Luke Kiernan lives in Ireland, and is currently studying English and History in Dublin City University (DCU). He mainly writes science fiction and fantasy stories and is currently working on numerous short stories and a science fiction novel.
THE MAN WITH MANY NAMES
This time Jav didn’t scream or slam his cards on table; instead he placed them down gently in defeat. Nin almost felt guilty, until she remembered that he slaughtered four men last week for looking at him the wrong way.
“When are you going to learn Jav?” She said scooping up the coins on the table. Jav sighed.
“When I run out of money I reckon” He said, his speech slightly slurred from the wine. He took out another fistful of coins from his tattered brown coat and placing them on the table. They played again, and she won again.
“Fuck!” Jav hissed this time slamming his fists down on the table, his pudgy face turning bright red. The tavern suddenly went silent; all eyes were glued on Jav. He was a large man, towering over everyone else in the room. While others cowered away, Nin looked at him in the eye, smiling at him knowing full well that there was nothing he could do to her; he’d learned that the hard way. After staring at each other for a few moments, Jav stormed out of the Tavern and the chatter returned as if nothing had happened.
Nin took a sip of her sour wine. Sour was the perfect word to describe the Gray Tavern, the wine was sour, the food even more so and the people were the most sour. It was little more than rotting shack on the outskirts of the small town of Gray Fell which somehow managed to be more impoverished. The tavern was under the constant threat of collapsing on itself, with the stink of unwashed bodies, rotten food, and shit heavy in the air. It was a hive filled with the worst scum in the South which was saying something, all of them were thieves, gamblers, bounty hunters, murders and mercenaries, and she was no exception. Nin often told herself that someday she should leave and go out and try doing something else, maybe she could help folks instead of killing them. But she knew better that, the world was better with her in the south.
“May I join you?” Someone with a slight eastern accent asked. She looked up startled to see a tall old man wrapped tightly in a stained and worn cloak looking down at her, his skin was wrinkled and pale, his eyes were sunken emerald coloured, his cheeks hollow, his shaggy was gray with hints of black. There was a kind twinkle in his eyes, which only made her all the more suspicious.
“What do you want?” Nin asked placing her hand on the hilt of her sword.
“To talk” He said with an easy smile, sliding onto the seat across from her.
“That’s quite a lot of coin you’ve earned there” He noted staring at the pile of coins in front of her. She scowled at him, her grip tightening on her sword.
“Don’t worry I’m not here to rob you, in fact I’ve a job to offer you if you’re interested”
“I’m not” she said, the old man smiled.
“You won’t be able to resist this offer” He said
“That a threat?” She asked, the old man rolled his eyes.
“Why do mercenaries think everyone’s out to kill them?” He asked
“More often than not they are”
“Let’s just say there’ll be a substantial reward for this Job”
“And what exactly is the job?”
“Keeping your grandfather dead” The old man said. Nin froze, her heart began to race, her mind ran through all the possibilities, but of course only one made sense.
“You know who I am” She said.
“Princess Niana, a pleasure to meet you at last” He said, she wasn’t sure whether it was a mocking tone or not.
“I’m no princess” she said, the old man snorted.
“How did you recognise me?” Nin asked this far south no one should have found her, and yet here he was.
“Finding people is one of my many talents. I knew your father, he was a good man”
“Aye and he’s a dead man”
“Killed by the orders of your grandfather King Kase’s, so I assumed it would be in your best interested to keep him dead”
“I suppose it would” Nin said letting go of the hilt of her sword.
“We shall discuss the details later; right now we have a more urgent problem” He said looking over his shoulder towards a group of four men all huddled at the corner, all of them glaring at them, with cold pale eyes and shaved heads.
“For fuck sake” She hissed, wondering how the hell she hadn’t noticed them before. Death always comes to those who least expect it her father used to say, which was ironic since he probably never suspected his own.
“King Kase’s men, still serving their master from beyond the grave” The old man said calmly. He stood up; as he did so did the four men.
“Oy I don’t want any...” The bartender began but was cut off by a knife flying through his eye. They were heavily armed, and yet the old man strode towards them confidently armed with nothing but his long worn staff. The men charged at them, Nin unsheathed her sword but she didn’t need it. The fight was over in seconds, the old man was nimble for his age, and quite lethal. The staff was sharper than any of their swords, and one by one he cut them down, beheading one of them and slicing one in half, the other two were set ablaze, the fire was extinguished as soon as it came. The floor of the tavern was soaked with their blood, that’s all that was left of them blood and ash. All eyes were locked on the old man, a room of mercenaries terrified to look at him let alone move.
“Fuck” The old man said looking at the blood smeared across his brown cloak mildly annoyed.
“I think we best be off, what do you say?”
“Agreed” She tried to say but the words were stuck in her throat, so instead she just nodded.
