By Vaughn Heppner
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Vaughn Heppner and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.
— Numbers 13:32-33
The chariot careened through the tall grasses, the churning wheels crushing a path through the whispering stalks. The platform trembled as the chains binding the yoke madly rattled. Both stallions thundered their hooves as sweat lathered their creamy hides.
In the rush, Lod’s tangled white hair streamed behind him. He was a strange young man, with muscles like a tiger. He wore a flapping red tunic, cinched with the golden belt of a charioteer. His face was rugged, with feral blue eyes like some desert prophet on the verge of divination.
Herrek of Teman Clan stood beside him, wearing bronze chainmail and a burnished helm with a flowing horsetail crest. Herrek pointed north, shouting, “There, Lod. Look! A flash of light!”
The sun was behind them, a fiery ball in the cloudless sky, while an endless expanse encircled them, a sea of grass. There were no trees, no bushes, just this vast terrain.
“I see it,” rumbled Lod, “but I don’t see a giant.”
“He must be crouching,” said Herrek.
Lod cracked the whip, veering toward where the light had flashed.
Herrek withdrew a javelin from a wooden quiver. The long missile was black, cut from the branch of a bicker tree, with a tip of razor-sharp bronze. With such javelins, Elonites had broken many a host as they wheeled around their enemies like angry wasps, launching their stings with unerring accuracy.
The expedition of which Lod and Herrek were part had come by great ship to the shores of the Kragehul Steppes, to snatch wild horses and flee before any sons of Jotnar appeared. Unfortunately, yesterday a sharp-eyed lad had sworn he’d seen a giant on the horizon, a mailed son of Jotnar outlined against the sinking sun. Herrek had volunteered to investigate. More charioteers would have come, but everyone else was needed today for the roundup.
Lod cocked his head. He smelled… soggy ground, a different odor than this expanse of grass. The chariot lifted over a rise of ground. Lod felt it in his gut, and then the horses plunged down a slight incline. Spread out before them was a hidden marsh, with patches of scummy water. The flash of light must have reflected off the marsh.
The two exchanged glances.
Herrek pointed with the javelin. “Try over there.”
Lod cracked the whip, not to speed the team, but guiding them in the right direction. The soggy odor permeated the area. Lod slapped at a mosquito whining in his ear. The horses flicked their tails. Several times hooves squished into wet ground and Lod felt the drag upon the wheels. Soon they climbed an incline, the horses trotting now as they passed bulrushes and passed warbling red-winged blackbirds. Herrek unhooked his great auroch-hide shield.
“Just in case,” muttered Herrek.
It seemed impossible that a giant hid here. Yet what if the giant lay down? Lod squeezed the reins so his forearms rippled. He watched, alert like a hunting beast.
“What’s that?” whispered Herrek.
Lod almost missed it because he expected a giant to rise up out of the earth. Then he saw whiteness out of place with the bulrushes and the green grass. The whiteness was low, planted in the soil. The horses clopped closer, enough to give them a full view of a skeleton stretched upon the ground. It wasn’t an ordinary skeleton, but near fifteen feet from skull to sole, the skeleton of a giant, a son of Jotnar!
Lod drew rein, and in a jingle of harnesses and a rattle of wood, the team and chariot came to a halt. The stallions snorted, stamping their hooves. The skeleton brought home the grim reality of these steppes. Here prowled Nephilim, those with supernatural powers. The lad had said he’d seen a giant dressed in chainmail. Such would wield an Accursed gift that each of their kind had unto the third generation, a magical ability always unique to each Nephilim.
“Stay alert,” said Herrek, jumping off the chariot.
A premonition struck Lod then. It was like a thump against his chest. “Wait,” he said.
The bronze-armored warrior paused, regal in his horse-plumed helm, auroch-hide shield and javelin.
“Let me check it,” said Lod. “I think you should stay in the chariot.”
Herrek laughed. “Am I child that you must protect me? Obey me, charioteer. Keep alert lest we are surprised.” Then the warrior tramped to the skeleton, prodding it with his foot. He knelt, soon shrugged off his shield and set aside the javelin.
Lod scanned the distance, his forehead creased and his strange eyes hard. He found it difficult to heed the word, ‘obey’, for it brought back nightmarish memories of Shamgar where he had bobbed in the oily canals as slave bait for one hundred pound rats. The struggle within and his watch of the horizon left him uncertain how long Herrek didn’t move. For it was only by degrees that Lod became aware of the warrior’s stillness. Then it struck him sharply.
“Herrek!” he shouted.
The warrior didn’t respond.
Lod wrapped the reins around the hitching post before he jumped off the chariot. He circled Herrek, who knelt unmoving by the skeleton. The warrior held a small, silver box that Lod had never seen before. The lid was open. The skeleton… it lay face first in the soil. The back of the skull had been crushed, with one arm thrust outward and the other arm-bone held under its ribcage. Someone had broken those rib-bones. By the stark whiteness of the cracked ends, verses the bleaching of the outer bones and the dry lichen webbed upon them, it appeared as if those rib-bones had been recently broken. Had the skeleton been holding that small box? It looked like a jewel box that a noble lady might own and store her rings in. Herrek’s helmeted head was bent, his attention riveted by… Lod squinted. Something green pulsed from the box.
“Herrek,” he said.
The warrior didn’t respond.
Lod took two steps closer, curious and then understanding hit him: it was magic! Yet he wasn’t swift enough. A faint odor assailed his nostrils, myrrh and other spices used to embalm the dead. He stared at the green thing and took rapid steps nearer until he stood beside Herrek.
