“The Weird of Ironspell” by John R. Fultz
Illustrations by Alex Sheikman
( CONCLUSION! )
8. The Breaking of the Weird
His name was a legend in every kingdom of Arboria although some scholars argued that he had never existed.
Ironspell was a myth, an allegory, a fireside yarn that grizzled storytellers traded for ale and roasted meat. Long after the War of Darkness had ended, long after the Death Plague was wiped from the continent, and decades after the fortress city of Neshma fell to northern barbarians, the hero’s name lingered. Sages and scribes wrote tales of his adventures in leather-bound tomes alongside fables, folk stories, and fanciful verse.
While the living world scoffed at Ironspell the Legend, Ironspell the Man roamed the barren and forsaken places of the earth. Like a restless ghost he walked over burning sands, climbed mountain passes, and roved the depths of tangled forests. He had grown old, yet still he carried a great silver sword on his back, and still he wore the tarnished mail of a knight from the Royal House of Neshma. His hair and beard had gone from raven black to snowy white, and the brightness of his green eyes had faded to steely gray, the color of a cherished grief.
At times packs of white tigers followed him, dragging freshly killed game to feed him, or defending him from monstrous things that crept out of the night. But when he entered a forgotten crypt or explored the depths of a haunted ruin, the great cats would not follow. Always he emerged from those dark places days or weeks later, bearing fresh scars and little else. He searched, unceasingly, for the pit where his ancient enemy lay dreaming death into the world. He searched for the refuge of Azazar the Wicked, and he came to know all the forsaken realms where evil festered and thrived. But never could he find the lair of his adversary.
Azazar’s golden skull taunted him, a phantom swimming before his eyes. It was a mirage of hate and vengeance that kept him walking the continent long after his bones should have given way and his heart withered. Once an old witch-woman, a toothless crone, spoke to him when he passed through a nameless village.
“Your fruitless search must continue,” she said, “as long as you carry pain in your heart and hate in your eyes.”
Ironspell, old and wizened but not yet feeble, kissed the crone on her forehead and passed again into the night.
At times he came upon raging battles between armies whose banners he did not recognize. He walked among the slaughter then like a wraith while men pierced each other with metal and trampled new blood into the earth.
“Always the same,” he muttered, unheard by the soldiers killing and dying all around him. “The same reasons for the same wars…”
He saw the golden skull glistening on the surface of the full moon and blazing in the face of the midday sun. He heard the laughter of Azazar borne on the winds of midnight. Wherever he found death and suffering, he looked on the fleshless face of his nemesis. Always some new clue drove him onward, away from the light of civilization and into the solitude of the darkest wilderness.
One day he came upon a small southern village where a wedding celebration filled the air with flower petals, music, and laughter. The people of this remote place were superstitious, and they looked upon the coming of an elderly knight to their festivity as a sign of good fortune. So they invited him to share drink and provender, which he did.
Above the village square hung the silver-gold sphere that symbolized the Moon-God, who blessed new brides with fertility. The sight of the paper moon stirred vague memories in Ironspell’s heart, but he did not recall their source. He drank a flagon of wine with the groom, kissed the bride’s cheek to bless their union, then wandered off into the countryside. But as he walked the green pastures, once more alone, the face of the full moon edged from behind a bank of clouds, and for once he did not see the golden skull reflected in its glow. Instead it was a perfect globe of silver radiance hanging in the sky, transcendent with the power of its unspoiled beauty.
Ironspell stopped, leaning against a mossy boulder, and took off his helm and mail. He sat down upon the soft grass and stared at the glimmering moon. He might have wept, but his tears had all been shed long ago. He merely sighed, and closed his weary eyes.
“Ironspell…my liberator…my hero…” The sweet voice of a girl lifted his eyes open. She stood before him, a figure of youth and loveliness. Moonlight glowed from her pale skin. Her only garment was a wisp of night vapor that obscured her nudity.
“Princess Ashtra,” he said. “I remember you…”
The Bride of the Moon-God smiled at him and reached a delicate hand to caress his cheek.
“Ironspell, my lover,” she said, eyes gleaming starlight. “A terrible curse has lain upon you since they day you were born. And only you may end it.”