“My name is Ebra by the way” The old man chirpily.
“I don’t care” Nin said as they rode on the dirt road, to god knows where he was taking her.
“Regardless I have found names to be useful”
“I suppose if I say no to this job you’ll kill me too”
“Of course not, who do you take me for some kind of savage?”
“I’ve no idea what you are, some kind of Wizard I’m guessing” She said.
“You’re sharp” Ebra said dryly.
“Thought all wizards were Kings, or Lords not... whatever it is you are”
“We appear to be the exception”
“I’m no Wizard”
“Ah but you do have an affinity for magic, how else could you swindle all that money”
“My father always told me that anyone could use magic but that didn’t make them a Wizard”
“Aye that’s true in theory, but only the greatest minds can truly wield it or those with the most magic flowing through their blood”
“So what are you then?” She asked
“I was a King once, but I found the simple life far more rewarding, so I retired”
“And what about you Princess Niana?” Ebra asked
“Don’t call me that”
“You didn’t answer my question” he said. Nin sighed.
“I think the worlds better off if I’m out here, magic brings nothing but trouble to folk in my experience, Wizards rule the world and look how shit it is”
“Your father wouldn’t have agreed with that”
“Well he’s dead now, and what good did his efforts do? In the end all he did was start a war and get himself killed” She snapped.
“Is that why you spend your days out here in the gutter living amongst the rats, pretending you are one yourself?”
“Everyone’s a rat, some just hide it better, and besides what the hell do you know about my father anyways, or my grandfather?”
“Your grandfather was my master, he taught me the ways of his art. Of course he hoarded all the valuable secrets to himself, but he was an excellent mentor”
“Secrets like what bringing one’s self back from the dead?”
“That and much more, he was a good man too he did what he did to make the world a better place”
“He had my father because he tried to help people!” She snapped.
“Did he? What prove do you have of that?”
“Everyone knows that’s what happened”
“You still didn’t answer my question”
“If you really think that then why are you trying to keep him dead?”
“Because death changes a man, and not for the better, it turns most men turn mad. And if someone as powerful as Kase were to lose his mind well things wouldn’t go well for the rest of us”
“Least we can agree on that much” She said.
Once it started to get dark they stopped by the road. The air was growing colder, turning her hands and face red raw, and she was fighting a losing battle against exhaustion.
“We should start a fire” She said
“And risk Kase’s men finding us so easily?” Ebra said with a bewildered expression.
“They don’t seem to be much of a threat to you”, Ebra shrugged.
“Fair point, very well then” He said, and with a simple click of his fingers he produced a roaring fire that hovered half an inch from the ground. Even Nin who hated magic couldn’t help but be awed.
“See, magic can do good” Ebra said staring at his fire proudly.
“So what does this job entail exactly?” She asked sitting close to the flames.
“First we travel to Gray Fall ruins and then we perform a blood ritual”
“We? I told you I wasn’t a Wizard”
“That’s not why I need you”
“So how is Kase going to bring himself back from death?” She asked.
“His sprit rests in the ruins, only a matter of time before he regains strength. We have to be careful though; the place is crawling with skin takers”
“Ah” Sabre said starting to regret her decision to go along with this. Taking down ordinary men was so much safer, so much easier then dealing with wizards and monsters. She’d never encountered a skin taker before, but she’s heard more than enough stories. But maybe just this once she’d go along with it, just to keep Kase dead, something that might help her sleep at night.
“Tell me, if you think magic brings nothing good then why use it at all?” Ebra asked.
“What kind of question is that? Sometimes you can’t help using it”
“So you know that you’re going to win and yet you keep playing anyway, couldn’t you just choose not to play?”
“Have to make a living” She grumbled.
“I see. Well you better get some rest”
“What about you?”
“I don’t sleep” Ebra said flatly, that was far from the most strange thing about the old man so she lay down, with her face turned towards the fire and finally relented to sleep.
They were screaming at each other downstairs in a tongue she couldn’t understand. She wanted to go down there and help him, but she stayed under the bed just like her father ordered her too. She listened as shouting escalated into violence, as the men unsheathed their swords, and to brief but brutal fight all the while she tried to force herself out from under the bed to do something, anything at all. But she didn’t, even when her father begged for mercy and when his pleas were silenced she stayed put. Instead she sobbed and whimpered, hoping that they wouldn’t try finding her as well.
“Oy, get up” Ebra said shaking her. She awoke, drenched in a cold sweat.
“Nightmare?” Ebra asked. She nodded.
“I hated those” He said throwing her a strip of dry beef. Though she hadn’t eaten in twelve hours her appetite had evaporated.
“You don’t eat either then” Nin said.
“Not for nourishment no” Ebra said mounting his horse. She followed him. They rode down a dirt road until they reached a looming hill on the horizon.
“There it is” Ebra said.
