To the death
A warrior shall battle
And with his final breath
Our world will rattle
As the Gods require blood.
—Old Cangrolese poem
A cacophony of clanging metal vibrated through the frozen hills. Clouds of ice and broken permafrost billowed around the battle and cased Ashur Kang’s exposed, blood-covered skin until it gave the appearance of polished armor.
Many reanimated soldiers had swarmed the warrior but he fought back with all his might. On the defensive, he dropped low and spun 360 degrees with the slasher’s blade angled out in front of him. Four soldiers fell back as the blade severed their legs at the knee, leaving them crawling through the ice on stumps that left behind clumps of semi-coagulated blood. A fifth soldier, weaponless and only sporting one arm, lunged forward.
Ashur met the soldier with an upward thrust of the dagger in his left hand. His aim was true and connected with a revolting squelch.
“To Hell with you, demon,” he growled through gritted teeth as he yanked downward to free the dagger from the soldier’s skull.
Barely a second passed and six more of the Draugr soldiers were upon him. He swung the slasher in a looping arc but one of the Draugr grabbed his elbow mid-strike. With brute strength, Ashur powered through and caught his target; the fleshy neck of a charging barbarian. But due to the interference, he wasn’t able to decapitate the behemoth of a man and the undead barbarian collapsed, pinning Ashur to the ground under its immense mass.
A dog pile ensued with five soldiers clamoring to rip the proud warrior apart. Three of the undead soldiers brandished swords and struck down with rabid intensity. But through the chaos, they were unable to hit Ashur. Instead, they sliced and stabbed and cut the barbarian Draugr who lay on top of the Cangrolese warrior.
King Wulfbrok, watching this unfold from a close distance, knew there was precious little time to act. Looking about with the manic drive of a much younger man, he spotted a sword on the ground.
The King hurried over and picked up the weapon. Its heft warned him of his age, but the thought fell away as soon as he charged the fight.
One of the smaller Draugr soldiers looked up in time to greet the King with the slash of its cutlass. Many years since last wielding a broadsword, King Wulfbrok’s arms had grown weak and were unprepared for battle. But at the last possible second, the old King’s instinct kicked in and he parried the attack. He nearly dropped the sword due to the impact but regained control right as the soldier advanced again.
“You shan’t kill me that easy,” he said with a liveliness he had not felt in a long time.
The Draugr soldier struck out and the King easily deflected the blow. He noticed the undead brute was unable to lift its arm higher than chest level. A broken limb or dislocated shoulder thought the King.
Parrying another strike, King Wulfbrok sidestepped the unbalanced Draugr and plunged his sword into its chest—running it through all the way to the hilt.
With terror in his eyes, the King watched helplessly as the Draugr torqued its rigid body sideways and broke free of the King’s hold, then continued to attack with the broad sword still pierced through its unbeating heart.
“You, you,” the King stammered. “You are a monster.”
The Draugr soldier pushed forward with its unblinking, lifeless eyes fixated on the King. A wild swing sent the King falling backward to the ground. Unarmed and overmatched, all he could do was ready himself for the death blow.
Standing over the fallen King, the undead soldier lifted its sword as high as it could. Once a living, breathing person—one who may have fought for the very man he was about to kill—the Draugr soldier stared with no emotion at the old King. Then with all the power its stiff muscles could manage, it brought down the cutlass.
King Wulfbrok blinked several times. Lying next to him, staring up with those dead, milky-white eyes, was the Draugr soldier’s severed head. Its teeth were gnashing as it tried and failed to bite him.
“A little too old for this, aye?”
King Wulfbrok looked up to see a hulking statue of a man towering over him. Beneath the starlight, Ashur Kang’s body was glistening with fresh gore.
“Battle makes old men of us all,” the King said.
“That it does.”
Ashur extended a hand to the King.
“They are relentless,” King Wufbrok said, taking Ashur’s hand in his own.
The Cangrolese warrior pulled the King to his feet. “I do not know what sorcery has brought this upon the world, but I fear that these men—” Ashur looked over his shoulder to see another wave of soldiers closing in. “—these creatures, shall never stop.”