He had expected a gem, but it wasn’t that. It looked like an eyeball, and the hideous eyeball shifted upon the cloves and spices until the slit pupil peered at him. It was a serpent’s eye, by its size torn from some monstrous species. The green came from a nimbus pulsating from it.
Lod felt the evil as it stirred in him a lust for ancient things. Within the attic of his mind stormed an idea. He must go north to the hills of Kel-Hemen. He must seek out the cave of Draugr Stonemaker and plunder the crypt of… of…
Lod’s blue eyes blazed as he realized the serpent’s eye tried to dominate him. His heart thudded and without conscious thought, he brandished his dagger. A fire burned in him, leaping into life against this witchery. He snarled as a bewitching drumbeat pounded in him to go north and storm the cave. Lod howled, and he threw his arms before his eyes, staggering away from the demonic orb. With a wrench of stubborn will, he shoved the commanding voice into the dark places of his mind and sat again on the throne of his thoughts.
“I am Lod,” he said, as sweat dripped from him, as he panted. “I am no man’s slave, nor any necromancer’s servant.” A fierce grin split his lips until he saw Herrek.
The warrior stood, peering at him with eyes that glowed with green witchery. Of the serpent’s eye or jewel box there was no evidence, although something lumpy bulged from the warrior’s belt pouch. Herrek gathered his shield and javelin, and he grinned from within his war-helm.
“We must plunder the crypt of Draugr Stonemaker,” Herrek said.
This evil manifestation of Herrek’s glowing eyes set Lod’s teeth on edge. “Let me see the box,” he rumbled. He was going to stomp on the eye. That should nullify the vile magic.
“No,” said Herrek. “I will hold it.”
“It wields a spell!” spat Lod. “Destroy it or fling it from you.”
Herrek laughed. “You’re overreacting. It is a gift. It has imparted wonderful knowledge.” The warrior pointed north with his javelin. “We must drive to the hills of Kel-Hemen.”
“There are no hills here. This is steppe land.”
“Didn’t you listen?” asked Herrek. “The hills were a fortress raised ages ago by Draugr Stonemaker or by the arts of his father. It was long ago when the bene elohim strode the Earth like gods.”
Lod’s rugged features grew stiff, and a strange intensity smoldered in his eyes. Nephilim plagued humanity, used men for their diabolical purposes. Lod had tasted life in wicked Shamgar, been treated worse than an animal in a city ruled by those with the blood of the bene elohim. “They weren’t gods,” Lod whispered, “but fallen angels. This Draugr Stonemaker must have been a First Born.”
“Yes,” said Herrek. “You heard it then. You understand.” The warrior marched for the chariot.
“Understand what?” spat Lod, keeping pace.
“What the hills are.”
“There are no hills here.”
“Didn’t you listen? An earthquake shook the land, throwing up and piling subterranean stones into hills. I thought it a most noble story.” Herrek smote his shield with his javelin. “Ancient fighters sought immortality. Draugr Stonemaker had the power to give it to them.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Lod. “If this First Born was so powerful as to grant immortality, how is it that he lays in a crypt?”
The eerie glow in Herrek’s eyes deepened until they seemed like a hyena’s orbs at night staring into a fire. “I know the eye spoke to you.” Herrek tapped his helmet. “It spoke in my mind. It told me that in his petulant wrath, the one above sent his fiery ones against Draugr and his father. The fiery ones came to this land in swift galleys, disgorging a host, and they laid siege to the hills of Kel-Hemen. In response, Draugr Stonemaker raised his stonewalkers. They reaped a bitter harvest, and if not for the adamant arms of those who served—” Herrek snarled, striding for the chariot.
Lod grabbed the warrior, spinning him around. “You’re being used. The serpent’s eye controls your thoughts.”
Herrek jerked his arm free. “I go to find the prize! Adamant arms and armor, weapons forged in celestial smithies, beaten on holy anvils. Did the petulant one above send forth his minions armed with leather and bronze? No, the eye told me that they wielded adamant. The like is not to be found elsewhere on Earth. The serpent’s eye told me that in the raging battles, Draugr Stonemaker destroyed the flesh that clad a celestial’s spirit. Yet in the fight, the First Born took his death wound. The stonewalkers dragged their master back into the caves of Kel-Hemen, clothing him in the adamant mail and setting the sword forged from above at his side. Then they sang a frightful dirge, and the Stonemaker stirred. With his Accursed gift, he sealed them with immortality: spirits of men torn from their fleshly shells and reset in stone, animating the chiseled things with a semblance of life. Stone eyes, stone arms and stony hearts, the stonewalkers were near to deathless.”
“Abominations,” whispered Lod.
“They were terrible creatures,” intoned Herrek, his entire being now animated by his glowing eyes. “Yet with their master’s passing, the stonewalkers slumbered. For the victors sealed the caves of Kel-Hemen. The victors held Draugr Stonemaker’s sire in adamant chains, and the fields were soaked with the blood of their terrestrial retainers. The fiery ones had no desire to crawl into the caves of Kel-Hemen and face the stone-made monsters. So they departed in their swift galleys, never to return to this haunted land.”
Lod had been listening closely, and now understanding lit his face. “That skeleton back there has a crushed skull, maybe crushed by a creature of stone. According to you, the fiery ones sealed away those creatures ages ago. That makes the skeleton ancient. Think, Herrek. Not even embalming spices would have kept that serpent’s eye so fresh these many centuries. Ha! That was a silver box. It would have rusted black by now, but instead it shines. Someone must have put the box under the skeleton, put there recently.” Lod smacked a fist into his palm. “The giant the lad saw! The one we’re trying to find. That giant must have put it there. Surely he’s the one who practices spells upon us.”
