The Gift of the Ob-Men, by Schuyler Hernstrom

Cast out and exiled by his people, Sounnu braves the wilderness with only his wits and his ancient blade to keep him alive! But is he prepared to pay the price for the strange blessing which will set him forever apart from his fellow humans?

 

Sounnu was permitted one last night in the village. At dawn the shamans pronounced him exile and the young man left without ceremony. His fellow warriors stayed to their huts, unable to bear the spectacle. Even Tenno lay on his woven palette feigning sleep. Sounnu had been his constant companion for their entire lives. They were close as brothers until the day Sounnu’s father died. The sword the old man bore, crafted by the forgotten lore of the ancients, passed into Sounnu’s hands. Tenno’s flint blades, though artfully made, had seemed worthless by comparison and a shadow of envy passed over their friendship. Sounnu was taking the ancient blade with him into exile; none had dared attempt to take it from the young man.

Though his heart was heavy Sounnu resisted the urge to look over his shoulder as he left the green vale which cradled his village. Trees and shrubs diminished until the steppe was underfoot. By sundown he had crossed the grasslands that separated the vale from the ruined city due west, a nameless relic of the golden age.

The next day he followed the western road as it made its long, winding detour around the edges of the city. The remains of its crooked towers slashed at the blue sky like jagged flint blades, a last blow from a long ago age when people could twist nature into grand shapes of their own design. The road had shrunk to a mere footpath by the time it reached the base of the old mountains. Like the city, the lands beyond the mountains were forbidden by old custom. In despair Sounnu scaled in the low peaks, now finally sparing a glance backwards to view the trailing tendrils of smoke in the far distance marking his former home. There was warmth and community, now forever out of reach. The high air stung his broad, naked back with lashings of snow, shining like miniscule diamonds in the bright light of a cloudless sky.

 

On the other side of the range the grim warrior found himself standing before a forest of dark pine and stunted birch. Sounnu felt a palpable menace emanating from the line of black shadows draped under the gnarled branches. The presence of danger stirred his soul to something of its former buoyancy. Impatient for the thrill of combat he drew the ancient broadsword from its carved scabbard and plunged forward. He screamed his low battle cry into the mute trunks and scrambled over rocks and deadfall, ducking limbs and weaving through brush. No ghask nor ghoul nor ur-wolf answered his hoarse challenges. He grew tired and gave up seeking foes. Sounnu drank from a clear, cold stream and lay to rest on a bed of moss.

He awoke surrounded by tall heavy creatures, bearing the form of a mushroom bent into the shape of men. Their ill-formed, elongated faces were unreadable masks. The warrior sought the handle of his blade but found he could not move.

He spoke to the mushroom men in a voice heavy with despair. “By what art am I frozen?”

“By manipulating our spores we are able to cause specific calamities to fall upon the unwary,” they answered in unison.

Sounnu sighed, “This is an inglorious end. Be quick, spare me this indignity.”

The mushroom men laughed and replied, “Not so hasty! We will avenge ourselves slowly upon you and extract some recompense for the great wrong your people have wrought.”

Sounnu’s brow furrowed. “To what do you refer?”

The mushroom men leaned their heads back and shook slightly, an apparent expression of distress. Their low voices pooled over the soft ground around the young man like a cool mist as they spoke, “The memory pains us. Long ago your species attacked us with fire and steel, pushing us from our beloved vale into this place. Once we stood content underneath clean oaks as laughing fey danced around our thick legs. Now we work our spores into weapons to ward against ur-wolves and ghasks.”

“In my village the shamans told stories of the hulking Ob-men who once ruled the vale. The ancients defeated them with much sacrifice, expelling their evil from the land.”

The mushroom men let out a low, keening wail.

Sounnu winced, continuing, “I spoke hastily. Perhaps the term Ob-men does not refer to your ancestors.”

The mushroom men spoke in harsh tones, “No! That is the name they bestowed upon us. We were there! And now to learn you creatures have lionized our expulsion! Oh, the injustice is compounded! What variations should we apply presently upon this body to expend our rage?”

For the first time, one of the mushroom men spoke singularly. “Perhaps a spore to turn him inside out?”

Another suggested a spore to splinter the mind into dozens of warring identities. Sounnu felt cold sweat erupt along his muscular frame. He interrupted their conference.

“Would it, perhaps, lessen your anger to know that I am an outcast from the village of men? The great cities are no more. The temples lie in jumbled ruins. The punishment of exile now is a death sentence. And by killing me, you stoop to perform their errands and perfect their will.”