Ashur offered his dagger to King Wulfbrok but the King waved it away. “No, there is a way to put an end to this madness. But the end shall only come with my death.”
“What do you mean—”
A battle-axe howled like the winter wind as it cut through the air. Ashur jumped out of the way but the blade ripped through the flesh on his back. As he fell, he whipped his arm upward and hooked a Draugr soldier in the eye with the tip of the slasher. The blade tore loose the eyeball from its socket.
“Run!” Ashur screamed to the King. “You must escape while you still can.”
With one eye dangling halfway down its pallid face, the undead soldier lifted the battle-axe overhead and hammered it down. Ashur barely rolled out of the way when the axe smashed the ground with a splintering of ice and dirt.
Like an agile tiger, Ashur sprung to his feet and beheaded the soldier in one swift movement.
“Come, we have no time,” Ashur said, urging the King to leave.
“Kill me,” the King replied gravely.
Ashur’s eyes widened. “I do not… why would you…” his words trailed off in the twilight of early morning.
“You said it yourself. We have no time.” King Wulfbrok bowed his head. “The Gods demand my royal blood to end this nightmare. Please, for the future of Sansylgate, kill me.”
It finally dawned on Ashur who was standing before him. “King Wulfbrok,” he whispered to himself.
“Do it now. My death cannot come by my own hands.”
Even though the temperature was frigid, beads of sweat trickled down Ashur’s face. He lifted the slasher into the air and held it over the King’s bowed head. But he did something he never had done before in battle. He hesitated.
It was for only a moment, and as he began the swooping arc that had beheaded countless foes before, a white flash shot across his vision.
When Ashur came to, there was a terrible ringing in his head and a warm liquid flowing from his ear. A sea of white eyes stared at him. He had not fallen down but his equilibrium was now off by a great deal.
Ashur whirled around—almost tripping in the process—and was surprised to see a dagger-wielding King Wulfbrok felling the Draugr soldier who must have clubbed him on the head.
“Finish it,” demanded the King.
A gust of wind kicked up the metallic scent of blood as the horde of undead Draugr soldiers encircled the two men. It was now or never. The fate of Sansylgate was held in Ashur Kang’s mighty hand.
Without the fear of death holding them back, the horde charged. Ashur fought to keep his balance as he swung the slasher. And right as the slasher’s blade made contact with the back of King Wulfbrok’s neck, the horde tackled the Cangrolese warrior and pulled him down. The slasher fell to the ground as the Draugr soldiers wrapped him up in their cold arms. One of the undead soldiers picked up the dagger the King had been using.
Ashur stared into the dead man’s eyes but he could do nothing more. He was trapped.
Holding the dagger over Ashur, the soldier paused. He tilted his head slightly, then without warning, snatched the tattered cloth that was still wrapped around Ashur’s neck. A strange look came over the Draugr soldier’s face. It was as if a memory, some faint image of his past life came to him. Then the look was gone.
The Draugr soldier drove the dagger downward toward Ashur’s heart. The fierce Cangrolese warrior tensed his body in anticipation. But before he knew what was happening, he was free.
The whistling wind roared across the ice-covered hills, but all else was silent. Ashur looked around and was astonished to see that all at once, the entire army had fallen motionless to the ground. Once the shock wore off, his eyes settled on the head of King Wulfbrok laying beside his still body.
There was a slight smile on the King’s face. And beneath him, through the melted ice and soaked into the sacred soil, was a pool of the King’s royal blood. He had kept his word and given his blood for Sansylgate. Just as his ancestors had done.
All at once, the weight of the world fell upon Ashur’s broad shoulders. Even the skin of his teeth hurt. The only thing he wanted to do was rest, but he knew if he did not get to shelter soon he would freeze to death. Or bleed out.
He looked around but was disoriented. The vibrant moon had dropped and the morning sun would soon rise, but a black shadow was still currently stretched over the land. Off in the distance on top of a hill, a faint orange glow danced in the darkness.
“Olvin, my friend. I pray you have plenty of wine left.”
Ashur began the long trek across the ice.
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