But he smiled when the thieves emerged to confront him. Brigands -- he could handle brigands.
The Faceless Son watched the bravado melt from their faces, and laughed beneath the mask that hid all but his eyes.
There were five of them. Swords flashed in the moonlight, and greedy eyes hungered at the sight of a lone rider on a lonely road.
But as their prey rode into the clearing, where the moon could wipe away the darkness that had hidden his face, their expressions changed, and he knew why. To their eyes, he suddenly became legend. They realized they faced one of the Faceless Sons of Brythane.
With cries and curses, the would-be thieves launched themselves back into the concealing woods. Snapping branches and alarmed oaths told him of their headlong flight. The Faceless Son did not give chase. He patted Hannla's neck to calm the mare, then adjusted the harness that held the long, curved Sword that had remained sheathed on his back. His fingers caressed the long hilt. "Perhaps next time, friend," he whispered to the ensorceled blade. Then he laughed aloud.
At a touch of the spurs, Hannla picked up the pace.
"You are a demon hunter? One of the Faceless Sons?" She leaned forward across the table, her breasts almost spilling out of her shift. Long red hair framed those breasts, and bright green eyes gleamed above her smile. Her name was Yassima and she had heard all about the Faceless Sons, even out here in the hinterlands.
"Aye," he told her. She had singled him out as soon as he'd entered the tavern. He had seen many like her, drawn to the intriguing figure he cut: dramatic black and red garb, leather armor that protected his shoulders and lent them heroic proportions, the Sword almost as long as he was tall. And the blood-hued mask, of course. The mask compelled attention. He seldom had to do much seducing.
"What a tale they spin..." Yassima said, and he felt her sweet breath even through his crimson mask. "Your power-mad father brings seven demons into the world, they slay him, and you and your brothers don masks and hunt them down one by one. Such a man as you hasn't come to Nillivit since... well, ever! Is it really all true?"
He wrapped his fingers around the leather jack. He wanted a drink, but his oath forbade him to lift the mask in anyone's presence. He did not obey all the rules, but he always observed that one. It enhanced the mystery. Women love mystery.
"The mask oath forbids me to speak of it," he said. That was true, and convenient. Fascination enveloped her, and her sigh left him no doubt of a warm companion for his bed this night.
Yassima reached for the jack of ale, and let her cool fingers linger on his callused ones for a long moment before wresting the mug from his grasp and taking a long swig. Her eyes, brimming with challenge, peered over the jack. She set the empty vessel down with a thunk. "I've heard the oath has other rules. Pleasures foresworn, until your deed be done. Can you speak of that?"
He reached for her hand. Yes, he had sworn to forego earthly pleasures. The oath was a trade: prowess from the gods to serve his quest, in exchange for becoming a living emblem of devotion. It was a deal sealed in blood, in a hallowed place. But foregoing pleasure was, to him, a part of the deal he had not counted on -- along with others.
"Now, Yassima, what kind of life would it be without earthly pleasures?" He pulled her hand toward him, and kissed it through the red mask. She smiled.
"Well, then..." and she laughed. "Do you ever remove that mask?"
Her eyebrows lifted, and her smile slowly widened.
The Faceless Son stood. "Come." But his first stride toward the wind-blown blanket that covered the tavern entrance was the only step he took. Two men entered, a third propped between them. They helped the man they carried to a chair amid gasps from the crowd. Claws had ripped the man's cheek and shirt, and his eyes were wide with shock. His companions kept him from falling from the chair, and the barkeeper rushed forth with a wet towel to dab the bloody face.
The barkeep whispered something, and one of the wounded man's companions stood, his eyes filled with disbelief. The barkeeper pointed at the Faceless Son. "Tell that one, there. By Dyrm, a Faceless Son! Demon hunter! He will go kill the damned thing!"
The Faceless Son sighed, and strode toward the injured man. "A demon did this? Unlikely. You'd be dead. Probably a wildcat. Were you drunk at the time?" But the masked man noted the wide spacing between the claw rakes, and how cleanly those sharp nails had rent the shirt.
The wounded man did not answer. His cheek bled anew, and his eyes seemed to see another world.
"We were checking traps, at dusk," one of the men said. "Arb here come running, and hell was on his heels. Long claws, fangs, wet scales, thrice my height, tail with... with... damned spears, I guess! Ripped up Arb, killed Motley and Boot. T-t-t... tore them, like breaking bread." He gulped, and his voice faded. "It was so fast! Don't know how we got away."
You escaped because it wanted you to, the Faceless Son thought. Father's demons live on fear, and they sow its seeds with murderous abandon.
"Where did this happen?" the Son asked.
"N-north. Maybe two miles, along the road," the second companion said. "You're really going after it?"
He felt the heat of their stares. The Faceless Son turned toward Yassima. Her eyes begged him to stay. "Aye, I will go after it," he said, as boldly as he could. He strode to his chair, removed the harness hanging from it and returned the long, slender Sword to its place on his back. "Someone, fetch my horse."
"You'll be killed," Yassima said softly.
"No I won't."
He turned, cursed silently, and left the tavern as amazed faces stared at him. The boy brought him the horse, and he mounted. He spurred Hannla and she sprang northward, hooves pounding like war drums.
