Steel, Blood & Fire by Allan Batchelder
On the march, around the campfire, and in the taverns, they tell incredible stories about Tarmun Vykers, the Reaper – how he’s never been cut in battle, how he once defeated hundreds of men by himself, how he exterminated an entire people over an insult. These stories make Vykers seem like a god, but he is a man, an arrogant, ruthless and bloodthirsty man. For all that, he may be the only thing standing between the human race and utter annihilation at the hands of the mad wizard who calls himself the End-of-All-Things. Against this backdrop, smaller, lesser folks struggle to fulfill their own destinies, folks like Aoife, burdened with a secret so dark she is driven to do the unimaginable and seek an alliance with fey powers no mortal has ever encountered.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 4 – R Rated
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I have been a lifelong RPG player (I started playing D&D the year after it came out) and decided to turn my many ideas and experiences as a classical theater actor into a book, which rapidly became a series, Immortal Treachery. I was also inspired by many of the movies, books and characters that were popular in the 60s and 70s, like Bruce Lee, Conan the Barbarian, John Carter of Mars, Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, Kurosawa's Yojimbo and others, along with classic tales like The Odyssey and Beowulf.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Some of this is answered in the previous box, but I really wanted my main character to embody many of the qualities of the heroes — and anti-heroes — I'd seen and read about growing up. I wanted a character who was naturally faster, stronger and more cunning than his foes. What I got was someone who could put the Bloody Nine and Karsa Orlong to shame. Nobody beats Vykers. Nobody.
The next morning, Vykers and the Five set out through the Winter Gate for the wild northwestern part of the continent. It was a damp, drizzly morning, but Vykers was excited. It was territory he had always wanted to explore and now he had the freedom, no, the mandate to do so. He was further pleased by his little team of chimeras; they fought like demons but talked little and obeyed him without question or hesitation. He could see why House Blackbyrne had taken to them, but remained confused as to what they received in return. At the same time, the idea that he might have to face and kill one or all of them was never far from his mind. He didn’t relish the idea, but neither was he afraid of it.
The trees up here smelled different to the warrior, and the wind had a different flavor to it, too.
Those are pine trees you’re smelling, Arune informed him.
Was I talking to you? Vykers asked.
Must you always be so disagreeable?
No, I’m in earnest: I didn’t know I was talking to you.
Well, Arune hedged, you weren’t, not really…
Oh! Now you’re reading my mind?
I’m learning to, Arune admitted.
You don’t have my leave.
Your leave? I may save your mangy hide a thousand times before we part ways.
Are you bored, spook? Is that it? Vykers taunted.
It’s an absolute wasteland in here. You should see all the cobwebs…
You’re so smart, tell me something useful.
You need a bath.
Another? I had one yesterday.
It didn’t work.
Maybe Arune liked this kind of banter, but it was wearing on Vykers. Tell me something that ain’t about me.
Your five bodyguards are a mix of races – you know that. But some of those races aren’t of this world.
Vykers wasn’t sure what to make of that. Uh-huh…
And they honestly aren’t aware of that. They’re telling the truth when claim they know little of their origins.
But they were made for killing. That much is clear.
No one would know that better than you, I guess, Arune allowed.
There’s something going on here, a bigger game being played than I can see or figure out.
I feel the same.
Huh, Vykers said. A ghost moving in with me, this End-of-All-Things, the Virgin Queen making me her general, a noble family in the Capital offering me a bodyguard of creatures not of this world, and now I’m off to a haunted ruin right out o’ the fairy stories to find me a bleedin’ magic sword. And those are just the pieces I can see on the board. Mahnus knows whatever else is in play.
That’s a pretty fair assessment.
Vykers spat into the dirt beside the trail. “Thanks,” he said aloud, forgetting the whole conversation thus far had been internal. Number 3 looked over at him, but Vykers just shook his head and looked away. He didn’t feel like explaining.
Several hours later, Arune intruded again. Large raiding party on both sides of the road, with a third group moving into place behind us.
Vykers was about to ask how many men, when he remembered how the Five had gauged the oursine more accurately. “How many in hiding around us?” he asked Number 17.
“Thirty…eight,” the chimera answered.
Forty, Arune corrected.
“Forty,” Number 17 echoed, unknowingly.
Well, I’ll be damned, Vykers thought at Arune.
Probably, she smirked back.
A big, wide man in a fang-studded helmet and breastplate stepped out of the underbrush just ahead and to the left of the party. He had an enormous brown beard, a wide mouth, and large, bulbous nose separating his green eyes. In his right hand, he held a mean-looking double-bladed axe.
“What in the endless hells have we got here? Some kind o’ circus?” the man joked loudly, as he looked over Vykers and the Five. Since Vykers and his crew said nothing, the man continued. “Or is this more of a travelling zoo?”
