his lower extremities, he imagined the merging of those lines. Each footfall a lessening of its decade long slack.

The forest by day was rife with activity. The too few hours allotted to daylight in these strange lands caused the ground-cover to grow rapidly. The cold-hardy vegetation increasing their lengths in mere hours what would take plants of the more temperate regions months to achieve. As he traveled, a symphony of sounds assaulted The Custodians ears, increasing in magnitude as the sun reached its zenith in the sky. Strange and dark sounds drifted in on the cool breeze as he paused, quenching his thirst on water trickling forth from a freshly cut vine.

A noise off to his right vexed The Custodian. It was rhythmic and metallic in sound but also dull, like it was happening underwater. This far North he was likely to avoid such instances, shunning a chance encounter with an unknown creature, but the repetitive nature of the sound held his interest. Dropping the vine he moved cautiously, crouching low to the ground as he approached the source of the rattle. Crawling over a rise, he was able to peer down into a gully and there, by group of mossy boulders were three men, dressed brightly in yellow and bearing the colors of the Southern Kingdom. One of them was sitting on a low boulder, his broadsword held firmly across his thigh. With the other hand he was running a whetstone across its length, rhythmically sharpening its deadly blade. Phwwwaaap….phwaaaaap, went the handheld stone.

Dropping to his stomach, The Custodian pulled his battered spyglass from a pocket, telescoping it out to its maximum length. The subject of their conversation drifted up to him on the thin air of the forest breeze.

“What’re we doing’ all the way up ‘here Monfort?” The one sharpening his sword whined. “How we gonna’ find anything in all this muck?”

“Pipe down Cartwright. I’m sick of your whiny voice!” The gruffer of the two men standing bellowed. “You know why we’re here and I’m tired of you askin’.”

The third man was standing off to the side relieving himself, his back to The Custodian. When he finally turned around The Custodian was so startled by his face that he almost lost his grip on his spyglass. It was Malice De Bolbec, a ghost from his past, and if he was here, this far North, then he knew the game had changed.

The word was out! The Southern Kingdom was making a play on her too, of this there could be no doubt The Custodian reasoned. Malice De Bolbec’s presence confirmed it. He was The Custodian of the Southern King and the most devious, most resourceful man alive. And he was a just stones throw away. Shit The Custodian swore under his breath.

Quickly he jumped to his feet, but the forests fast growing vines had snaked themselves tightly around his boot. Pitching forward violently, The Custodian fell into a tumble, his armor and frail throwing up a ruckus as he rolled down the rise. When he had finally stopped moving, The Custodian deftly sliced the undergrowth from his boot with his hand knife and then took off into a sprint. Malice De Bolbec’s party had definitely heard that racket, The Custodian reasoned, and he wanted to get as much distance between him and those scoundrels before they showed up to investigate.

As The Custodian flew through the forest, an armored streak in a sea of green, Malice De Bolbec and his goons crested the rise, swords drawn, expressions menacing. They had heard the clamor of his fall and had rushed quickly to investigate. Monfort and Cartwright swept the area for clues while De Bolbec scanned the treeline, stroking his beard rhythmically, awash in troubled thoughts.

“Here Master De Bolbec! Ov’r here! I found sumthin’!” Cartwright bellowed, waving a piece of fabric in his hand. Instantly De Bolbec was on the move, sprinting to Cartwrights position with Monfort, a stones throw off, nary a step behind.

“Give me that!” De Bolbec thundered, snatching the piece of cloth violently from Cartwright’s hand. As he fingered the tattered fabric he turned his head and scanned the treeline once again, a thin smile forming on his weathered face.

“What is it boss?” Monfort asked, coming up to De Bolbec in a huff. The frayed and weathered fabric looked dirty, like a rag.

“This my good man.” De Bolbec offered, spreading the soiled cloth out upon his open hand. “This is what remains of the tunic of a Custodian. The right-hand of a King. And this tunic here, this tunic especially, is of great interest to me. For it bears the emblem of a Ram, the symbol of House Carano, from the Kingdom of the Sands.”

“The Kingdom of The Sands!” Monfort exclaimed, running his fingers through his greasy hair. “This far North? What’s their Custodian doing way up here?” He asked, but before he could get his answer Malice De Bolbec was gone. Taken off into a sprint, a wild-eyed look of determination plastered on his weather-beaten face.

“Wait-up!” Cartwright yelled, galloping on his heels. “Master!” Monfort hollered, falling hurriedly into pace.