“I can’t see anything”
“It’s covered in a cloud of mist”
“Oh” She said feeling a sudden urge to put as much distance between her and that fortress. As they got closer, the grass started to die away until there was only bare soil left and soon nothing but exposed rock. Then the horses came to a sudden halt.
“Why aren’t they moving?” She asked.
“They won’t cross any further, and who can blame them the place is cursed” Ebra said wrinkling his nose and dismounting from his horse. The place was silent; she couldn’t even hear the wind. It was a deadly kind of silence. To make matters worse the place reeked of rotting meat, and in the mist she could feel hungry eyes glaring at her.
“Maybe we should go back” Nin said, but Ebra wasn’t listening.
“Just follow my lead” He ordered, his usual relaxed tone replaced by one that commanded obedience. She followed him as they began to climb up the hill, the mist only getting thicker. All she could hear were her own shallow breaths, and Ebra’s footsteps. Minutes passed, or maybe hours it all felt the same up there and Ebra’s footsteps only got fainter, and only grew more distant the more she tried catch up to him. She was surrounded by mist with no sense of direction, backwards and forwards was one and the same.
“Niana?” A vaguely familiar voice croaked shattering the eerie silence.
“Nin?” The voice called out again, this time it sounded much closer, and there was no mistaking whose it was.
“Father!” She called out, vaguely making out the shape of a figure a few feet ahead of her. A voice in the back of her head told her to run, to run back down, remembering that Ebra had said something of Skin takers. She ignored that voice, rushing towards the figure. As she got closer she could see more of him, his raven black hair, his glazing emerald eyes and soft face. There was something wrong about him, his smile was warm but his eyes were cruel and bore through right her.
“Nin, is that you?” He asked.
“It’s me” She said her voice shaking.
“Nin why did you leave me?” He asked with a hint of anger in his voice.
“What? No I...”
“You let them kill me; you stayed under that bed when they slit my throat!” Her father roared.
“You told me to stay there!” She said weakly. He grabbed her by her shirt dragging her in close enough that she could smell his rancid breath.
“You left me to die you fucking coward!”, and all at once his eyes turned from bright green to pitch black and pit less, his teeth were yellow and longer than any knife she’d seen. She could feel its claws gripping her tightly cutting into her. Fear clogged her throat, made time go slower as she tried to think of some way to escape, but all she could do was squeal and hope that it would let her go. She didn’t hear him coming behind the creature, but she could see his staff which was ablaze emitting a blinding orange light which cut through the mist. She closed her eyes as the staff slashed through the creature and she felt its blood splatter across her face.
“Get up!” Ebra barked grabbing her hand. She opened her eyes, the creatures corpse had already been devoured by the ever thickening mist. Ebra held his staff in the air and started bellowing a curse in some strange language, and all at once the mist cleared. She tried get up but fell back down catching her breath wiping the creature’s blood that was still gushing down her face, or maybe it was her own.
“Why didn’t you do that at the start?” She tried asking but the words refused to come out, instead she howled as blood oozed from her leg.
“I told you to follow me!” Ebra growled grabbing her leg, and forcing the wound to close.
“I lost you” She said weakly, feeling the shame wash over her, the shame of being fooled so easily and of being as helpless as she was in the jaws of death.
“I’ve cleared the mist, but it’ll be back and those Skin takers will come with it” He said forcing her up. She looked around; it was hardly a fortress at all just piles of rocks, coated in layers of moss with ancient ruins written across them in a dead language written by a dead people.
“Come on we must move quickly!” Ebra said impatiently dragging her away. They went up the hill until they reached the summit, where ten pillars of tall stones surrounded them, each covered with large runes and symbols, some depicting men, some of other creatures like Skin takers and Dragons and of battles fought long ago, Kings, and Heroes, and warriors most of them however had faded away lost forever in the sea of time.
“I’ll need some of your blood”
“My blood?” She asked nervously.
“Yes, it is a blood ritual!” Ebra snapped. Reluctantly she handed him over her hand as he took out a small crude knife and slashed a small cut. He took the knife and smeared the blood across one of the runes as she tried to stop the blood gushing out. All the while he muttered some strange incantation, and the rune glowed bright purple, and then bright red. And then he stopped, and the colour faded.
“Is it done?” She asked hoping that it was, more than eager to get back to the Tavern, to where the world was a less terrifying place, where the only monsters were other men.
“Aye” Ebra said.
As she mounted back onto her horse she noticed a dark plume of smoke rising in the distance.
“That’s Gray Fell!” She said.
“Oh no, just the Tavern” Ebra said riding up next to her. There was something different about him now, his hair wasn’t as gray, his eyes were no longer bloodshot, and it was as if years of his life had been shaved off.
“How do you know?” She asked
“How do you think?” He asked, his lips had curled into a smug grin.