The mushroom men ceased their planning.

“You are an enemy of the humans?”

Sounnu spoke earnestly, “I am indeed. In a fit of pique I smashed an idol and offended the priestesses. The incident arose from an excess of energy on my part. The clans have faded away, consolidated now into one village. The tribes of ghask that once raided the vale are slain, and no ur-wolves dare come close to the village. There is no one for me to fight. To assuage my boredom I explored the vale. Inside a ruin I came across the idol, a strange thing with a strange face. Neither shaman nor priestess could explain its meaning. I became enraged and smashed it. At that time Yulik was thatching his roof and fell painfully. The shamans believed the events were linked and I was charged with bringing a god’s wrath down upon the village. They are clever men, though stunted and cruel, and look for any excuse to castigate a warrior.”

The Ob-Men replied, “Your story bores us. We would prefer you elaborate upon an earlier comment. The great cities are no more?”

“This is true. The elders tell us the city people died away, ignoring nature’s demands to work their great art.”

“So mankind now consists of only one village?”

“That is true also, to the extent of my people’s knowledge. Some dream that across the mountains and through endless ruins lay communities of men that live as in the golden age. They are admonished for their frivolity.”

The mushroom men stepped away from Sounnu and conversed amongst themselves. The warrior allowed himself to relax. He would be tortured to death. Such was fate. The mushroom men returned, now animated and anxious.

“We have decided to spare your life under one condition.”

There was a smell in the air, earthy and floral. Sounnu found he could move. He stood, shaking slightly from the spores’ effects.

“What is this condition?”

The mushroom men spoke in unison again. “You will return home and empty the village of people.”

Sounnu laughed. “That is impossible. Upon sighting an exile the shamans will fill my guts with worms and my ears with shrieking demons. The priestesses will publicly rebuke me with stinging words and the warriors will be compelled to kill me. Why not use your dire spores and perform the deed yourselves?”

“To answer your first concern, know that we will bestow upon you advantages. Insofar as completing the task ourselves, know that we also are a dying race. Our numbers have dwindled to that which you see before you. Should our spores be exhausted then we risk total annihilation. Do as we say and restore us to the vale where we may become contented again and the race of man trouble us no more.”

The mushroom men made Sounnu swear an oath on the souls of his ancestors and another on his prized blade. Satisfied, they then looked to one of their number. A squat specimen with black spots stepped toward Sounnu. The smell of bitter acorns filled his nose. Sounnu lost consciousness.

 

The warrior awoke at the edge of the forest. His head throbbed but he was otherwise unharmed. With no better idea he began the long walk back to his village. The pain began to center itself in his forehead, growing in intensity. He made a supper of wild berries and lay down on a slab of mossy granite to rest.

The dawn woke him gently. He opened his eyes. Sounnu looked up at the mountains. The range stood gray and stately as before. Then there was a moment of total disorientation. Sounnu fought to understand what he was seeing. The warrior saw the mountains through the eye of passing eons. He saw them push up from the earth as two plates met in slow violence. He saw wind and rain render them into rubble. The visions came all at once. He saw the mountains’ birth and death in the same glimpse. He shut his eyes in confusion and held his head in his trembling hands. Sounnu jerked them away from an unfamiliar sensation. He gently placed his fingers back to his head and felt again. Scrambling off his bed of granite he sprinted toward a still pool.

The pool reflected the source of his horror in crisp clarity. He now possessed a third eye, centered in his forehead. The reflection shifted suddenly. He saw a death’s head, then an infant, then the present again. Sounnu lay back until the dizziness passed, eyes firmly shut. He cut a length of leather from the hem of his leggings and wrapped it around his forehead, obscuring the eye. The visions ceased. The warrior sat a while; mind racing as he tried to understand what had befallen him. A sparrow’s song lifted him from the maze of his thoughts. He did not understand the meaning of the third eye or its visions. There was nothing more to do for the present.

He continued on his path, letting his oath guide his steps. Sounnu dared occasionally to peel back the veil covering the third eye. Slowly, the warrior began to understand the visions of time, as they passed forward and backward, trailing off into numberless possibility. He saw his own body rent by bloody wounds, then wracked with old age, then a void, never having existed, then as now, hale and bronze from the sun. Sounnu avoided letting the third eye linger too long on his own form. He knew he would die one day as all men did. The eye seemed to show many fates, many deaths. It was confusing and paled before the majesty of a dying mountain or a forest rising from the earth before burning in an instant of vision-time from wind whipped walls of orange fire sparked by arcs of blinding lightning from a raging sky.

