The Watchman Awakes
The sky had frozen solid while he’d slept.
It was cold blue and streaked with crystalline clouds. But the clouds did not move, and the blurred light from the sun illuminated this strange vision as though it was emanating from behind a thick wall of rippled glass.
The man stared at this beautiful vision as he slowly came to his senses. He lay there quietly trying to remember his own name. Trying to remember how he’d gotten here. But nothing came to him. His mind was muddled.
Who am I?
He blinked and tried to lift his head, but it was stuck to the ground. Reaching behind his neck he yanked free his frozen hair. Then he sat up and yawned. A great jaw-cracking yawn coupled with a throaty exhalation—the sound a polar bear might make after a winter’s rest. The vapor from his breath filled the air, rising upward toward the blue vault above.
It’s not a sky…
Standing on stiff legs he reached up toward the bluish light. His hand touched cold hard ice. He scraped his fingernail across the smooth surface, plowing a thin furrow in this ceiling. He was inside an ancient glacier. But how…and why?
His eyes alighted on a metal object lying on the white floor. A massive double edged sword with a wolf’s head carving affixed to the grip between the cross-guard. The graven blade was covered with intricate inlaid runes.
The name had just popped into his head. A vision flashed in his mind’s eye: Towering creatures made of light, singing in a melodious tongue…beings comprised of pure energy, glowing like ice and stars. They had forged the blade and sent him to this world…but for what purpose?
To kill? Or to save? Or both?
He stared down at his muscular arms and bare chest. Saw the tattoos marked on his skin. Memories came rushing back. He had lived amongst the barbarous inhabitants of this world. Watching them grow from hearty children to feeble old ones, generation after generation. But he had never aged. All that time he’d been waiting for something: a great Enemy…but had he ever fought the thing?
“What is my name?” he asked aloud; and his voice sounded deep and rough to his own ears inside the confined space of the ice cave. He knew he had been given many names over the thousands of years he had dwelled on this Earth. The Sea Marauders—the ones who traversed the Whale Roads in their sleek ships—had called him something in their own language. He had liked that name. But what was it? He ran the tip of his tongue over his teeth as he pondered the question. Then he laughed.
That was it. Their name for him meant “Tusk” because his sword was like a great overgrown walrus tooth.
I am Tusk.
He felt better to have an answer to at least one of his questions. But why had he come to this frozen chamber? Why had he abandoned the ones whom he had been sent to watch over and guide? Where was the Enemy? And how many years had passed while he had slept? He shook his head angrily. He did not like feeling so lost and out of sorts. It was like being drunk on mead, but without the fun.
Bending down he placed his hand on Warg-gram’s familiar grip. The blade was frozen solid to the ground, but he ripped it free with a mere flick of his wrist. The weapon left an impression in the ice where it had been; and in this indentation lay a dark line, liked congealed blood. He inspected this closely. Nay, it was not blood, but a strip of cloth—a piece of old red silk. He put this clue in the leather pouch that he wore on his belt, then looked around the cave, searching for an entrance that was not there.
So I’ll make one.
Warg-gram sang as he slashed it against the cave’s icebound wall; and shards of ice exploded as he carved his way to freedom.
Tusk trudged for many miles in the deep snow.
He had forgotten how much he hated walking in the white stuff. He made his way south for a day and a night and did not see anything but reindeer and rabbits. He did not know why he was heading in this direction. He simply felt like it was the right way to go. Finally, at dusk, he came to a small village where the people rode on metal machines that slid across the snow, making a horrible noise and belching out a constant stench that curled Tusk’s nostril hairs.
The town seemed strangely familiar. As he strode down the main street many of the inhabitants gawked at him as if he was crazy, for he wore no shirt despite the brutal cold, with the great sword strapped to his naked back. “I am Tusk,” he said to them cheerfully. But the people ignored him and hurried on their way.
He found himself in front of a marketplace that had many different items displayed in the window. It even had snow machines for sale out front with signs. “Snöskotor,” he read out loud. So that’s what they were called. The name of this country’s language popped into his head all of a sudden: Svensk…Swedish.