“Lo,” said Herrek, trancelike now, “none has dared breach the caves of Kel-Hemen. None has dared walk into the crypt of Draugr Stonemaker. Those are cursed hills, but few remember why. Beasts shy from them. Birds fly elsewhere. Even the sons of Jotnar have forgotten what these caves hold, or most have. You must think, Lod! Arms and armor await he who is bold and daring enough to snatch them. I will become Herrek the Hero, untouchable in my adamant mail, the victor of a hundred battlefields swinging my adamant sword. Now attend me, charioteer. We must be off!”
Herrek strode to the chariot, jumping aboard, slotting his javelin and hooking the shield into place.
Lod approached, realizing there was no reasoning with the bewitched warrior. He stepped to the back, and he lunged for the warrior’s pouch, which surely held the box and eye.
Herrek roared, and with his leather-gauntleted hand, he smote Lod on the head. Then the warrior whirled around, unwinding the reins.
Lod shouted, the blow enraging him. He grabbed the back of the chariot, and he heaved. Muscles like cables leaped on his shoulders. With a straining grunt, he lifted the wheels off the ground. He braced himself, keeping the yoked and startled stallions in place. Herrek twisted around and slashed the coiled whip across Lod’s face. He struck once, twice and sent Lod reeling as blood spurted from Lod’s cheek.
Herrek whipped the horses as the wheels churned upon dirt, and the chariot leaped ahead.
Lod shook his stinging face, and with an oath, he ran after Herrek. “Come back, warrior! Don’t go. It’s a trick, a trap.”
The chariot swung around in a wide arc, and Lod hoped that finally, in a burst of sanity and iron will that Herrek had overcome the spell. Then he saw the javelin in the warrior’s fist, raised for throwing. The horses thundered at him. He saw the gleam in the warrior’s eyes and knew that there was nowhere to run. Herrek was first sword in Teman Clan, the champion, a supremely skilled charioteer. Herrek would bring the team almost upon him before he threw the javelin.
Lod set himself. He had known few friends in his life. Herrek had been chief of those.
The warrior bellowed his war cry. He flung the javelin, carved from the branch of a bicker tree. The razor-sharp tip winked in the sunlight.
Lod had one chance, as narrow as the point flying at him. He must knock aside the javelin. He had to hit it behind the point with a swift blow of his forearm. The javelin caromed away, sticking the earth sixty feet from him. Then the chariot passed in a drum of hooves, rattling chains and churning wheels. Luckily for Lod, those wheels were bare today. When riding to war Elonites normally attached scythed blades to the axle ends. A whirling blade would have mown him down where he stood.
Before the careening chariot could turn for another attack, Lod spun on his heel and sprinted for the javelin. He reached it as Herrek realigned himself for another pass.
“Face me man to man!” shouted Lod. “Jump down and fight me.”
If the warrior thundered onto the attack a second time, Lod knew he would have to kill one of the stallions with his javelin. It was the only way to make certain that Herrek couldn’t race to these hills of Kel-Hemen.
Then Herrek did something most unexpected. He wheeled the chariot north.
“No!” shouted Lod. “Fight me!”
The whip cracked, and off the team raced.
Lod watched horrified. Herrek never looked back. Lod waited, hoping for a miracle, a return to sanity. It never came. Finally, Lod hefted his javelin, considering his options.
He had a knife and this single missile. He could return to Hori Cove and tell the others what had happened or he could head north into Giant Land, the Kragehul Steppes, to save his friend. With his blue eyes fixed on where the chariot had dwindled into the haze, Lod broke into a trot.
The Kragehul Steppes was a wild land, filled with gigantic beasts. Lod grimly trotted through it, his feet pounding dry soil, his chest heaving from the prolonged exertion. He drove himself with an iron will, a madman passing through a land of monstrous creatures. He couldn’t scramble into the safety of trees because none grew in this vast expanse.
The first night he eased into a stand of thorns, carefully working into the center. He slept fitfully, the shrill cries of giant hyenas periodically waking him. Later, toward dawn, a tawny long-toothed tiger sniffed at the edge of the thorns. Lod sat up, in the starlight watching the great cat slink around his pitiful protection. The tiger snarled at him, its meaty breath wafting through the prickly thorns. Lod clutched his dagger and javelin.
“Sniff out the giant!” he shouted.
The tiger snarled in reply, and it tried to slink into the thorns, but it hissed, baffled, and jumped back and then slunk away into the night.
In the morning, Lod eased out the other side, and he broke into his trot. To the east, he spied movement. He shaded his eyes. Hyenas paced… before a carcass upon which lay a long-toothed tiger.
Lod followed the wheel marks, heading north, glancing back now and again until the predators vanished from sight. He spied no smudge on the horizon that would indicate hills. He saw nothing tall, no giant, just this endless grass. Yet the vast steppe seemed filled with menace. The emptiness was like a hungry maw and the blowing wind seemed like ancient apparitions, moaning in their passage.
His years as rat bait had hardened him, forged his muscles into steely springs and given him great endurance. He loped like a wolf as his stomach growled and thirst seared his throat. He was used to running with the hounds, following the chariots.
Much later in the day, movement on the horizon and the faint smell of water increased his pace. In time, he spied great-horned bison, only a few of them. They were shaggy monsters with an impossible spread of horns, bigger than any auroch bull back in Elon. He knew they were bad tempered, easily aroused, and he veered away from Herrek’s track, approaching the small waterhole from the opposite side as the bison. A bull lowed at him, snorted and pawed the ground.
Lod eased beside the water. It couldn’t be deep. The bull could easily charge across it, yet he needed a drink.
