by: H. Wayne Desper
My horse's trot slowed to a rhythmic click-clack as we approached the edge of the forest. I stopped to watch the sun sink into the horizon for what could be the final time. Seven long years had passed since leaving this place. The light retreated into the sky and darkness covered the land like spilling ink onto fresh parchment. My life had been consumed by darkness. Just an endless swirling vortex of despair that infected my soul since the day The Gralkin stole my daughter from me.
Everyone knew not to enter the forest after dark. I used to plead with her not to go in the forest alone so close to sundown. She had been picking yewnberries to take to market for the wine-makers and wanted to surprise me with a gift. The villagers found her body the next morning, tossed to the side of the road like a piece of unwanted food. It was a warning from The Gralkin not to enter his domain. A neighbor that was watching over her in my absence brought me the news of the incident. I had just returned home from a winter campaign in the north, squashing a would-be uprising. My only thoughts on the ride home were a hot bath and the sound of my daughter's laughter. That was not to be. Instead of a joyful reunion, I cradled her cold and lifeless body in my arms just as I had done with her mother so many years before when she died during childbirth. Even a warrior such as I was not ready to raise a child on my own, but I managed the best I could. My bloodiest battles couldn't have prepared me for staring at the gnawed husk of my only child. The scream that escaped my lips must have been loud enough to shake very foundations of the Underland itself. A part of me died that day and a terrible emptiness snuck in. Stricken with grief, retaliation was the only thing on my mind. Nothing would stop me.
I petitioned the village elders to raise a hunting party and destroy The Gralkin. To my utter amazement, they rejected my request. They feared that if we failed, the creature would seek revenge on all of the villagers. I stood in disbelief as they vomited their condolences and coughed up platitudes. My rage had now grown into an inferno that could have melted the iron gates of Castle Bluestone. These feeble old men would not deny me my vengeance. As they continued their protestations, I pulled my broad sword from its sheath and relieved their heads from their wrinkled necks before they could speak another cowardly word. Knowing I could no longer stay, I made myself a promise. I vowed to do everything I could to one day return and avenge my daughter. So I set upon my odyssey to gather all that was required to destroy the monster that dwells within the woods. It would not be easy, but no goal worth achieving ever is.
As I passed through a neighboring village, I met someone. A one-eyed trader in a tavern was bragging of his dealings with the Dwarves of the Western Mountains. This was my chance. The dwarves had created a labyrinth in the valley to keep out thieves and invaders. Few knew exactly how to get there. Over many pints, I convinced him to draw up a map. Dwarves are master forgers of the finest weaponry; unmatched in quality by anyone in the 12 realms. I sought out the Dwarf King to barter what I could and procure the tools necessary to exact my revenge.
It was a harsh ride to the doors of the dwarf palace they named Dolvirria. I had heard tales of its grandeur, but to see it in person was awe-inspiring. Part of an entire mountain range had been hollowed out with god-like precision to contain their nation, with the highest peak made into a castle adorned with alabaster and silver to house the royal family. Their entire civilization was dedicated to mining ore, precious metals, stones, and the pursuit of profit. The word ‘charity’ was not in their vocabulary. More gold would certainly be needed to purchase what I sought because dwarves are just as greedy as they are skilled.
After hours of negotiating and giving up my horse to his guards, I was granted an audience with Ureth, the Dwarf King. I proposed to work in the mines as long as it took to purchase what I desired: A weapon that would allow me to destroy The Gralkin. In exchange for room and board, I would voluntarily go into a life of servitude. A small percentage of my production would be set aside to pay for the weapons, armor, and living expenses. The king was skeptical at first, but ultimately granted my request. And so began the long road back home…
I started my new vocation with an open mind and an empty heart. Production consumed me. Trading in my broadsword for a pick-axe, I became obsessed with mining as much as I could. Every swing brought me closer to my goal. I chose to work at night in order to keep my resolve intact. I made a solemn vow that my eyes would not see another sunrise until I gazed upon the corpse of my enemy. Each morning before collapsing onto my straw-filled cot from exhaustion, I shed a tear and remembered my daughter's face smiling back at me. Not only did I fill up the coffers of the dwarves, I also reconditioned my body for what might be my final battle. I carried as much as I could without the aid of beasts of burden. My hands became so swollen at times, I could barely grip anything. In the end, I became so strong that I could crush bone with my bare hands. A mule hauling ore got loose one day and started to trample other workers, so I snapped its neck with a single gesture.