Day turned to night as he walked. Gradually the dizziness ceased altogether during his experiments. He found himself sitting, watching the moon shape itself from irregular rocks and then fall back down to earth. Covering the third eye he reassured himself that it still hung in the blue black sky.

Before lying down to sleep he peeled the blind back one last time and was shocked to see his body crisscrossed with fresh wounds, torn by tooth and claw, seeping black gore under the moon’s cool light. The vision was pregnant with immediacy. Sounnu shot to his feet. He covered the eye again and collected himself, nearly relaxing until he caught a stir of movement from the corner of his eye. There underneath the pines stalked an ur-wolf, a wizened alpha with two heads.

Sounnu drew his sword and settled into a stance. The ur-wolf circled.

Its mournful, rasping voices broke the silence.

“Nearly to bed, nearly asleep, nearly eaten. Now the man stands bravely with his biting blade bared to blue moonlight. Go back to resting reclining wretched man, accept your fate. Let us fill our empty belly baleful braying at the moon in our hunger. The hunger, horrible, heartbroken never full finished, satisfied.”

The ur-wolf lunged. Sounnu ducked then sprung up, hurling the beast over his shoulder. The predator spun in the air, grazing the warrior with its long claws and snatching the blindfold from his shaggy head. The creature landed badly on a boulder, cracking its spine. The warrior was overwhelmed as the third eye opened. He saw the ur-wolf as a mewling pup, as a fur draped around his shoulders, and as it was now.

Sounnu saw the slain ur-wolf moments ago debating strategy with the pack. The rest were to come up from the nearby swale as the warrior was distracted, engaged with the leader at the pines’ edge. He saw them through space, advancing on his flank presently. Sounnu moved to lean against another boulder where the ground dipped to meet the swale. One by one the ur-wolves darted past and were met by the young warrior’s blade. He replaced the blindfold and skinned the leader and scraped the hide, working in the moonlight. Over a large fire he roasted the carcass on a spit and gorged himself on the meat.

In the morning he cracked open the ur-wolves’ horned skulls and worked the brains into the leader’s pelt, a fine prize, grey streaked with jet black. He threw the still raw pelt over his broad shoulders and resumed his journey.

 

After a day’s walk he rested and then woke again with the dawn. He crossed the old mountains easily with the aid of the third eye, seeing through time and space in order to pick the easiest routes, hidden paths and passages through tunnels of wind sculpted rock painted with the striations that once marked forests and swamps, lines of white demarking seas dried by the sun and lines of black writing tales of burning and destruction.

Presently he stood at the beginning of the western road. He disregarded the winding path and walked due east, heading straight for the silent towers of the empty city. At the city’s edge he was overcome. The third eye bombarded him with chaotic visions, specters of the past, increasing in frequency. His mind flitted from one image to the next, racing along paths of causality that arced and contorted like bolts of lightning. The warrior saw countless people, living inscrutable lives in the pursuit of motivations that Sounnu could hardly comprehend. The towers gleamed, tall and arrogant, reaching toward the heavens and hosting a trillion dramas of daily life. Even through the crippling haze of the vision’s speed he could recognize some emotions, love and hate, fear, anger. Others he could not. There were ideas built upon ideas, whole languages of abstraction, all spiraling down into realms of the mind that were foreign to the young man. Sounnu reeled back, feeling his own self, his mind, disintegrating. He replaced the blindfold with trembling hands. He sat against a wall and collected himself, breathing deep of the dusty air. After a time, he stood and resumed his journey.

The rows of jumbled ruins grew in size as he approached the city center. Everywhere was dust, gritty powders in colors of red and ochre, swirling in angry eddies in gusts unchecked by tree or shrub. Signs scrawled with forgotten glyphs cried mutely in colors now faded to dull gray and stained taupe. Nearing the city’s center Sounnu noticed signs of occupation. Someone had made a futile attempt to keep the dust at bay, sweeping it into banks against the leaning wreckage of the once proud towers. The warrior saw a wide clearing ahead, a circular area lined with mounds of gray stone. In the center Sounnu spied the silhouette of a giant, a gleaming figure, perhaps ten feet tall. He drew his sword and ducked behind a pile of refuse. The temptation to peel back the blindfold grew but he resisted. Sounnu peered over the edge.