“I am on a quest!” Lod shouted. “In Elohim’s name I demand that you leave me in peace.”
The bull lowed once more, not apparently in anger, but almost in a questioning way.
Lod crouched, dipping his hand, sipping the cool liquid as he watched the bull out of the corner of eye. He slaked his thirst and continued to drink, filling his gut. Then he discovered tubers, gnawed on them and filled his belt pouch with the rest.
By then the bison grew alarmed, skittish. Lod rose, and saw dire wolves trotting for the waterhole. Like the bison, these wolves were outlandishly huge, bigger than anything in Elon.
Lod took his leave, not jogging yet, his gut aching from drinking so much water. He lacked a water-skin. He had reasoned that his stomach was the only place to store water. He felt bloated and sluggish, but forced himself from the waterhole. One of the wolves circled the wet patch to where he had been. The beast sniffed the ground and then peering at him.
Lod raised his javelin in salute. Hounds sensed fear. Dire wolves couldn’t be much different. “Help me track the giant!” shouted Lod. “That would be a feat you could howl at the moon the rest of your life.”
The dire wolf turned away, declining Lod’s offer.
For two days, Lod trekked through the Kragehul Steppes, passing mammoths, lonely stretches with only a high-flying eagle in the sky and later another pack of dire wolves. No hills rose up. No giant appeared, and on and on went the chariot tracks. Lod pushed himself, for although a horse could easily outrun a man, he knew that Herrek had no oats in the chariot.
It took long hours of grazing to feed a horse but only ten minutes for an equine to munch a pound of oats. The chariot horses needed at least ten pounds of oats a day and twelve to fifteen pounds of hay. In lieu of hay, they could eat grass, but since green grasses contained so much water, each horse needed three times the poundage, close to forty pounds. Most horses took twenty to thirty minutes to graze one pound. Thus, gaining the needed grass took most of the day grazing. If Herrek kept a relentless pace, his horses would begin to starve badly and slow down.
Why had the jewel box been there? Why did this giant want them in the cave of Draugr Stonemaker—if indeed a giant had put the serpent’s eye there? Lod wrestled day and night with the riddle.
On the third day, Lod heard a distant rumble behind him. It was past noon, the sun blazing overhead. He looked back, and there along the horizon he saw something new. It was dark and mysterious, and it spread out along the western half of the horizon. He watched for a time. It advanced! He was certain of it. It came toward him. What was it? Soon, on the whisper of wind came the sound of lowing. Lod blinked in astonishment. Then understanding filled him.
Great-horned bison! Not a handful of them, not a small herd, but a vast herd, perhaps many herds altogether. He had listened before to old charioteers speak of it. Some claimed that hundreds of thousands of the shaggy bovines banded together.
Lod ran. He sprinted, pumping his arms, trying to put distance between himself and the herd.
The lowing sounds increased in volume. It was like the surf of the Suttung Sea. He glanced over his shoulder. Dust billowed like storm clouds. The land trembled. Lod ran, with his breath harsh in his ears, the dust on the air now and clogging his nostrils. In time, a vibrant odor rolled over the flat lands. It was musty, the stench of thousands of animals, the pulsating bodies, the stirred dust and trampled grass and the stench of urine, manure and tens of thousands of breathing bovines. It was a rich odor, of life. It filled Lod with heady strength even as he strained to maintain his pace. After another length of time—he felt transported into a dreamlike state—Lod shouted, and he turned around, spent, sweat dripping from him.
Dust filled the sky, and the out-runners of the herd galloped, monstrous long-horned bison. Lod wiped sweat out of his eyes, and hope stirred in him. The out-runners didn’t aim directly for him, but sped in a northeasterly direction.
He broke into a staggering trot, trying to give himself distance. Then a terrible premonition filled him. He looked back once more. Thousands of animals surged across the land. It filled him with awe. It was a glorious sight and filled his breast with wonder. Then he noticed something out of place. It was hard to tell in the dust kicked up by the tens of thousands of bison. Something gleamed dully behind the herd or further back than it. The red sun lacked power in the dust—the giant!
Lod gaped at the sight. The monstrous herd had flushed the giant. Something taller than the immensely tall giant lifted into the air. Lod had the impression of a vast axe. Did the Nephilim salute him?
No! The son of Jotnar mocked him.
Lod whirled, not in flight and not in terror of a warrior vastly taller than the biggest mammoth. He headed north to reach Herrek before the giant used the champion of Teman Clan. The long-horned bison temporarily blocked the Nephilim. Lod had to reach Herrek, free him of the spell and then, by Elohim, they had to slay the son of Jotnar and rid the Earth of one more of that hybrid breed, born of woman and sired by one with the blood of the bene elohim.
Bleak hills rose in the distance. Late yesterday, the hills had been a smudge on the northern horizon. Now they were distinct peaks, barren and ugly, seemingly made of obsidian rocks and patches of brown grass.
Wearily Lod broke into a trot. The grasses thinned as he approached the hills, until finally, he jogged across sand and then two hours later stones become thicker and then black glassy boulders abounded. The chariot tracks were easy to follow. Lod hated these stark hills, and he was all too aware that no insects buzzed nor did birds chirp here nor did any animals stir. He spied a vulture high in the drafts. These hills radiated death, the lingering evil of ancient incantations.
Dust stained him, stained his hair and his crimson tunic. Drifting dirt had turned his blue eyes bleary and his mouth dry. His resolve to save Herrek had become mania. As he thought of it, Lod ground his teeth in rage, his blue eyes wild and his emotions seething. Not long-toothed tigers, not dire wolves, bison or giants were going to stop him.