“Hurry-up fools!” De Bolbec called over his shoulder, the long curls of his graying hair dancing on the wind “We have some competition for our prize. And you know how much I hate to lose.”

And as he ran, the heavy thud of his footfalls echoing loudly through the forest, a single thought repeated in De Bolbec’s mind I’m coming for you brother. Soon we’ll meet again.

The mission came first, and The Custodian knew he had made the right decision in choosing flight over fight. The Inferno gave him all the stamina he would need to outdistance his pursuers. He kept up his rigorous pace, and if his internal navigation served him as he expected it to, then in short order he would have the means to indefinitely shake De Bolbec and his men. Pushing northward, the density of the forest gradually began to thin out until he found himself in a clearing. As he had expected, a wooden rope-stayed bridge rose up ahead of him, beckoning him onward. He pushed forward, his footfalls in his steel-toed boots resounding heavily off of the wooden planks and echoing across the wide canyon that bedded the Black River. He was halfway across when he began reaching for his leather for the C4 charges.

He heard a projectile whistling through the air. Looking skyward he saw a metal-tipped arrow sailing past him just as gravity’s hold caused it to descend at a steep vertical angle. He knew right off that he was in no danger of being hit, but he suspected that De Bolbec would not travel with such a poor marksman. The Custodian quickly surmised that there was another purpose to the arrows flight. In fact, the arrow was falling out of the sky like a tossed stone, and it disappeared out of sight underneath the bridge. With no time to ponder what the archer’s aim had been, and unwilling to turn around to see how closely the men were following at his heels, and he quickened his pace, pushing his stamina to its limits. He was almost across when thorny black-green vines reached up from underneath the bridge, writhing violently and looking for purchase. They seemed to expand as they spasmed, a rhythmic pulse coursing through them as they wrapped themselves around the rope cables, the support pillars, and the floorboards of the bridge itself. Then the frenzied vines contracted, squeezing the end of the bridge as if a giant’s fist had just closed around it. The tremors from the agitated vegetation’s assault on the bridge sent a shock-wave down its length that knocked The Custodian off his feet.

He landed hard on his back, his head hitting the wooden planks with a thud. Remaining supine, he lifted his head and saw the ever-expanding vines coiling and tightening around the bridge’s structure as if it were a serpent about to feed. His passage was now barred.

He rolled over onto his stomach and looked off to a high rise on the cliff’s face, just off to his left. There spied De Bolbec’s archer, standing triumphantly, bow in hand. The Custodian looked back the way he had come, to the bridge’s south end. De Bolbec stood there, his other man just a few paces behind, and he took a step out onto the bridge that was now warped and slightly askew.

“A very handy commodity in this hellish winter jungle,” De Bolbec called. “I really didn’t know when, or even if, I would have the opportunity to put it to use. Its effect on the native plant life, especially in this frozen wasteland, was still in the infant stages of experimentation. However, I never could have dreamed that we would end up using it to ensnare you of all people.” He brought his gloved hands together in delight, as if applauding his good fortune. “My brother, it has been a lifetime.”

The Custodian slowly raised himself up to standing. Very clever trick, he thought to himself. He remained silent, refusing to dignify his rival’s childish delight. Instead, he took stock of his immediate surroundings, weighing his options, plotting his next course of action. He noticed De Bolbec’s archer, Monfort, was making his way down the rocky slope at the bridge’s entrance, coming to rejoin his companions.

“What good fortune that we should meet like this,” De Bolbec continued, coming forward as he spoke. “I can only assume we find ourselves so far from home because we pursue a common goal.”

“That’s far enough, Malice,” The Custodian warned. He assumed a wider stance at the center of the bridge, as if he was now in control and would not let them pass.

“After all these years, you and I are still no more than lapdogs to our respective lords. And yet we still covet our prestigious stations, do we not?”

“I have plastic explosives,” The Custodian stated bluntly, gesturing toward his satchel. He had no intention of entering into De Bolbec’s verbal dance. “I can end this now, for all us.”

“I think not,” De Bolbec said with a laugh. “We must uphold our missions. Let us not kid ourselves.” Then he drew his blade from its sheath, the sound of friction highly audible in the frigid canyon winds. He took another step forward.

“Not another step!” The Custodian reiterated more forcefully.

“You are outnumbered, my friend. Your position to make demands is quite dubious. But we can end this now, you and me.”