“Can you tell me, Princess,” he asked. “Where to find my enemy…who was your enemy as well?”
She nodded her head, and her dark hair floated on invisible winds. “I will take you there,” she said. “To repay your kindness of long ago.”
Ironspell closed his eyes again and slept. He dreamed of his beautiful wife and his newborn son, both dead for years uncounted. When he awoke, he lay in deep snow on the side of a great mountain. A door of black iron stood before him, marked with the sigil of the golden skull. The moon floated innocently in a frigid sky. Ironspell looked down across a landscape of frozen glaciers, an icy purgatory where no living thing moved and no green thing grew.
He pulled Runesblood from its scabbard one last time, and forced the iron door open with the strength of his shoulder. A modest chamber lay within, a simple granite tomb carved with dancing demons and grinning skulls. A black altar sat where a sarcophagus should have been. Atop the altar sat a great, gleaming diamond and inside the diamond, an unholy stain, lay the immortal soul of Azazar. A keening wail filled the vault, and dust whirled into a man-shaped apparition. Its face was the phantasmal golden skull that had tormented Ironspell across the decades. The mountain winds blew angrily, and he shivered in the black doorway.
So you have come at last, said the spectre. Yet you are too old and wasted to destroy me.
“I am old,” said Ironspell. “There is no denying it. I have wandered this world seeking only vengeance. Now…finally…I understand this hate.”
Strike! howled the apparition. Let us begin the final battle! Take your blessed revenge…
“No,” Ironspell said. “I believe your lies no longer. You have kept me alive all these lonely years. I am your link to the living world. You feed on my hate. Everything you have done was meant to preserve yourself by preserving the power of my hatred.”
You are wrong! Strike at the diamond!
Ironspell shook his gray head. “There is only one way I can ever defeat you.”
The wind blew fierce and deadly outside the tomb, and Ironspell dropped his silver blade.
“I forgive you, Azazar,” he said.
The walls of the tomb rattled. The ghost of Azazar flickered and clawed at Ironspell’s face, but it had no substance to harm him.
Ironspell lifted Runesblood in his gauntleted hands. He brought the sword down across his knee, breaking it in half. Its silver glow died, and the crimson runes along its length turned to warm red blood, dripping across the cold stone floor.
“Runesblood, my blood-brother, born from the same mother to travel the same path of destruction. As I break your metal body, I break the cycle of my mother’s spell. Now we may rest, brother.”
The apparition shrieked, and the Soul Stone atop the altar cracked and sparked. The golden skull sizzled in the dank air, then faded into motes of darkness.
“I renounce my hatred,” said Ironspell. “I renounce vengeance. I forgive you, wicked thing. And I forgive myself.”
A great silence lay about the vault now, and the diamond was only a pile of glass shards. The source of his power gone, Azazar was no more.
Ironspell walked empty-handed into the wind. He lay down in a drift of pristine snow, his body filled with the warm glow of a peace he had never known.
The hero died there on the side of a frozen mountain.
In the distant fields and cities far below, his legend continued to roam.
– For Howard, Smith, Leiber, Moorcock, and Schweitzer –
About the Author: John R. Fultz lives in the Bay Area, California, but is originally from Kentucky. He keeps a Virtual Sanctuary at: http://johnrfultz.wordpress.com His fiction has appeared in BLACK GATE, WEIRD TALES, and SPACE & TIME magazines, as well as the DAW Books anthology CTHULHU’S REIGN. His graphic novel of epic fantasy, PRIMORDIA, was published by Archaia Comics. He has new stories forthcoming in BLACK GATE, LIGHTSPEED, SPACE & TIME, and the WAY OF THE WIZARD anthology from Prime Books. In a previous life he made his living as a wandering storyteller on the lost continent of Atlantis.
About the Artist: Alex Sheikman is the incredibly talented creator/writer/artist of the samurai-steampunk-western-scifi comic ROBOTIKA, available at www.amazon.com in two fantastic graphic novels. Much more of his amazing artwork can be seen at http://sheikman.blogspot.com He has a brand-new sketchbook full of wonderful illustrations that readers can order directly from his blog site. Go order his books now–you’ll thank me later!