He remembered that lifted axe, and Lod’s eyes blazed as he chanted, “Their pride is their necklace. They clothe themselves with violence. From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.”
He trudged onward, thinking of Herrek’s tale of how bene elohim had lifted these hills out of the Earth. Hours later, he began to climb and soon slid and slipped across obsidian shale. How much farther had Herrek taken the chariot? Lod shortly discovered the answer. A swath of dislodged shale led him to a cliff, where far below he spied wreckage. The horses lay dead on jagged rocks and the chariot was smashed.
“Herrek!” he shouted.
An answering cry alerted him. Lod looked up, and there, higher on the cliffs, Herrek waved his sword. The champion must have jumped out the chariot before it had careened over the edge. Lod shaded his eyes from the sun. Herrek wore his helm and hefted his shield. Then the warrior turned away, heading deeper into the hills.
Lod followed, trying to catch up. Yet always Herrek remained ahead. Time passed until the eerie sun burned redder as it glared down from its unapproachable height. The landscape had become bleaker and torturous, with a sly hint of noxious sulfur mingling with a rusty, metallic stench. The hills lacked the life that had infused the grasslands. To Lod it was like a graveyard.
He scanned the way he had come. He was so tired, and he felt the giant. That infuriated him. He raised his javelin, shouting, “Beware, viper, for the end of your days is near!”
He waited, smiling savagely. Maybe it was foolish letting the giant know that he knew he was there, but if felt good. Right now, he needed all the encouragement he could get.
He continued climbing, and he pushed himself, realizing that Draugr’s cave must be near. He came to a downward slope, and in the distance, Herrek’s horsehair crest appeared. Lod hurried and soon he trod down broad chiseled steps, and he passed stone ramparts where guards could have showered arrows at invaders. Rocky features and formations became understandable. Lod held his breath as he darted through a tunnel, only entering because he saw light at its end. Herrek had been right. This entire place had once been a fortress. It awed him. How many ancient warriors had swung an axe, thrust a spear or screamed in agony in this vast maze of stone? Had stonewalkers hurled boulders as if they were catapults? Besieging this place, assaulting it, must have meant rivers of blood and gore, a grim and determined enemy. What an awful world that must have been, First Born, fiery avengers, stonewalkers and adamant arms. How could a mere mortal have competed with such foes?
Lod squeezed though a narrow opening, the massive stones broken as if once they had been gates. He hurried down a trench of stone and came to another field before which stood a dark hill with a half moon opening. Herrek stood there, contemplating the cave-like opening.
Lod approached warily.
Herrek turned to him, his eyes glowing green and his face within the helm withered like an old man’s, discolored bags under his eyes. It was as if the spell had eaten his vitality, devoured his flesh even as it drove him to its task.
“Hail, Herrek of Teman Clan,” said Lod.
The warrior drew his sword. “You cannot have the serpent’s orb. It is mine.”
“I have come to help you gain the adamant sword,” said Lod.
“You lie!” snarled Herrek. “You want it for yourself.”
“No. It is yours… if you can keep it from the giant.”
Lod told him.
Herrek’s half-hidden features become crafty. “Very well,” he said. “You may help, but I will cut you down at the first sign of treachery.”
Lod noticed then that several feet into the cave were strange, silver-colored bricks. It seemed as if someone had mortared them into a wall, a seal. No… through the walled seal had been bored an opening, with a pile of those silver-colored bricks heaped to the side.
“The fiery ones put those there,” said Herrek.
Lod gaped at the bricks as he realized what the warrior said. The bricks must have been set ages ago by Elohim’s fiery avengers, the ones who had come down from on high. His hands shook as he dared pick up a brick. It was heavier than stone and had the heft of a block of lead or gold. He dropped it. It cracked with the sound of stone, but thudded more heavily than a rock that size should have.
“The cave has been breached,” whispered Lod. “It is open. You said none have walked within since those ancient days, or did the fiery ones fail to finish their sealing task?”
Herrek flashed his teeth in a stark smile and pointed into the opening.
Lod stared, was about to shrug, when he noticed something laying deeper in the darkness. He took several steps nearer, a few more, and finally understood. An olden corpse lay there, a giant’s corpse, most of the dried flesh rotted away, leaving ancient armor and cracked leather. Lod stumbled to it, setting down his javelin. The front of the skull had crumbled. A blunt weapon had smashed it, or a stone fist.
Lod pried at an old leather pouch. The buckle had long ago rusted. He sawed it open with his knife and found stony crumbs, flints and tinder.
“Good,” crooned Herrek, “excellent.”
Lod whirled around. He hadn’t heard the warrior creep up behind him.
Herrek rushed forward and kicked at the skeleton’s hand, spraying petrified, brittle wood. “That torch is no good.” He savagely kicked the skeleton. Herrek did it several times, turning it over with a clatter of bones within the cracked leather and armor. The warrior hacked at an old backpack and drew out three torches. “They’re brittle,” he said, breaking a chip from one. “They’ll probably burn too fast, but we have three. Can you light them?”
Lod worked the flint and tinder, and by diligent labor, he produced a fire upon that ancient torch.
Herrek lifted his sword. Lod picked up the javelin. Together, they began the descent into Draugr Stonemaker’s cave.
The descent proved steep, the cavern huge, with arched walls and ribs of stone. The air was dry and old, dead. The torch burned fast, the brittle wood flaring, hissing and popping. By the time they reached a massive stone door, slightly ajar, the first torch had guttered out. Lod barely lit the second one in time. Their light seldom reached as high as the vaulted cave. When they hurried along the sides, grotesque and blasphemous images stood out in stone bas-reliefs.