He went inside and found a wall stacked with bottles and cylinders bearing different pictures. He recalled that the people of this age drank their beer from these stupid little containers. He tore the metal cap off one of the bottles with his bare hand, drinking its contents in one gulp. It was good, so he drank another. And another.
“You’ll have to pay for those.” It was the shopkeeper. A woman. She was tall and strong-looking with a pretty oval face; and a long golden braid curling around her neck and hanging down her chest. Tusk liked the look of her. Her eyes traveled over his massive muscles and intricate tattoos. She had her own skin markings on her biceps, some of which vaguely resembled Tusk’s knot-designs. And she had piercings in her face like the Viking Völva—the seer-women who served the goddess Freya.
“I’m no thief,” he said. “I have coin.”
“You haven’t been here for a long time,” she said with a hurt tone. “Where did you go, anyway?”
He pondered these questions for a moment. So he had been here before. “Sleeping,” he said at length.
The woman frowned. “That’s a long nap.”
“How long?” asked Tusk. “How long have I been away?”
“Ummm…at least two years,” she said. “The last time I saw you, you were fighting with that crazy blue-skinned guy in the street. He came to the bar where you were drinking and tried to kill you.”
“A warrior?” he asked with interest. “With blue skin, you say? Like the Picts who painted themselves blue with woad dye and rushed into battle naked?”
“I don’t know about that,” she said, “but he was a maniac. He wore a skull mask like some psycho American biker, and had a weapon—a weird saw-bladed sword. He was covered in tattoos like you. And he had this knee armor shaped like tiger’s heads. How can you not remember him?”
Tusk wiped his mouth on his forearm and stared into space, trying to conjure the image of this berserker assassin—nay, this demon—whom she was describing. But nothing came to him and he let forth a resounding belch. Glancing at the woman he saw that she was staring back with a bewildered expression.
“The two of you were tearing up the street!” she continued with an exasperated tone. “You chased the blue guy into the night and disappeared.”
“And then?” he asked.
“The next morning, he staggered back into town alone. His hand was horribly burned. The police were here by then and they tried to question him, but he killed one of the officers and put the other in the hospital. The story made the papers.”
Tusk pondered this for a time, consuming a few more bottles and a can of ale while he thought. He had absolutely no memory of what had happened, but the woman was obviously telling the truth. Who was this strange warrior whom he had fought? And how had he, Tusk, ended up in the ice cave with Warg-gram by his side? The blue-skinned warrior had obviously tried to pick up Warg-gram after Tusk was unconscious. That had been a mistake, for the blade would burn through anything other than Tusk’s hand. He and the blade had been made together…
“Was the blue man ever caught?” he finally asked.
“He vanished,” said the woman. And after a pause she added with a reproachful tone: “Just like you.” She put a hand on his forearm.
“Did you and I ever lay together?” Tusk asked, concerned.
“No. But I wanted to.”
“I’m too old for you,” came Tusk’s blunt reply.
“I’m nearly thirty,” she said laughing.
“I’m older than I look.”
“You look pretty good to me.” She turned and stood right in front of Tusk with her back to him, placed a hand on her hip in a fetching manner, then held up her cell phone, taking a picture with a flash of light, momentarily blinding the swordsman.
“Why did you do that?” he asked with a growl.
“I’m going to tweet this selfie,” she said.
“You speak to wildfowl?” he asked. “So you are a seer?”
She sighed and said, “I always fall for the handsome idiots.”
“I’ll settle up now,” he replied.
He reached into the leather purse at his belt and took out a small gold coin bearing the face of a long-dead king stamped onto one side, and a cross on the other. The woman took the coin and examined it for some time before replying, “This is worth too much for a couple of beers. I’m no expert, but this is old. And valuable.”
“I wish to buy a snöskotor,” said Tusk. “And much more beer.”
Tusk roared across the snowfields with two steel kegs of beer strapped to either side of his snöskotor, the wind whipping back his hair. This was much faster than walking, or even riding a horse.