The figure in the distance remained perfectly still. Sounnu ducked back down and sat stock still. His body was rigid with the discipline of the hunter as his breath came slow, measured, and quiet. He peered again. The figure had not moved. Cautiously he advanced.

He walked slowly, keeping one of the mounds of stone between him and the figure’s line of sight. The strange objects loomed ahead. As they neared Sounnu realized they were great sculptures. Each was a head, jaw flush to the ground, worked with great skill and grace, capturing nuances of expression lost on the warrior. The figure of gleaming metal yet stood still. Sounnu finally permitted himself to relax slightly. The figure was obviously an idol, a god of the city that the people had surrounded with greater or lesser deities, the great heads, Sounnu could not decide which. He approached the idol.

The thing was formed from a bright metal that reflected the ochre tinged light in looping swirls. By its nature or by another’s attentions it was completely free of the city’s ubiquitous dust. The idol had no features, only the graceful outlines of a powerful musculature. Sounnu stood before it staring in wonder. The very sword he carried was made from a craft long lost to his people. This metal idol was a complete mystery.

With inhuman speed its arms lashed out. Sounnu threw himself back. Metal hands sought his neck but only grasped the pelt, tearing it away as Sounnu reeled. The warrior lashed out with his blade. The metal clashed against the idol, making not so much as a scratch. Sounnu scrambled away from another lunge. The idol moved forward now, pressing the warrior back against a stone head bearing an expression of fatalistic amusement. Sounnu ducked again, rolling on the dusty ground to spring up behind the idol. The metal man spun on its heels, already poised for another attack. A shrill voice rang out in the clearing.

“Servitor! Halt!”

The idol stood suddenly still. Sounnu stepped back, panting, seeking the source of the command. Atop one of the heads stood a tall, thin man, holding aloft a torn parasol. The man gingerly climbed down from the head and approached. He wore a suit of silver mesh, corroded slightly, and a broad brimmed hat atop a mass of long, brown curls. His eyes gleamed behind rings of colored cosmetics as he looked Sounnu up and down.

“Easy, friend! Pardon my servitor. My spyglass is flecked with dust and I mistook you for a ghask. But you are no ghask, you are an outlander, a traveler, and now the glories of Omeyapolis are yours to behold! My name is Maneon. I bid you welcome.”

Maneon’s ruffled sleeves spread wide as he bowed. Sounnu stood still, mouth open, sword held at the ready.

Maneon frowned, affecting sadness artfully with his wide, painted mouth. He spoke again, lilting voice echoing off the stone heads. “Come now, friend. Lower your blade. Let us walk together. I mean you no harm. Whatever fate befalls you, good or ill, is preordained is it not? What is your name, traveler?”

“Sounnu the Exile.”

“An exile? How sad. What brings you here to bask in the zenith of refinement?”

Sounnu lowered his sword. “I pass through on my way to the village of men.”

“I hope your errand is not too dire. You simply cannot leave without getting the grand tour. Firstly, let us take tea in my apartments. You can tell me all about your village and I can display for you the art that is my passion, the summation of the human experience. Upon its completion mankind will be complete. How fortunate are you, to come at the moment when it nears conclusion!”

Maneon beckoned emphatically and Sounnu followed, sheathing his blade as he walked on wary steps. The pale artist snapped his fingers and the servitor came alive again, following behind its master.

The last whole structure in Omeyopolis was Maneon’s home. It was a warehouse, long and low, the leaning sides piled high with ochre dust. The thin man pulled aside a curtain of burlap and bade Sounnu enter. The warrior ducked under a beam and reeled from the smell of rot, the stench emanating from a source not visible. Sounnu jumped at the sight of another figure and then realized he saw his own reflection in a tall mirror. He inspected the interior with eyes wide with awe. Skylights let in rays of yellow light, illuminating a vast collection. Everywhere were boxes piled on top of boxes, objects and devices of a thousand descriptions. Racks and racks of clothes were lined far into the dark recesses of the cluttered room. There were costumes of silk and satin, glittering fabrics, dark damasks, all in varying states of decay. And everywhere were more mirrors, large and small, some cracked and obscured by grime. Sounnu reached out to touch a garish coat of gold and disturbed a dozen moths. Maneon shooed them away. His face was in darkness underneath the broad brim of his hat. He gestured to a tatty divan.