“That spell wasn’t to keep Kase dead was it?”
“Isn’t it obvious? Why kill a score of the worst scum in the south, and save the life’s of thousands, preventing countless rapes and thefts?”
“You don’t know that”
“Don’t be a fool, I know you don’t really believe that”, She said nothing, instead looking at the rising smoke feeling her stomach turn, even from this distance she could swear she could almost smell the charred meat of the dead.
“It’s wrong; you can’t just burn men alive”
“Why can’t I? You think any of them could’ve changed their ways, started a new life let go of their violent ways?” Ebra said laughing coldly.
“Let me tell you the dark truth of the world, men never change, I have lived for hundreds of years I have seen all manner of people, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they aren’t as complex as you may think. In the end evil men will do evil, and good men will do good” She looked at him, all of it was starting to fit into place. The Wizard looked familiar and yet just different enough.
“You’re Kase” She said. Ebra smiled proudly.
“You are sharp” He said, and before she could even lay a hand on the hilt of her sword her body froze. She was paralysed just as a wave of sharp pain hit her; her screams were stuck in her throat.
“I wouldn’t try anything foolish” Ebra said. The pain stopped but she was still paralysed.
“Why trick me then, what was the point of all of this?”
“To get the measure of you, see if you were as powerful as you seemed. And gladly you didn’t disappoint, the magic in your blood is quite potent” He said nodding off to the rising black smoke.
“Who were those men then?”
“Oh they were mine, some of my more devoted followers who scarified themselves for the ruse, I hope you appreciate it”
“Tell me, do you truly believe I had your father murdered? I was the one protecting him all his life. I won’t say that I loved him, he was a stubborn malicious half wit but he was still my son”
“Why the hell should I believe you?”
“You already know I’m right, and that’s the dark truth about you. That story you’ve clung on to all your life is nothing but a shallow excuse. An excuse you could tell yourself whenever you watched a family being slaughtered, or wives and daughters being dragged off you could tell yourself that there was nothing you could do, because magic brings nought but pain into the world, that if you did anything you’d end up like your father and bring nothing but more misery. Your father wasn’t murdered because he tried to help people; he was murdered because he was a vicious idiot who angered the wrong people. The truth is you just want to survive, that’s why your here because is the only place where none can challenge you. The truth is that you’re a coward”, she wanted to tell him he was wrong, that it was better if she stayed out here. But she couldn’t, because no matter how badly she wanted it not to be, what he was saying was true.
“Why don’t you kill me too then, I’ve killed my fair share I’m no better than they were”
“True enough, I’d argue your kind is the vilest. Most bad men don’t know any better, they are to be pitied more than hated, but dealt with nonetheless. But your kind, those who know what they do is wrong and continue doing it. But still even vile creatures have their uses, and now I am offering you a chance to turn away from all that to a noble cause”
“You think burning people alive is a noble cause?”
“Purging the world of the guilty and saving the innocents is noble”
“And what if you’re wrong? Folk aren’t as simple as you think” Ebra laughed.
“I am the closest this world has to god, I know better than anyone what men are like. I have lived for nearly a thousand years, I have been Kings, and Lords, and to some I was even god. I have seen people come and go in the blink of an eye. Everything is simple to me”
“Everyone thinks their right, what the hell makes you any different?”
“Not everyone is me” Ebra said sighing, as if he was explaining something simple to a child.
“I am giving you a chance to pull yourself from this filth, probably the only chance you’ll ever get”
“Go fuck yourself and your noble cause!” She said, her voice quivering sure that she was about to erupt into flames like those men did instead Ebra just shoke his head.
“You had no problem doing it for money”
“I never killed anyone who wasn’t trying to kill me first”
“How disappointing, you truly are a fucking coward. I suppose the fault is mine for expecting better” He snarled, releasing whatever force that was paralysing her.
“No matter, I have hundreds of children, and thousands of grandchildren undoubtedly there are more like you out there that are more understanding” He said and without looking at her again, he turned off and rode in the opposite direction.
“What about my payment?” She called out to him.
“Your life is your reward, though I would hardly regard that as substantial. Goodbye Niana, fair warning if we met again I will not hesitate to kill you” He said scowling at her.
By the time she returned to the Gray Tavern the place was still smouldering, that and appalling stench of burnt flesh made her gag. In life they would’ve all seen themselves as so different but in death all the bones looked the same. The time for excuses was over, as was her career as a mercenary. She couldn’t say she would miss it all that much. She rode off down the dirt road, knowing that she couldn’t hide behind her excuses. She was brimming with terror, a voice instead her was screaming at her to turn back to find some other contractor to stay in the South where life was easy, where no one could hurt her, where she could live in peace. But how could she live in peace when she knew the truth, when she knew she could something to stop the pain of the world? So she rode on anyways for the first time in a long time she ignored that voice.