He found the path to Ice Haven—the cursed spot where the ice never melts. Here rested his doomed ship Wavewalker—the one that broke in half upon the ice so long ago during a great adventure. And here lay the corpses of some of his most hated enemies frozen in their death throes. He even saw the spirit of his old friend hvítabiôrn the Ice Bear, plunging into the water, hunting for seal…
This was a good spot to build a home.
Warg-gram had been made for hewing heads, but it was better than the sharpest axe for felling trees. One blow and the blade sliced clean through a trunk the thickness of a stout man’s thigh. It only took two days to build a habitable place—a snug cabin with a smoke hole in the center. Every day Tusk went out hunting on the ice, or fishing at a place where the ice covering the water was thin.
Sometimes he rode back into town and bought more supplies from the market, spending his dwindling stash of gold coins. Mostly he got provisions that he could not find in the wild like bread and cheese. And frozen cream with cherries. That was his favorite. The woman at the shop tried to entice him into laying with her, but Tusk only laughed and repeated, “I’m too old for you.”
His blessing and his curse were the same thing: immortality. Waves of sadness spread over him from time to time, making him long for a release…for a death that he knew would never occur. In this regard nothing was new. The sadness had always plagued him. He wished that he could go back to the town and ask the woman from the shop—Leena was her name—to be with him. But he had tried that before. Long ago he’d taken a wife, but he had remained young while she’d grown old, filling them both with despair.
It was best to be alone. That was the duty of a Watchman. But why had the lords of the Astral plane—the Ichoriens, the ones who were also called Soul-Wrights—made him a Watchman in the first place?
He would sit outside his new home staring at the cold and shimmering stars, trying to remember what had happened…trying to piece together how he had ended up in the ice cave. But his recollections about the days leading up to the fight with the blue-skinned skull-masked man were gone, as though that part of his memory were a sword that had been plunged into a forge fire and heated until it had begun to glow and melt, erasing the words the smith had stamped on the blade. He knew that the blue warrior had done something to his mind. Robbed him of important memories. It was vexing that he could clearly recall the events of a day that took place a thousand years ago, but he could not dredge up anything about the time leading up to the fight with the blue warrior.
One night, as he sat in front of the fire, he took out from his pouch the piece of silk he had found in the ice cave—the cloth that had been hidden under Warg-gram. Who had put it there? It was another annoying puzzle piece. A useless bit of nothing. Cursing, he tossed it on the fire; and as the cloth curled on the coals a strange vision unfurled before his eyes—a hideous winged gargoyle with glowing eyes…a cruel and vicious beast that mocked him. He could hear its harsh voice speaking in an ancient and evil tongue—a bastardization of the language of the Ichoriens:
“Ashkal grood zel-ichor!”
That is what it said, over and over again. Bellowing its hideous and cruel laugh.
“I will flay your soul.” That is what the words meant. He remembered that much at least. This monster was no myth. It was real. But where had it spawned from? And what did Tusk have to do with it? The cloth had been woven with a spell of remembering. That much was evident.
He gazed into Warg-gram and asked the sword to speak, and this time it obeyed, showing him a moving image on its glimmering blade: a young Asian woman wielding chain sticks and guarded by a celestial being in the guise of a dragon. Tusk saw the evil blue-skinned warrior with the skull mask looming behind her and he knew, in that moment, that the young woman’s fate would be tied to his, for good or ill.
One day a great snowstorm came. Tusk sat in his house staring out the entrance at the whirling flakes for the longest time. Finally, as the sun was starting to go down he saw an apparition walking toward him out of the storm: It was a woman—wearing a long cloak with a hood partially hiding her face—striding purposefully toward him. The stranger stopped twenty paces away and peered into the cabin. Tusk noticed that her eyes glowed—they were lit by some internal fire, like the electric lights in the town. He grabbed Warg-gram and stepped out to meet her, for he’d realized that she was no vision, but a real and solid thing.
“Who are you?” the stranger asked him with an artificial female voice.
“An odd question for a stranger to ask on my land,” replied Tusk.
“Where do you come from?” asked the stranger; and just then the raging wind whipped off her hood to reveal an impassive face forged from metal.
Tusk stared at her with curiosity. Her visage resembled a golden death mask place upon the face of a queen laid to rest in a barrow. Was she a fabricated thing like the snöskotor? Did she run on gasoline?