“Make yourself at home, weary wanderer! Servitor will see to the tea while I change for the afternoon. I will return shortly.”

Sounnu gingerly lowered himself to the couch. Everywhere in his view were objects of unknown meaning and provenance. There were things that may have been tools, but for what purpose the warrior could not guess. Many of the objects could not have been shaped by human hands, their angles too perfect, surfaces too smooth. Even covered with layers of dust, the colors on display shocked eyes familiar only with nature’s palette. Sounnu laughed inwardly. The shamans were wrong to go to such lengths to instill fear of the cities. There were only strange men there, strange smells, and useless objects.

A man came suddenly around a stack of crates. The thin figure was clothed in an elaborate suit of muted red velvet, embroidered with geometric designs and fraying at cuffs and elbows. His hair was a shock of sharp yellow spikes. In his graceful hands he bore a silver tray. He spoke, and Sounnu realized it was Maneon, unrecognizable in his new garb.

The artist spoke, “There, refreshments for our weary guest. And now I am properly attired to receive guests and host a salon. You must be bursting with anticipation to view my art, are you not?”

Sounnu could only manage a nod of affirmation. He inspected the tray. Between two steaming cups was a plate arranged with cubes of charred meat, each speared with a tiny sliver of wood. At Maneon’s beckoning the warrior took a cup and sipped the bitter liquid, burning his tongue in the process. The liquid was near boiling. Maneon raised a thin eyebrow as he seated himself in a high backed chair held together by lashings of twine.

“Are you not hungry?”

Sounnu shrugged. “As it happens, no. But I thank you for your hospitality. What sort of meat is that?”

“Oh, these delicacies? It is a shame you will not partake. It is from my own private stock, an Omeyapolis original. I call it ‘critic’!” His shrill laughter echoed through the warehouse. He continued. “It is your loss. But who says outlanders are without manners? You are a graceful guest. I regret I cannot offer you more variety. Omeyapolis’ golden age is upon us and sacrifices have been necessary. All has given way to facilitate our art. All the servitors are inert save the one. Contact with the other cities is lost, no doubt due to a consuming jealousy on their part. Here, in this very city, mankind reaches summation. To live anywhere else must pale in comparison.”

“Where is everyone else?”

A spasm crawled spider like across Maneon’s face.

He replied, “Such a question. We shan’t dwell on such vulgar details.” He stood suddenly, waving his arm in a grand flourish. “Come now! I simply cannot wait longer. Let me show you the art that brings an end to old epochs and heralds a new future!”

Cup in hand the artist picked his way around stacks of books and boxes. Sounnu placed his cup on the tray and followed. The servitor awaited, half in shadow, as the pair reached an area of the warehouse cleared of debris. In the center of the clearing a tattered silk drape outlined a massive, dome-like form.

“Prepare yourself!”

Maneon pulled away the drape. Before Sounnu stood a sculpture like those in the clearing, only larger. He recognized the long, thin features as Maneon’s own. The artist’s voice rose with ecstasy as he spoke.

“Is it not divine? Here is man. Here is man’s soul, his spirit, the reflection of the infinite and ineffable, freed from restraint, from gods and from reason. Here we see the end! Is it not glorious?”

Sounnu’s inept pretense crumbled. His deep set eyes bored into Maneon’s. The artist stood staring, his own eyes glazed with emotion.

The warrior spoke, “You are mad.”

Maneon laughed again, throwing his head back.

“Mad? Of course! Of course I am. I have touched the center of the universe and rendered it for all to see. How could I not be mad?”

“I will leave now.”

“Not so fast, outlander! To see the secrets of civilization, to be so lucky as to peer into infinity, such a vision bears a price. My stock of ‘critic’ runs low. I shall add ‘barbarian’ to my larder presently!”

Sounnu heard the heavy steps of the servitor behind as it lunged. He rolled away, ducking the metal arms. Maneon laughed hysterically. From beneath his coat he drew a long, thin blade, rusted and spotted black save for its keen edge. Sounnu drew his sword as the servitor lunged again, missing only by a hair. Maneon sliced at his exposed back, opening a long wound. The sight of Sounnu’s blood sent him into paroxysms of delight. The servitor’s advance halted suddenly and the thing pitched forward, legs tangled by the drape that lay on the floor. Maneon squealed in fear as Sounnu turned toward him.

The warrior paused for the briefest moment, calculating. The servitor was a powerful foe. Despite fears regarding the overwhelming visions, Sounnu reckoned it was time to use the third eye. Its visions through space could prove the difference as well as exposing any further ambush.

