by Hank Wyckoff and Eileen Quinn
Axer stumbled a little as he entered the village. The quickening had drained all the energy from his body, as one would squeeze water from a rag. He had no stamina left. Even carrying himself into town was an effort.
The villagers eyed the stranger. His clothes were like nothing they had ever seen, and they had received many travellers from various lands, as the town was a natural stopping point on the road to Delphi.
Axer did not quite know how to take their stares. Admittedly he looked poor, but that was nothing compared to the state of the town. He had travelled across many lands, but never had he seen such poverty. It did not make sense. The town had inns and taverns... it was located on a major road... It should have been a thriving metropolis. Then why did these villagers dress in rags? Why did the women wear no jewelry?
But Axer knew that the many questions that ran through his mind would have to wait. He needed to eat; he needed replenishment. Axer knew that the final battle was yet to come. There was another immortal near - a very old one. And he would need all his strength before he met his next foe.
Axer listened closely to the villagers' accent. He barely knew the language, and the dialect was nothing close to the one that he had become accustomed to speaking. Still he would be able to communicate with them if only on a basic level.
The ragged immortal approached a slight woman stoking a fire. He turned his eyes gently towards her, and with his softest, deepest voice said: "Pardon me. Would you happen to have a scrap of food for a weary traveller? I am on the way to see the Oracle. I would be more than willing to chop that pile of wood in exchange for a morsel."
The woman looked softly at the man. He was weak as a kitten. And she was more than able to chop her own wood. Certainly a high priestess of the temple of Artemis was more than capable of fending for herself.
But there was no need to inform him of this. The man had his pride. He would not accept her charity, no matter how good her intentions. "I only have a little soup," she began, "but its yours if you'd like it."
Axer immediately headed to the wood pile.
"You really should eat first," she warned.
"Not until I've earned it," he smiled.
The high priestess smiled. It was so rare to see a man of integrity. Now two days earlier a travelling salesman had offered to chop that same pile of wood. After he was fed he went to the woods to relieve himself. No one had seen him since.
"This is quite a nice village," Axer observed over a bowl of steaming hot soup.
"No it's not," the hostess said honestly. "You're wondering why it isn't more prosperous... why the people are so poor... why commerce hasn't consumed us, why are roads are in disrepair. You think 'what a great location for a spa?' or 'perhaps these people would be interested in come of my wares - I knew I should have brought my sales case...' But that is not what we are about."
Axer gazed intently at the woman. Her eyes flared as she became impassioned. She was a wise- woman, he reasoned. Much as his own mother had been, this woman was a religious leader in her clan. Axer could not help but twist his lips into a sort of smile as he watched her complain. Careful of exposing too much of himself, he tried to hide his delight. But in truth it was like being home again.
"We recently evicted such a man," the high priestess continued. "A horrid little pest... Salmoneos someone or another. He was trying to sell us bottled water! Can you imagine? Now who would pay good money for what you can get for free from the nearest spring?"
Axer laughed out loud. It surprised him that he permitted his stern exterior slip. He hadn't meant to do so. But he felt so relaxed in this village, and especially in the presence of this woman. And yet, he didn't feel the slightest attraction for her.
These were good people, by and large holy people. Axer respected that, and he respected the high priestess, though he had no idea of her village rank.
As time passed Axer felt more and more at home in the town. The simple truth was that although the villagers viewed him as a stranger, they nonetheless trusted him. In a short time he had ingratiated himself upon the entire populace. He performed various tasks, finished odd jobs, whatever... all in exchange for a little food, water, and shelter.
Axer could almost get used to holy life. Almost... For he never lost sight of the fact that there was a task yet to be performed - a battle to engage. And he knew that the other immortal was near-by, watching, waiting.
He could feel his presence.
Axer wished there was something he could do to draw the other man out. But he was still to young to wield such power. All he could do was wait.
Axer was sleeping comfortably in a haystack behind the blacksmith's forge when the siege began. He had been dreaming a beautiful young blond woman. She seemed so familiar, though he knew he had never seen her.
In the dream they sat together by a lake, gazing out across the motionless water. He was just about to lean across and kiss her, when... Suddenly the water became turbulent. It crashed in around them, sucking them off into the cold darkness.
In seconds the water pulled them under. He lost sight of the woman, as the black water sucked her down.
Then the dream shifted, and he was standing once more at the water's edge.
He was watching the woman's cohort as she stood atop a high cliff. How he knew that it was his lover's cohort, he did not know. She was tall and dark, almost menacing. She raised her sword in the air - and the god of the sea himself stood up at her command.
With that he woke.
"What a strange dream!" He could not shake the feeling of foreboding that remained with him after he woke. Was it the dream - or was it something more?
Axer could barely focus his eyes in the dark. But it seemed as if something was moving in the brush surrounding the village.
"Bloody hell!" he screamed, and leaped to his feet. The other immortal was near.
Axer reached for his sword, but it was lost in the hay. "Damn! ...Can't count on anything these days!" he cursed himself. He shuffled his hands in the hay until he came across the blade.
"Ouch," he suppressed the pain, licked the blood from his finger tips, and headed out into the village.
The sun was just beginning to rise, but the sky over the village burned a bright red. Flame engulfed the buildings around him. Somewhere a child screamed as she watched her father being sliced to bits. All around him was pandemonium, yet Axer felt sublimely calm.
Villagers raced around him, toting buckets of water to clench the flames.