They reached a second stone gate, and Lod felt with certainty that this was it. He sensed hoary spells ahead, grim, vile and with unholy strength. How long had it been since light had shined in this realm of darkness?
“Hurry,” croaked the warrior.
Lod took a deep breath of stale air, and he thrust the torch into the inner sanctum. An aura of sinister purpose and dread rituals swirled around him. The stench of ancient foulness stung his nostrils. Here stood tall columns, a forest of them. The flickering light revealed the nearest column. It seemed to have an arm, and fingers… and legs and feet! By the Accursed, the ancient horrors were true. These weren’t columns. Lod approached the blasphemy, his torch held high and crackling in the oppressive silence. The stone statute was massive and towered nine, maybe ten feet tall, with a catapult-stone head, bend as if in supplication, the eyes closed, the stony lips pressed together.
Lod peered up into that rock face. If the eyes should open… he backed away.
Herrek’s armor jiggled as the warrior broke into a trot, weaving among the statues.
Lod loathed the frozen stonewalkers. O what perversions the First Born had practiced. What a den of wickedness. To transfer a soul from flesh and into stone… yet the animating spirits must have perished ages ago. Lod swallowed, shaking his head. Spirits were immortal. How then could they perish? Had the ages here been so long that stonewalkers slumbered in eternal lethargy?
“Hurry!” shouted Herrek. “Bring the light!”
Lod glanced at the last statue. The eyes remained closed. He lifted his torch, looking for Herrek. By the fires of Sheol! Lod almost bellowed his war cry. This was nightmare. Man’s dawn must have been terrible indeed facing such foes. Never would he doubt the old tales again. Never would he wonder why fiery avengers had come down from above to help mankind defeat the all-conquering Accursed. His mouth worked, but no sounds came forth.
“Draugr Stonemaker!” chanted Herrek, his voice echoing in the vast hall.
The First Born sat on a titanic throne, facing the assembly of stonewalkers. Apparently, the stale crypt air lacked the corruptive powers of the outer world. Ancient flesh clung to the mighty corpse, giving it a ghoulish appearance. The empty eye sockets stared in dreadful accusation. The lich of Draugr Stonemaker was vast as a colossus, much bigger than any giant. The torchlight shimmered off a conical helmet that threw back the light to an amazing degree. It wasn’t silver, but shined more purely.
“Adamant,” whispered Lod.
Herrek roared with delight.
The same celestial metal formed a mighty mailcoat that gleamed in the darkness. A belt of leather and gold plates held a huge scabbard. In the scabbard rested a sword made for a giant. If Herrek’s tale was true, the blade was adamant. An impossibly huge ruby served the sword-hilt as a pommel, while the hilt was spotless and reflected the torchlight like silver.
“It’s all too large for you,” said Lod. “The helmet is too big, the mail and the sword. You have been deceived. We are jackals before a lion. No, we’re rats slinking in a house never made for men.”
“I am Herrek!” shouted the warrior, lifting his puny sword.
Lod shook his head. Here under the Earth in this dread shrine to wickedness was no place for a man. The lich watched them. Lod turned. No, something else watched. He stared from slumbering stonewalker to stonewalker.
Herrek hurled aside his shield and dropped his sword so the metal clanged mutedly upon stone. He swaggered toward the lich, the ancient colossus. Herrek raised his hands. Then he rushed forward, climbing up the leg like an infant attempting to reach its father. He laughed wildly, and he pulled himself onto the eon-old lap. He crawled, until his hands wrapped around the great hilt. With an ecstatic howl, Herrek began sliding the mighty sword from its scabbard. The blade shined with fierce light.
“Mine!” howled Herrek. “The sword of the ages is mine!”
A grind of stone, like two millstones, made Lod’s nape hairs stand on end. He scanned the crowd of stonewalkers. The nearest to Draugr’s throne stood apart from the rest, as if it had dared over the countless centuries to shuffle closer to its grim lord. The minutest of movement came from that one.
Then the damned statue of stone made soft hissing sounds. The catapult-stone head lifted with infinite slowness until obsidian-chip eyes stared at Herrek. The eyes seemed dull. Then something dreadful entered them.
Lod’s stomach curdled. He sensed madness. By all that was holy… no, this was unholy, evil. Surely, a tormented human spirit animated the stone thing. How many centuries had passed since Draugr Stonemaker had trapped the human spirit into the abomination? Perhaps an age had passed as the stonewalker haunted this final abode for the flesh of his terrible master. Had the ancient warrior truly gone willingly? Lod couldn’t believe it. Destruction would be a gift to the olden warrior, an end to meaningless existence.
“Trespassers,” the stonewalker hissed in a lifeless voice.
Lod backed away. It was doom facing living stone. He would fight if cornered, but now they must escape. “Herrek!” he shouted. “We must flee, and return again with weapons and ways to defeat stonewalkers.”
The articulated boulders of the stonewalker grated against each other as it straightened its shoulders and stood to its imposing height. The catapult-stone head was bigger than their chests. The monstrosity shuffled toward Herrek, stony chips flaking from its feet and the chips like pebbles skittering across the floor. “Trespassers, you profane this place.”
“Herrek!” shouted Lod. “We’ll come back later with a way to face such monsters.”
Herrek paid no heed. The warrior drew more of the mighty, adamant sword, but it was so long. Herrek was as an infant compared to the dead Draugr Stonemaker. He pressed his leather-gauntleted hands against the flat of the blade, and in such a manner, he drew it until the tip cleared the scabbard. The giant ruby pommel and the length and weight of the sword proved too heavy for Herrek’s precarious grip. The shining sword tumbled off the lich, clattering onto the stone floor.