The Custodian watched De Bolbec advance, his two goons trailing closely behind. He thought back to sparring sessions past. For the most part they had been evenly matched back then, with De Bolbec holding only the slightest of edges. “Do you have Inferno?” he asked De Bolbec.

“A ridiculous question. One would not be foolish to venture into these godforsaken lands without it. Why do you ask?”

The Custodian grinned with bemusement. “I just wanted to make sure that we are evenly matched with no unfair advantages.”

“Then you agree that this should be settled like in the old days, steel on steel?” De Bolbec could not contain his mirth. “Oh, how I have longed for this.”

“Not exactly,” said the Custodian, and he removed his right hand glove. “Do you have a sidearm?”

De Bolbec’s smile vanished. “You cannot be serious. A shootout? You always were an uncivilized barbarian.”

“Take your glove off,” The Custodian commanded.

“Brother, this simply will not do. We are from a proud martial tradition. I will not lower myself so.”

“Your choice.”

De Bolbec considered this. “Monfort, Cartwright,” he said over his shoulder. “If I should fall in our duel, you are to serve this man without question. Is that understood?” The two goons exchanged glances, shocked that their master should make such a reckless demand of them. When he received no reply, De Bolbec repeated more forcefully, “Is that understood?”

“Yes, my lord,” Monfort and Cartwright reluctantly said in unison.

De Bolbec turned his attention back to The Custodian. “Is this agreeable to you? The odds have now tipped more favorably in your direction.”

“Take your glove off.”

De Bolbec grew enraged. “Firearms are an abomination to our way of life! They strip the glory from the warrior’s code. Any sneak-thief can fire a gun. Ours is a more elegant way, a way of honor. You shame yourself by even suggesting an alternative.”

“This is your last chance, Malice,” The Custodian stated without emotion. “Now take your glove off.” At this point Monfort pulled back another arrow into his bowstring, and Cartwright pulled out a grenade.

“If you choose this course of action, you will surely die. And then what of your mission,” De Bolbec spat. Then the tension in his shoulders seemed to ease a little, and his overall posture relaxed. Hoping to appeal to reason, he lowered his voice and said,”Come, for old time’s sake.” He held out his sword in front of him. “Your bullets cannot pierce this armor. Now let us–”

The Custodian stepped forward and got down on one knee. The sudden movement startled Monfort, who let fly with the arrow. It sailed harmlessly over The Custodian’s head as he reached into his boot to retrieve his pistol. He heard De Bolbec curse in his native tongue as he dropped his sword and fumbled for his own gun, more an ornamental part of his uniform than anything else, secured at the holster on his hip. But he was too late.

The Custodian fired off a round that passed right through De Bolbec’s neck, splattering blood on Monfort and Cartwright and making a sound like a mallet tenderizing raw meat. De Bolbec fell.

Cartwright’s grenade lobbed through the air at a low arc, bouncing a few times and then rolling toward The Custodian. The Custodian made a dash for the bridge’s railing, vaulting over it and disappearing from sight. The grenade blew, scattering shrapnel in all directions and causing the vines at the bridge’s North end to further contract, sending more vibrations throughout the length of the wooden structure.

Undisciplined Monfort and Cartwright, either forgetting their duties to their master or leaving him for dead, ran to the railing where The Custodian had gone over. They searched the dark, snake-like river for the ripples of The Custodian’s plunge, but saw nothing.

“Where the devil–” was all Monfort could get out before the flail came up from out of sight and bludgeoned his temple, lodging itself in his eye socket. It came out with a geyser of blood while Cartwright was still registering what was happening. That’s when The Custodian grabbed a fistful of Cartwright’s tunic and pulled him over the railing. The man’s scream grew distant within seconds as The Custodian pulled himself back up onto the bridge and planted his feet. He grabbed Monfort’s ankles and tossed him over the edge.

He approached De Bolbec with little caution. Blood was gurgling up through De Bolbec’s throat and bubbling out his mouth, but he still managed to declare with contempt, “You . .  are no . . . soldier. You have . . . no honor.”

“No,” The Custodian said. “You have no honor. You are no soldier. You allowed your pride and arrogance to cause you to stand on ceremony when you should have remembered the first rule of our creed: Allow no thoughts to enter your head other than the vanquishing of your enemy.”

When he looked into De Bolbec’s eyes, he could see the realization taking hold. He was the one who had lost his way.

“I curse you,” De Bolbec said. The blood continuing to pour from both his mouth and the bullet’s entry wound, until it flowed so freely that De Bolbec drowned in it.

To be Continued………

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