The poor sketch I made of my daughter hanging in my hut became the only clear memory of her that remained. Months became years and I began to wonder if I would spend the rest of my days working in the mines. Did I make a mistake in striking a deal with people that have such a reputation for avarice? Yet one morning there was a note lying on top of freshly laundered clothes, along with a new tunic. Ureth had summoned me to his court to inform me that my debt had been paid in full and and the items I requested were finally finished. I stood before the royal family and asked for what I had come for. Murmurs of wanting to keep me toiling in the mines indefinitely were silenced when Ureth himself stood up with a raised hand. Aides ushered in my prize: A sword made of Baladian Steel, the hardest metal known to man, unbreakable and sharper than a dragon's talon. Along with the swords were a breastplate and gauntlets, custom forged by his finest blacksmith. He walked over and shook my hand as the rest of the room gasped in amazement. They were shocked even more when he presented me with a black stallion as a token of appreciation for my years of service. No more words were needed. We nodded to each other and I was on my way. Who said dwarves weren't charitable?
Thus I returned to the scene of the crime. With an ironclad resolve and sheer will, I'd come back to claim vengeance on The Gralkin. The air had grown cold and stale. Staring into the breech, I almost pitied the creature that my fury was to be unleashed upon. The moon gave just enough light for me to notice the white puffs of breath escaping the horses nose. Dense fog clung to the damp ground like a tight winter fur. I snapped the reins and dug my heels into the steed, signaling to him that the hour was at hand. As the dank, earthy sweetness of overripe yewnberries filled my nostrils, a lifetime of memories came barreling though my mind. I rode deeper into the woods and noticed an eerie silence had crept in. Even the nocturnal creatures feared to tread any further.
The stallion's pace slowed to a crawl. I could almost feel the trepidation in every hoof beat as we marched on. Just as we crossed a small stream, I heard a sound echo in the distance that spooked the horse. It was the unmistakable high-pitched wail of The Gralkin. I recalled hearing it once when I was child. Whereas then I was petrified with fear, it now made me smile. My target was nearby. There was a small clearing ahead that looked like a good spot to rest. I dismounted and immediately pulled out my water, slurping it down. As I surveyed the terrain, I noticed a pair of large glowing yellow eyes staring back at me from the blackness. He must have been watching us for quite some time. With a steady hand, I pointed at the Gralkin.
"I know you are there, demon! Show yourself!" I shouted.
"And what is thissssss? Another wayward morsel coming to sate my hunger?" It hissed.
The Gralkin's voice sounded almost like the crunching of dried leaves beneath my boots. It must have been quite unnerving for the horse, as he began to whinny before galloping away to safety.
"Your beast has abandoned you, little man. There isssss no escape. You are mine now, human." It hissed yet again.
I cracked my swollen knuckles. All that I had endured these past seven years had led to this point. My hour of reckoning had finally arrived.
"You are right. There is no escape. I am your fate. Step forward and face me so that I may taste revenge!" I practically spat my words at him.
It slithered out of the shadows and into the moonlight, with a wide grin displaying his rows of sharp teeth and bulging eyes that seemed even brighter than before. A long slender neck led to a bald, elongated head with no nose and ears, only holes. The grey scaly monstrosity crawled like a reptile before standing up to walk just as I do. His arms were so long that his claws dragged as he walked. He was lean but well-built for his size with broad shoulders like a Grecian and a narrow waist. I had to look up just to see his eyes and a lesser man would have trembled at the sight of such a beast. I could hear the raspy breathing as he inched closer to me. The foul stench of rotting fish came off of it in waves, nearly making me retch.
"Many brave men have ssspoken to me that way…Right before I sssucked the marrow from their bonessssss." Its grin widened ever more.
"Did the villagers sssend you?"
"They have become a nuisssance to me over the years. This forest belongs to The
Gralkin!" Its grin had now transformed into a sneer.
"After I finisssh with you, I think I shall gorge myself on their flesssh and finally be rid of their presssence.”
“No.” I replied. “I am here to fulfill a promise I made seven years ago.”
I pointed at it once again.
“You killed my daughter, you fiend! In doing so, you extinguished my only light in
The Gralkin cocked his head and let out what could only be described as a wheezy laugh.
“I have eaten many daughtersss, and I will continue to do so long after you are dussst, tiny sssoldier.” It let out in a boastful tone.