“What are you?” he asked. “How did you hear of me?”
“Your picture was broadcast on the Internet,” replied the stranger. “As well as stories of your ancient gold coins that you use to pay for things in the town. You drew attention to yourself.”
“I am the Watchman,” Tusk said with a shrug. “What do you want?”
The stranger’s eyes flashed a different color, and then a beam of blue light projected from them, scanning up and down Tusk’s body, lingering on his sword.
“Your weapon,” she said. “It is fashioned from an unknown element. It is anomalous.”
“Unknown to you,” said Tusk with a laugh.
“It is more than just a sword,” she said abruptly. “You must come with me. I must learn about you, and your device.”
“Storm will get worse,” said Tusk. “And I would rather stay here. I am waiting for a sign.” Behind the stranger, as if summoned by some unheard call, a giant lizard scurried forward from the darkness, staring menacingly at Tusk. It let forth a small burst of fire from its maw.
“You have a little pet dragon,” Tusk observed with interest. “It is very ugly. And it stinks.”
An armored manlike figure with glowing red eyes emerged from the storm, pointing a projectile weapon at Tusk. This newcomer was an automaton: a war-golem of some kind made of gears and wearing silver armor like a knight. Tusk had seen a war-golem before—a much bigger one made of bronze. But that had been thousands of years ago in Babylon.
“You will not be harmed,” said the metallic woman, “unless you try to fight us.”
“You will not be harmed,” replied Tusk, “unless you refuse to go.”
The three attacked in unison before Tusk had time to react. The dragon exhaled a funnel of fire at him; the automaton blasted him with stinging projectiles; and the metallic woman kicked him in the gut with her heavy boot. Tusk fell to the ground and absorbed their flurry of blows, clutching his sword to his chest. But then Warg-gram started to glow, and the arcane runes inscribed upon its surface burst into red fire. Tusk felt the tattoos on his back searing his flesh…
He leapt up with a roar, swinging Warg-gram back and forth with a wild fury, sparks spraying forth as though blasted from a smithy’s furnace. He was unstoppable. The automaton’s head went flying; the little dragon flipped over on its back, landing with a heavy thump in the snow where it writhed in agony; and the metallic woman stumbled backwards—jets of flame spewing from her torso.
“Death comes to all!” shouted Tusk. “Except for me!”
The metallic woman held up a broken hand, but he lunged forward, swinging his blade, smashing her to pieces.
He stood over the smoking parts, breathing hard.
Suddenly two metal things flew past Tusk’s head and hovered over the metallic woman’s remains, buzzing like huge flies. They absorbed the broken parts that lay on the snow, then zoomed away as swift as swallows, vanishing into the night. Tusk turned and saw the dragon running into the storm, clutching the automaton’s head in its gaping mouth.
Tusk looked around. The churned-up snow was the only evidence that this brief and violent fight had just occurred. Who were these mysterious enemies? Why had they come looking for him?
He got on the snöskotor and started it up, then headed straight into the storm, following the tracks of the dragon. For the first time since finding himself in the ice cave, he finally felt awake.
There were mandarin oranges everywhere: bouncing down the steps of the Dragon’s Gate; rolling onto Grant Street and under cars…an explosion of little dancing orange balls.
Kim Wu lay sprawled on the dirty concrete stairs with the wind knocked out of her. The nineteen-year-old hadn’t fallen that hard since she’d taken a header off her bike as a kid. She got to her knees and looked around, but her vision was distorted.
What in the hell had just happened?
She stared at her bloodied palms, forcing her eyes to focus. Forcing herself to think. She’d just gotten off the bus from the Mission District where she’d been teaching a free martial arts class at Dolores Park. She’d been carrying a bag of oranges that she’d bought for her uncle who was in the hospital. She’d started up the Dragon’s Gate steps when something had exploded in her brain—a burst of crazy color and violent sound so powerful she’d been blinded. Her legs had actually gone dead! The next thing she knew she was sprawled on her face.
To be continued…
© 2016 Microsoft. All rights reserved.