The warrior of Teman Clan shouted, and he vaulted off the lich’s lap, landing hard.
“Herrek!” shouted Lod, who had crept nearer, ready to hurl his javelin. Yet where could he throw that might make a difference?
The fallen warrior gripped the adamant hilt and stood, straining, lifting the giant sword. The celestial weapon was longer than the warrior was tall and obviously heavier than a bronze or iron sword that large. Herrek bellowed the Elonite war cry, his green glowing eyes adding to his insanity. He charged the stonewalker.
“Aid him Elohim!” shouted Lod. He thrust the javelin between the stonewalker’s legs. He hoped to trip it. The javelin splintered like matchwood as the stonewalker shuffled at Herrek.
Herrek heaved, grunting as he swung the adamant sword in a fierce arc. Lod expected a clang of metal and maybe a spray of stone chips. Instead, the celestial metal, the adamant, sheered through the rock shoulder. Herrek lopped off the arm!
Lod’s joyous shout died in his throat.
Herrek’s war whoop turned to an agonizing scream.
The stone arm fell and its articulated pieces simply tumbled apart. One boulder struck the floor with a boom, rolled and struck Herrek. He cried out as an audible crack told of his smashed right leg. He crumpled to the floor, howling in pain. The stonewalker cast a single look at its stump. Then the stony abomination shuffled at Herrek, raising its remaining arm.
Lod hurled his broken javelin at the stonewalker. Then he drew his dagger. Herrek bellowed, with bone whites sticking out his crushed leg. With difficulty, he raised the sword like a pike. His helmet had come off and sweat poured down his face. The warrior bunched his shoulders. As the stonewalker loomed above him, Herrek thrust pike-like and drove the adamant sword into the abomination’s stomach. What alchemy of celestial metal allowed that, Lod didn’t know, but the heavenly forged weapon punched into stone as if it were cheese. The stonewalker’s horrible obsidian eyes flickered with black light and then flickered out. The rocks and boulders, however cunningly fixed together, tumbled apart at the stonewalker’s swift passing. The catapult-stone head fell nine feet.
“Look out!” shouted Lod.
Herrek threw his hands before his face. It happened so fast. The boulder fell and crushed his hands. The great rock popped Herrek’s skull like a walnut, smearing brain and gore like a fly stain.
“No!” cried Lod.
“YES!” thundered a mighty being.
Drained at the hideous and sudden death of his friend, Lod gazed in dull stupefaction at the forest of stone. He didn’t understand. None of them moved. Then who had shouted?
Something bigger then a stonewalker stalked among the statues. It had armor that clinked. Stonewalkers didn’t wear armor. Lod’s eyes smoldered. “O Elohim, grant me this one’s death.”
Into the torchlight strode a mighty, one-eyed giant, a son of Jotnar. A gray and black beard hung from his gaunt face, a deeply knowing face, filled with dread wisdom and Nephilim cunning. Heavy mail, finely woven and oiled, swung down to his knees clinking with noise. A great bronze buckle cinched his belt. He clutched an axe, with the monstrous metal head of Bolverk-forged steel, hammered in a cold smithy of the Far North. The axe-head could have served as an anchor for one of the ships that rested in Hori Cove.
The giant exposed his great yellow teeth in a sardonic smile. He towered near to seventeen feet, almost twice the height of a stonewalker. “Yon warrior slew it,” said the giant, booming his words in an impossibly deep voice, yet speaking normally for his kind. “That was a valorous feat, matchless. He won glory here before Draugr Stonemaker.”
Lod jammed his torch into a crevice. Then he ran to Herrek.
“It cannot be fear that prompts you, eh,” said the giant. “I’ve watched you. You resisted my enchantment. You crossed the steppe afoot and you braved this deep. Who are you? Give me your name.”
Herrek’s Elonite sword couldn’t help him. The auroch-hide shield against that axe would prove as useless as an apple-skin against a Huri’s wrist-blade. The adamant sword… it had cut stone with ease. Might it cut a giant’s mailcoat? Lod wrapped his hands around the huge hilt, dragging the long, heavy blade out of the stonewalker.
“Ho, manling, your eyes smolder like a madam. You have white hair, yet you’re young. Give me your name.”
Lod stared at the Nephilim, and the fire of his soul burned hot as he chanted, “I am against your magic charms with which you ensnare people like birds and I will tear them from you arms.”
The giant grunted, and his sardonic grin slipped. “Aye, a spell stoked your companion’s greed. That is true. But the lust was inherent in him. I merely magnified it and gave him a direction. O, weep not for him, manling. He died well, and he died serving one greater than himself.”
“You?” said Lod.
“Ymir Eagled Eyed, eldest of the sons of Jotnar.”
“Eldest of the line of devils!” spat Lod.
The sardonic smile returned. “You have courage. I like that. I despise cowards. Many of your kind have run from me. Many have wept, pleading for life. As a coward, was he not already dead? Your friend lived, and died gloriously. Few among men have ever slain a stonewalker.”
“Why did you bewitch him?” rumbled Lod, “if you didn’t dread to enter the cave first? You speak of fear and boast of your courage, yet you used Herrek of Teman Clan to draw the fangs of him who made your bravery wilt.”
The giant’s smile became feral. “Your barbs sting, manling, but you’ll win no grudging praise for it from me. You saw the corpse of Svafar Skaldmaker in the cave entrance. He told me of this cave, of the ancient myth. I told him to wait as I gathered tools, but he wanted the prize for himself. He entered the crypt and the stonewalker slew him. Yes, I drew the poison of this olden lair. Courage must be leavened with wit. Now I claim the great prize. And I will honor you. Your blood will first whet my new blade. Can you conceive of the glory I bestow upon you? Come now, give me your name.”