Sounnu peeled back the blindfold. The visions began and then stopped. He fell to his knees as the scalding, bitter tea ran in rivulets down his bronze face. Maneon’s laughter reached new heights as he watched the warrior suffering. He threw the cup over his shoulder and bent to untangle the servitor’s legs from the jumble of fabric. He cursed.

“Oh, you stupid thing! You’ve gone and made it worse!”

Sounnu stumbled to his feet and wiped the stinging liquid from his eyes. His normal eyes were largely untouched but the third eye was blind, sending waves of searing pain into his skull. He stole behind the great head and leaned for a moment. He knew when the servitor won free it was only a matter of time before he was crushed by its gleaming arms. He felt the cool stone against his back, providing sudden, desperate inspiration. Sounnu sheathed his sword and turned. He sank low, bringing his hands up to grasp the sculpted curls of the statue. He pushed, with legs, back, arms, pushing until his powerful frame threatened to shatter. He felt the fibers of his muscles tearing. The massive stone stood unmoved. He heard Maneon admonish the servitor again then make a noise of triumph. The servitor was free. Sounnu strained again, veins erupting across his lean frame.

“Now, where did that foul outlander go?”

Sounnu felt his soul soar as the stone moved, first only a hair, then a hand’s width. With a great noise it pitched violently forward. There was a desperate scream and a sudden shower of blinding sparks. Sounnu collapsed from the effort, nearly losing consciousness. He rose to his feet with difficulty, drawing his sword again with arms sapped of all strength. Shaky steps brought him around to the front of the sculpture.

There lay Maneon, crushed from the waist down. His long hands pushed weakly against a thin eyebrow of stone. Beside him the servitor was inert, only head and shoulders visible. Tendrils of energy danced across the metal skin, less and less, until nothing but the smell of ozone hung around the ruined machine. Maneon gasped his last breaths. His mad eyes stared past Sounnu as he spoke.

“It is finished.”

The warrior watched Maneon’s eyes grow dim as the ghost left. A dusty breeze sent yellowed pages of sketches across the filthy floor. Sounnu followed the wind to a hole in the wall covered by a frayed cloth. He steadied himself on boxes as he walked. The rotten smell became overpowering as he reached the alley just outside. There stacked up against the wall were piles and piles of human bones. The ones nearest the door still bore traces of blood and tendon. A great pot full of filth stood on blocks over the embers of a fire. Hung everywhere were rusted blades of all shapes and sizes, thick saws and hooked skinners. Sounnu left the grim tableau behind with as much speed as he could muster. Behind him the blades sung in tinkling chimes as the wind stirred them to kiss.

 

The sun sank low as he walked. He pulled the ur-wolf pelt tight around his back but could not completely staunch the flow of blood. He trudged through the night, unwilling to rest amidst the ruins. Sounnu massaged the third eye under its blindfold and winced. The burns were more severe than he had thought. The eye was swollen shut and oozing. The wound on his back began to ache horribly. Compounding matters he felt a heat building within.

Dawn saw grass under his feet. He spared one last glance backward at the crooked spires. The rolling grasslands that separated his village from the ruins stretched before his failing vision. He walked on for another few hours, hunger compounding his growing weakness. Sounnu felt the fever growing, the sickness that had felled many a warrior who celebrated survival prematurely. The city-man’s blade had born death on its rusted edge. He walked a time, afraid to stop moving. The part of him given to reason knew that his life was near its end. Fresh trickles of his life’s blood mingled with the dried remnants that stained all the way down the back of his legs.

Finally his legs gave out from underneath him. He lay on his back, watching the clouds roll across the sky. He forgot the pain in his back, the burning ache of the third eye, and resolved himself to death. In the narrowing tunnel of his vision a face appeared.

Underneath sun kissed locks of brown hair her smooth face bore an expression of surprise. Sounnu recognized her, a woman of the village, seventeen summers old, pretty, but quiet and withdrawn. Since her beauty became apparent she had been claimed by the priestesses and was compelled to avoid socializing with the men of the village, especially the handful of warriors who had followed Sounnu as their un-appointed leader. With his last strength Sounnu waved her away.

“Let me die in peace, Sila.”

“Sounnu the Exile has returned.”