Their efforts were futile. Axer could smell the fumes. The evil immortal and his army had drenched the houses with the earth's black blood. There could be no saving their homes.
Standing square in the middle of the village Axer tried to get a sense of the other immortal. He was close at hand, Axer was certain, but the heat, the flames, the smoke, the cry of children all played with his mind.
//No distractions// he warned himself. These were mortals, after all. They had to die sometime. He tried to convince himself that he didn't care. He tried to close his eyes to their suffering. Too many times he allowed them to drain away his attention, he argued with his conscience. Too many times he had risked his own head for a short-lived wench, or a bawling mortal child. But not this time. This time he could not afford such generosity.
Axer focused on the sensation at the base of his spine. He grounded himself in the midst of the turmoil. Taking a deep breath he cleared his mind, and attempted to zone in on the other immortal.
"Show yourself," Axer whispered to the thick hot wind. But the enemy would not emerge. Nonetheless, his concentrations techniques were beginning to work. Axer had a sense of him. He made a movement towards the east, attempting to follow the sensation.
Somewhere at the opposite end of the village a woman screamed, breaking through Axer's trance. "No!" he cried. "So close." He shook his head. "You will not escape!" he vowed.
Closing his ears to the woman's cries of anguish, Axer centered himself once more. He stood perfectly still in the middle of the village, his sword extended. He tried again to zero in on the aged immortal. He pretended not to hear the woman yell out as a group of soldiers took her.
Billowing clouds of black smoke engulfed him. The smell taunted his nostrils, threatening to pull him away from the task at hand. He tried to keep his mind clear. It was all a diversion, he reasoned. This attack was meant to divert him from his true purpose - the final battle. It was all orchestrated by one man: the ancient immortal. He would not permit himself to give in to the diversion.
Axer began to repeat a prayer in his own native tongue. He cast a spell over his own mind - entrancing himself, wiping out all distractions. But the guilt of standing by while the innocents suffered gnawed at him..
Try as he might to ignore it, the sounds of the village played a vile tune against his ears. He had to do something to stop the slaughter, his conscience told him. Yet something far more ancient deep inside him gnawed at him, told him to bide his time - to wait - that the final battle was soon at hand. To waste this moment might mean his head.
And then it happened... the ear-piercing scream of the high priestess.
Axer cleared his mind. Vengeance would have to wait. Today was a day for justice. Immediately he broke from the trance, and joined the battle. He quickly realized that he was the villager's only defense. They had not prepared for such attacks.
For the most part, Axer had held off the decimation of the village. But not through the use of his sword. Most of the fight was against the fire that had swept through the tiny town. The bulk of the village had been destroyed, buildings reduced to ashes. Axer darted in and out of buildings pulling the children and the infirm from their beds before the fire and smoke engulfed them.
The villagers cheered as the invaders withdrew. But Axer only frowned. He knew that the battle had merely been a distraction. It was all a ruse - a test of his mettle. And the older immortal had judged him the loser. But what was he to do - save his own neck while innocent people died? Their lives were much shorter than his own, and in some ways far more precious. Did it make him weak to care for them so?
His mother once said that compassion was his strength, not his weakness. He may not have been the most powerful immortal, but at least he was a good man. Axer frowned at these words of wisdom. What good was it to be a decent but dead immortal? Would the plaque under his head read "he was a good guy - too bad he lost his head?"
Axer retreated to the far end of the village to sulk. A few of the invaders lurked near-by, hoping to steal a few dinars from the pockets of the dead. Axer ignored them. He knew he could best any mortal man, as he glazed down at his sword.
"What use were you today?" he said aloud. Axer caught a glimpse of himself in the shining metal. His face was blackened by the smoke. Like a death mask hung over his face, it seemed. Had he doomed himself in joining in the fight against the flames? Axer wondered, //why the test?// It made no sense. His own father had not tested him as much.
It seemed as though this faceless immortal took pleasure in playing with the lives of humans. But why? What could he possible achieve from it? Had he lived so long that all other diversions had become a bore? Some immortals became mercenaries or warriors merely to occupy their time and hone their skills. Axer had known men like that, and had taken pleasure in severing their heads.
//I shall take pleasure in unaquainting you with yours!// he said aloud. A few of the villagers eye him. Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps the flames had driven him mad.
Pulling himself to his feet, Axer walked about the village surveying the damage. His feet crunched the cinders as he wept for the loss of life. What a waste. A feeling of dread gripped his stomach, or was it remorse? He did not know. Gazing at the smoldering ruins Axer sighed. //Where do I go from here? How do I find the bastard who did this?//
Then he heard it. It was very faint, but unmistakable. Axer raised his head, and looked towards the sound.
"High priestess," he called. There was a noise coming from under a charred ceiling beam. Axer could see her arm extended out from underneath. She was still alive.
He raced to the scene, bent over to help the woman, and - thud! The rock came crashing down on his head, nearly splitting open his skull.
"I got him! I got him!" a grimy soldier jumped for joy as he pointed to the fallen Axer. "I got him, and now I'll get his sword."
The soldiers swarmed around him, gathered his meager belongings, took everything from his person but his dirty Celtic clothes, and left him for dead.
"Wait until the boss hears about this," a short one bragged. "We took out the stranger with one fell swoop!"
"Who took out the strange one?" the one with the Celt's sword asked.
The other men gulped. It was Polaris who took out the stranger, they all agreed. With that they headed back to tell their general of the victory.
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