The powder keg finally exploded. The fuse that had been lit so long ago finally reached its destination. I leapt into the air with my sword and it met bare earth. After evading my attack, it swiped at me with claws at least four inches in length. The creature was quicker than I had anticipated, evading my strikes with the precision of a seasoned fighter. Small trees were sliced off of their stumps when The Gralkin ducked my swings. In the past I would have been winded enough for it to overtake me, but not this day. The hunger for revenge fueled my muscles to continue until my mission was complete. Failure was not an option.
The situation demanded a different strategy, so I decided to let my prey come to me. Creatures like this feed off of perceived weakness, whether it be their size or wounds. Children are easy to overpower and a weakened man is easy to spot. Pretending to be winded, I dropped to my knee and drew breath quicker, scanning my eyes for the eventual attack. It came from the left, but I was ready. The Gralkin leapt at me like a cat after a rodent and was met with a fist against its skull. The beast looked dumbfounded as it rubbed its head. It roared loud enough to scare the remaining fowl in the area. Anger had begun to manifest. A flurry of attacks came next and I deflected them with my gauntlets. I parried another slash and swung my sword, flaying a piece of its thick hide. It screeched in pain as he watched the leathery chunk of skin fall to the ground. It was that moment when looking the monster in the eyes I saw something I had yet to see: Fear.
Without the added might from my work in the mines and Baladian Steel, I might not have penetrated its thick scales. Many of its blows found their mark and I felt at least three of my ribs crack. I tasted the copper of my life's blood on my lips, not knowing which cut it was pouring from. Still, I continued to fight. I had to see this through to the end, consequences be damned. My retribution was of paramount importance. Finally, I knocked the creature onto its back by slicing its leg. Sensing victory, I climbed onto his chest and delivered blow after blow with my free hand. I shouted my daughter’s name with every punch. As I raised my sword to deliver the killing blow, I felt a white-hot pain in my side.
In my rage, I lost sight of his claws that found the soft spot in my armor. The squishing of blood spitting out of the wounds as he removed his hand was all I could hear. My sword dropped to the ground with a loud clang. I immediately grabbed the wound, which caused me to fall off the monster onto the ground. The agony! The Gralkin stood up and grinned in amusement at the recognition it may have delivered a fatal blow. Part of my soul escaped into the ether as I watched it float into the moonlight like smoke from a fire. Starting to feel weakness, I rose to my knees and prayed to the gods to give me strength to go on. My breaths became labored and quite painful. With a heavy head I looked away and saw my daughter standing there. She seemed to mouth the words "I love you, papa."
I picked up the sword and slowly rose to my feet. The Gralkin was circling in for the kill. He would find I was not so easily defeated. I knew exactly what to do.
"Thisss is the end, little man. Prepare to join your loved onesss in the Underland!" It taunted.
"Do…your worst. I do not…fear…death. You are nothing. Merely an infestation. A…pest." I huffed.
Time seemed to slow as The Gralkin pounced. I buried the blade into the center of its chest all the way to the hilt. He fell onto his back writhing and wailing in pain as the sword exited with a wet slurping sound. The monster tried to slink away by digging in his heels to propel himself away from me. With one mighty swing of my sword, I separated its legs at the knee. It shrieked so loud that I almost fell back. I seized the opportunity to end this once and for all. Jumping onto him once more and pummeled his face over and over again, screaming like a madman. The Gralkin gurgled blood as he implored me to stop. I became so enraged at the sound of his begging that I started choking him with my bare hands. Adrenaline had given me the strength of five men. In the heat of battle I squeezed and pulled at his neck until it began to rip. Sinew and muscle tore like a frayed rope. With a final crack of bone, I held his skull over my head like a prize. The Gralkin's body flailed as his black heart pumped blood out of the stump until it finally lay lifeless.
I tossed the head aside as I fell over onto a bank. It was then that I looked up at the sun starting to rise. It was magnificent. Tears welled up in my eyes as I stared at the sky transitioning from black into orange and purple hues. The mission had finally come to an end and soon my own life would follow suit. My head started to lighten, and my sight became blurry. There was a reason I refused to watch daybreak these seven grueling years. When my daughter was born, I thought of the most beautiful thing I had ever laid eyes on: Dawn. That became her namesake. I smiled knowing I was going to witness it one last time. Taking comfort in my victory, I closed my eyes one final time and felt the warmth kiss my cheek like Dawn used to, satisfied that we were to be reunited at long last.