Sounnu’s voice grew low as the world went gray around him. He spoke, “I have. Now, be gone. I was sent back on a fool’s errand on behalf of the Ob-men. I saw past and future as one. I slew the last city-man and his metal servant. But I have lost too much blood and a fever burns. Let it end here.”

The woman shook her head. “The mighty Sounnu, Slayer of ghask, babbling like a madman and bowing to death. I spit on the shamans’ will. I will save you, undeserving though you are.”

Through the tall grass and swaying flowers she ran.

 

Sounnu recovered slowly under Sila’s care. He spent his nights under the open sky, wrapped in the hide of a bear she had taken with a bow last spring. Twice a day Sila stole from the village under the pretense of gathering and fed him nuts and berries then turned him over to clean his wound. Sounnu received her attentions with awkward gratitude. Seven days passed. The warrior could now stand and walk again but third eye had healed shut. He gingerly attempted to peel back its lids but recoiled from the pain each time.

On the eighth afternoon he sat on a tussock tying snares as Sila approached, cradling handfuls of berries in her leather skirt.

“The warrior is near fully recovered.”

“I am. Soon you will watch your efforts come to nothing. I am oathbound to the Ob-men’s errand. I must approach the shamans and priestesses and plead their case, at which time I will be killed properly.” He massaged his forehead as he watched Sila sit next to him. Her graceful form was at home in the tall grass, one with the flowers in a rolling sea of sunlit green. The eye ached to see her. Before he could stop himself his long arm encircled her waist. He drew her close and they kissed, sharing the sharp taste of the late summer berries that lingered in their mouths. After a long moment Sila pulled away. She sat facing him. She touched his face with her rough hands, running a finger along the strange scar on his forehead.

“I love you.”

“You love a dead man.”

She looked to the ground, plucking a white flower from its stalk. “Everywhere is death. You tell me you have slain the last city-man. Our village dies. There are but a handful of warriors left and they follow Tenno since you are gone. They range for days in the vale, overturning rocks and peering into caves in the hope of finding another blade such as yours. The priestesses gather the women to them like beads on a string. The shamans seek their visions and speak in tongues no one understands. The names of the gods are forgotten. Every year fewer children are born.”

Sounnu laughed. “I should have bade the Ob-men to simply wait a few summers.”

Sila looked to the horizon. “We should run away. Break your oath to them and we will flee.”

The warrior’s face darkened. “In whatever time we have left you will not say such a thing again to me. I bear the sword of the ancients, made by my ancestors who cloak themselves in the past as the vale wears mist in spring mornings. Exile could not part me from it. And I will not sully its honor with a broken oath, however stupid that oath may have been.”

They held each other again. Over her shoulder Sounnu saw a line of figures cresting a low hill. The villagers approached. Sounnu smiled, pushing a lock of her hair from her brow.

He spoke, “My time is near its end.”

The third eye itched under the fused lids.

 

Now we know where Sila spends her afternoons.” Oxl grabbed his daughter roughly, thrusting her into the waiting arms of a troupe of priestesses. A pair of warriors held Sounnu at bay with bows drawn while the others milled about. Tenno stood pensively. He bore a great flint axe. Its pointed head rested in the crook of his folded arms. The priestesses forced Sila to the ground with burly arms. A powerful matron draped in necklaces of sea shells inspected her with rough hands.

“Her maidenhead is intact. Lucky that, we may spare her life.”

Quewe, the head matron, shook her head no. “We do not know what blasphemies they have shared. They both must die.”

Retul, leader of the shamans, came before Sounnu. Dried mud held his hair in rough spikes. His small eyes bore into Sounnu from the darkness of his painted face.

He spoke, “Why does an exile haunt our grasslands?”

“I swore an oath to the Ob-men of legend. They want the vale back.”

“Indeed? And how did you think to affect this miracle?”

Sounnu shrugged. “I had not thought that far.”

“No matter then. You die now.”

Tenno stepped forward. The hawk feathers that hung from his braided hair stirred in the breeze. “No, shaman. Sounnu will die as a warrior.” He made a hissing sound between his teeth, the signal to advance during the hunt. His dozen warriors surged forward. Sounnu was held before he could draw the sword. He struggled lamely, still somewhat weak from his healing wounds. Tenno reached forward and drew the sword, holding it aloft to admire the ancients’ craft. The blade shone brightly.

Tears welled in the corners of Tenno’s eyes. “Now it is mine.” He tossed the axe to the ground at Sounnu’s feet and continued, “Take the axe and defend yourself. In your last moments you will know envy.”