“I give Nephilim swine nothing!” snarled Lod.
“Then I will urinate on your corpse, and in such a fashion douse the fires of your passion.”
With his hands on the adamant hilt, Lod stared at the arrogant face. The giant grinned, and he lifted the mighty axe. No man stood a chance against such a foe. The giant knew it. He must have slain many champions in his long life. What had he said? This Ymir Eagle-Eyed was the eldest of the sons of Jotnar.
Lod dragged the adamant sword along the floor, backing away from the Nephilim.
The giant chuckled softly, mockingly. “O man, you are doomed. You hold the world’s greatest sword, but are too weak to wield it. Did you watch your companion? He raised the blade for a single stroke. The stonewalker was too slow to evade the clumsy swing. You are young. Even if you can lift the sword, a child could dodge whatever pitiful swing you could muster.”
“We shall see,” said Lod.
“Ah, the vanity of humanity,” laughed the giant. Ymir raised his axe high. “I give you your last salute, fool. Tell me your name, and I will give it to the skalds that they may sing of the human who dared defy Ymir in the crypt of Draugr Stonemaker.”
“My name is Ymir Bane,” said Lod.
Ymir Eagle-Eyed, eldest of the sons of Jotnar, jumped at Lod with mockery on his long face, swinging the Bolverk-forged axe in a vicious arc.
Lod had been waiting for it. He darted aside, and he heaved the adamant sword up into the axe’s path, turning the celestial edge just so. Lod lifted the sword faster than Herrek had been capable of doing. He wielded it with the same strength he had used lifting the chariot wheels off the ground. It was a clumsy weapon for him. He was too small and too weak to use it well, but maybe he could use it well enough.
The long, oaken axe-handle touched the adamant edge. The Bolverk-forged head spun away into the gloom, clanging against a distant wall. Ymir landed, and he stumbled because of the sudden lightness of his weapon, an oaken haft of stick!
“Anak’s balls!” roared Ymir.
Lod pressed his advantage, charging, lifting the adamant sword until the tip aimed at the ceiling.
Ymir stumbled backward, and he hurled his severed axe-handle. Lod swung at that very moment. The long adamant sword fell like judgment, a scythe of doom. The blade sheered through Bolverk-forged links, cut flesh and bone in a spray of gore.
Ymir howled, crumpling, his right hip and thigh torn open.
Lod staggered backward as the broken axe-handle thumped against his chest. It clipped him lengthways, and his ribs felt bruised and his breath came in heaving gasps.
Ymir slid away, his teeth clenched at the pain. Great droplets of sweat fell from his face. He gazed in horror at his ghastly wounds. “No, no,” he panted. “You moved too fast. Where did you gain such strength? You’re just a man, a mortal man.”
Although the blow against his ribs throbbed, Lod heaved the adamant sword upright, and he advanced on the Nephilim.
“Man, I warn you,” panted Ymir. “Keep back.”
“I have called to Elohim,” rumbled Lod, his features remorseless. “And he has said that I will plunder him who has plundered me. Alas! Where is Herrek, my friend? Tell me Ymir Eye-One.”
The giant reached for a boulder, a piece of the broken stonewalker, likely to hurl it at Lod.
Lod bellowed the Elonite war cry, his stroke faster than the giant’s throw.
Lod emerged out of the cave of Draugr Stonemaker, carrying his slain friend, wrapped in the warrior’s cloak. He had left the adamant sword. It was no weapon for a mortal. He had left the giant’s hewn corpse as a warning for others, but he did not think anyone would soon enter the crypt.
He had been as good as his word, plundering Ymir, taking from the corpse a long-toothed tiger sheath and its accompanying blade. For a giant it would have been a dagger. For Lod it was a sword made of Bolverk-forged steel, a unique blade in the lands of men.
“Sleep well, old friend,” he whispered. Then Lod began to trudge, knowing that he would not bury Herrek in the hills of Kel-Hemen, but somewhere filled with life.
SF Site called Lod “a cross between Conan and Elric of Melniboné.” In “The Oracle of Gog” Lod first matched wits with the Nephilim in a decadent and dangerous city; in his review at Tangent Online Kevin R. Tipple summarized the tale this way:
“The Oracle of Gog” by Vaughn Heppner follows in a complex tale of slave revolt and fate. Lod is used by a rat hunter not only as a slave but as human bait for huge water rats in a city where water is everywhere… His stunning act of rebellion will not only make him marked for death, it will make him legendary in a far different way that has the power to change the future of all.
A classic sword & fantasy tale. Lod had urged the last of the human soldiers, who worship the god Elohim, to rise up and rebel against the conquering Nephilim giants since “it was better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”
But all the soldiers were killed or captured. Now Lod is prisoner of the Nephilim, slated to die in the arena as a pit slave…
Lod returned to our pages in a fast-paced tale of sword & sorcery on the high seas, in “The Serpent of Thep.” Matthew Nadelhaft at Tangent Online said:
It’s realism that appeals to me the most. Vaughn Heppner’s story, for instance, contains intense descriptions of the life of a galley slave. Lod toils in the hold of the story’s titular ship, along with several hundred other poor wretches. Heppner’s feel for their lives is admirable and he paints a gripping picture of the abuses they suffer, of their desperation and their futile resistance… The heart of this story is in its action.
Vaughn Heppner has plunged into the new world spawned by the E-Book Revolution. He has written some Amazon best sellers such as Star Soldier, Invasion: Alaska and People of the Ark. He has a new SF novel, Assault Troopers, hitting the top of some Amazon SF categories.