“Ah,” Vykers said, “there, you’ve hit it. We’re a travelling zoo, and it’s feeding time.”
“Only I’m the one doin’ the eating,” the man said. “Hoick!” he yelled.
Out of the bushes and woods all around them, the other 39 members of the stranger’s band appeared, weapons in hand.
“What the hell kinda signal is ‘hoick?” Vykers asked. “That some special code only idiots can understand?”
Some of the larger group laughed, others growled in disapproval. Their leader was of the first group, laughing heartily, but in an aggressive manner. “Well,” he said at last, “I’ve got to give you credit for havin’ some spleen about you. But you’re outnumbered four-to-one. You know how this works, old son, bigger group plants the smaller under the leaves and pine needles. Your corpse’ll be sprouting mushrooms inside a week.”
The fellow’s cronies laughed hysterically and repeated a few of his choicest words.
“Last time someone talked like that to the Reaper, I poured molten iron into his asshole.”
The big man stopped smiling, and every member of his band did, too. Most took one or two steps back. “You’re lyin,’” the leader said. “The Reaper’s dead. ‘Sides, he was a giant of a man. You ain’t.”
Vykers drew his sword and walked calmly towards the other man, who, not yet ready to lose face, stood his ground with a most concerned look upon his face. “Tell ya what I’m gonna do,” Vykers whispered. “I’m gonna take the heads off every man in your little band, stake you to the ground, and pile all ‘o them on top of you. They should make for great company ‘til the nighttime predators arrive.” The man’s eyebrow began to twitch. Vykers ducked just as his foe was about to deliver a sideways blow with his axe, sending him flying over the Reaper’s back. Instantly, Vykers wheeled and kicked him in the jaw, knocking him unconscious or close to it.
The rest of the bandits came to life and made to close with Vykers, but the Five stepped into position and their frightful, alien aspects momentarily stunned their assailants. “Let me!” Vykers told his companions. “You boys can sit this one out, get some rest.” And that means you, too! He told Arune.
You’re going to fight forty men by yourself? She asked, incredulous.
Shut up! Don’t distract me! He countered.
“Flank ‘im!” one of the bandits yelled. “Flank the fucker!”
Vykers swung his sword in series of mighty figure-eights, more to clear some fighting room around himself than to do any actual damage. Still, he caught a couple of his opponents on the arms and shoulders and they stumbled backwards, gasping or groaning in pain. “Shit, lads, I ain’t even gotten started!” he roared. Two more men tried to rush Vykers on his right, while a third came in from his left. Vykers tumbled left, swinging as he went, and took out the man’s knee. As the man went down, the Reaper was able to turn and bring his sword across the midsections of both attackers. One parried, the other died. Three more men came at Vykers’ back. With his left glove, he reached out and grabbed the solo attacker's sword. While the man struggled to wrench it free, Vykers put his own sword through the man’s right eye. Still in control of the dead man’s body, Vykers wheeled it around and threw it onto the incoming threesome. Two of them wrestled with the corpse, and the third came in, swinging north to south. Vykers parried and kicked the man in the balls. As his sword rebounded from the other man’s, he smashed him in the face with his quillons, catching the fellow by the inside of his right cheek and dragging his head down, where the Reaper could bash it with his rising knee. There was a great snapping sound, and the bandit collapsed. By now, the two wrestling to get through or past the body of their comrade had worked their way free, only to witness this latest casualty fall at their feet. They looked at one another and decided, without discussion, upon a more cautious approach. Meanwhile, more of the group continued to move into flanking positions, in hopes of catching Vykers off guard. Vykers feinted for the man’s right knee and when he parried, swept over the top and cut his head clean off. Following the momentum of that blow, Vykers spun completely around and caught the second man on the shoulder, while he was busy looking at his now-headless friend. The Reaper ran right into him and knocked him ass-over-teakettle in the dirt. He then jumped on the man’s torso, snapping numerous ribs for good measure.
In a mere few heartbeats, the bandit gang had gone from forty to thirty, and it didn’t appear their target had sustained even a single scratch. Some of the band began fading backwards into the forest, but a few were still game to try Vykers. Unfortunately, a few is not enough. They died before they even had time to regret the choice. Finally, as more and more of the band dissolved into the woods, Vykers stabbed his sword into a nearby corpse in frustration and yelled, “Well, I’m not going to go chasing after the sons-of-bitches!” He turned to the Five. “Go get ‘em. Just bring me their heads.” That was the first time he could ever remember seeing the Five smile. It was, he would later reflect, delightfully sinister.
Smiling at the sounds of horrified screaming in the woods, Vykers set about stripping and staking the leader to the ground. If he was a right bastard, he was still a man of his word. When the leader awoke, he’d find himself, as promised, buried in bloody heads, appetizers to the entrée he was to become for some predator.
You don’t call the Reaper a liar.
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