Sounnu bent and picked up the axe. Tenno swung the sword, clumsily, unused to its balance. The long blade was difficult to direct. Sounnu jumped back to avoid the blow. Tenno laughed, exulting in the feel of the ancient steel, unfamiliar as it was. He swung out again, both hands grasping the ornate handle. Sounnu brought the axe head up to block the blade. Chips of flint stung Tenno’s face and his expression twisted. He let out a bloodthirsty yell. Retul joined his voice to Tenno’s and soon all present were screaming in rapt anticipation, their hoarse voices celebrating the coming spectacle of death. Tenno swung once more. Sounnu leapt towards Tenno before the deadly edge could be brought to bear. The pair was locked together for a moment. Tenno reached back and smashed Sounnu’s face with the hilt, a maneuver no less effective for its lack of grace. Sounnu crumpled to the ground, bleeding from the nose and a cut on his cheek. Sila wailed and fought impotently against the matrons’ grasp.

The axe fell from Sounnu’s limp hand as he struggled to remain conscious. Tenno laughed heartily, raising the sword and looking back at his troupe who roared their approval. Sounnu lay on his back, his hand reaching for the axe’s handle but finding only grass. Tenno fixed his eyes on Sounnu and taunted.

“Just a few more moments, old friend. Just a few more. I thank you for the blade. It is everything I thought it would be. I must test its keenness.”

Tenno laid the tip of the sword on Sounnu’s jaw and flicked the blade upwards. A thin red line opened.

He exclaimed, “Sharper than obsidian! And it will remain so for all eternity! What powerful magics the people of old must have possessed.”

Tenno squatted down to see better. He laid the tip on Sounnu’s forehead and drew it across. Another line opened and more blood spilled. Tenno peered at the wound, marveling for a moment at a sight unexpected. He froze, staring into a third eye.

 

Now Sounnu saw all before him through the lens of eternity. The clouds ceased their march across the sky as birds slowed mid-air. In space he saw the axe’s handle mere inches from his hand. Tenno stared in frozen horror as Sounnu took the axe and with all his might smashed the cruel point into the side of Tenno’s head. The skull shattered like a bird’s egg. Tenno went limp instantly and collapsed. Retul screamed. Sounnu took the sword and stood.

He watched as the archers’ fingers loosed their grasp. Slowly the arrows came forward. With the flat of his blade he knocked the missiles from the air. Time moved forward. The warriors had drawn their flint blades and unhooked gnarled clubs from their hide belts. Sounnu saw severed heads rolling, arms and legs rent deeply, life’s essence spurting from open arteries. He stepped forward, swinging his blade in great arcs and in moments made the visions a reality, staining the grass crimson and filling the air with death cries. He saw the shamans and priestesses waving arms and working their magics. Foam spat from their lips as they hissed. The threat of their spells had no more hold on Sounnu. He fell upon them, blade rising and falling as he met each in turn. He saw their bones bleach in the sun as he slew. He saw the grass rise and fall, green and brown, the hills becoming mountains and the plains becoming oceans.

All were slain. He stood calm in a sea of green marred with streaks of red, chest heaving from the exertion. He grew faint and tottered to one side. Sila caught him before he could fall. Their eyes met.

The third eye showed him her death and birth. He heard her last breath escape and a moment later her newborn wail. He saw her beauty throughout. Blinding light showed through her womb. Sounnu laid his gore stained hand on her flat belly. There he saw one day his seed would grow. From Sila’s womb would rise a new race of man. He watched the future unfold before him.

His descendants would multiply and cover the world, learning again the secrets of iron and grain. The gods would return, led by an all-father with three eyes and a goddess of grace and infinite mercy.

The descendants would form first kingdoms and then great nations. They would war amongst themselves under a hundred banners. They would make symbols to record their deeds and art to display their vanities. They would raise great cites of metal and temples of mirrors and forget again the names of the gods. They would become lost in the labyrinths of their own minds. The great towers would crumble and the cathedrals would fall. The cities would rot as man would return to the earth, again stalking the forests for game and fighting their enemies with blades of stone, building great bonfires to hold the terrors of the night at bay. They would dwindle in numbers, debased and fearful.

Then a day would come when a warrior would stalk the ruins and find the idol of a forgotten god, a strange statue with three eyes.

Schuyler Hernstrom’s work has appeared in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and LORE Magazine. He lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at hernstroms at gmail dot com.

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