A quarter-mile up the road, beyond sight of the village, he stopped. "Damn! Thrice damn!" He removed the mask and watched his breath float on the chill air. He waited an hour there, cursing the fates that had denied him a soft bed and a warm woman. He stared northward, where the demon was said to be. Then he wheeled the steed about and headed southeast. He would ride through cornfields, and so avoid the village.
He would leave this place, and the demon, far behind.
Morning mist stirred little on the lake, and Tannen wished his mind could be so calm. He stared at the red mask that dangled from his fingertips. He should have thrown it aside long ago.
He had not thought to find a demon this far from Brythane. He had not thought to face a demon, ever. He had seen what they did to his father, watched them rip and rend and tear. He had sworn the oath, because his brothers had. He could not stand by while they walked bravely into peril. He had bathed in Orn's waters, taken vows and donned the mask -- all during those first shocked days after seeing their father killed and learning of his throne-grasping treachery. Then he and his brothers -- Trevor the eldest in the white mask, mighty Tego in black -- had set out from Brythane to rid the world of the horrors their father had unleashed.
It had not taken Tannen long to realize he could not face a demon. He was not dour Trevor, driven only by purpose and willing to pay whatever cost honor demanded. And he was not Tego, who laughed at any danger. He was Tannen, the youngest, who had sworn an oath only because horrors and high-sounding words had left him addle-minded. He had been trained to fight, but had always wondered if he could prove himself like his battle-tested brothers. He'd seen the oath as a chance to climb in their esteem, and their proud faces had filled his soul.
"Stupid," he told Hannla, who drank from the lake. "I was stupid, the oath was stupid." Even if I could master my fear, what was the point? It would not erase father's crimes, nor restore his life and honor.
The demons, fearful of one another, had scattered from Brythane after their bloody deed, and so had the Faceless Sons. Tannen had gone east, with no company but memories: a tattered corpse, shrieking demon throats, hellfire eyes, venom-dripped fangs, blood-soaked claws. The nightmare images troubled his sleep, filled his waking mind, clutched at his spine with fingers of ice. And he soon knew that whatever he had sworn, he could not bring himself to hunt a demon. Not even with Saralaast, the Sword of Prowess, in his hands.
Nor could he face his brothers and confess such fear, ever. He had resolved to simply keep riding, and make a life for himself somehow, somewhere. He had enough training, and skill enough with the Sword, to do that.
But his brothers did deeds, and mounted demon heads one by one on the wooden stakes before Brythane's great gate. The legends caught up to Tannen, and he realized there were advantages in the mask. He enjoyed the notoriety, the fame, the attentions of women. Those opiates dulled the shame of breaking his oath, of leaving his brothers to face dangers he would not.
But now, after hearing of a demon and scurrying away to safety, that shame was like a brand on his back. I should throw the mask into the lake, ride east -- and vanish.
Hannla snorted, and shifted around. Tannen heard the clop of hooves on the road behind him, and reflexively donned the crimson mask. He stood, blade partially drawn from the sheath he clutched. Then his eyes found the rider -- and the night-black mask.
"Brother!" The massive man halted his warhorse, the maneuver setting off a rattle of partial plate and chain armor. He lifted high a great axe -- another product of their father's magical forge -- and his voice boomed like thunder. "What a day for Brythane's glory! Two Faceless Sons shall ride as one!"
Tannen's knees quaked. He had not seen his brother in two years, but fear of discovery battled against joy at the meeting. "Brother! Well met!"
Tego dismounted suddenly, and to Tannen it seemed the earth should shake under such power. Tego rushed to him, and his embrace was like that of a constrictor. "You follow the same trail I do? It is Koor, the nasty tail-spiked bastard. I got a swipe at him near Brocken," Tego said, gazing lovingly at the bright, rune-etched axe, "but his tail sent me tumbling -- damned near speared me! -- and when I woke he was gone. He stands no chance now, with both of us hounding him! Ha!" He grabbed Tannen in another crushing embrace.
Tannen fought for breath, and words.
"What do you know of Koor's lair, brother?" Tego gazed at the axe. "Will it be long before I slice that foul head from his shoulders?"
"A village, Nillivit, not far north of here. People there said he killed some men last night," Tannen answered, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
"Then where?" Tego turned, his eyes lancing the terrain. "I see no sign, and my axe hums not."
"The slayings were north," Tannen said, wishing he could get by with saying nothing. "I suppose they were north. Village tales, much confused. One moment they had the beast running north, the next flying south. All a muddle. I've searched here. Nothing."
Tego clapped a mighty hand on his younger brother's shoulder. "Then let us ride north. And let Koor beware. Masked death approaches, a double dose of it!"
Tego mounted the black charger with a swiftness seemingly impossible for a man of his size, and spurred to a gallop that kicked dust skyward. Tannen pulled himself onto his own saddle rather slowly.
When Tannen caught up, Tego started lecturing the way older brothers always do. "Have you bloodied that Sword yet, brother? You remember your swordplay lessons?"
"I have not yet slain a demon," Tannen said. "I've... searched in vain. But I have bested human foes. I learned well, remember? I took you down a time or two."
Tego laughed, and Tannen was glad to hear a note of pride in it. "I do recall it, painfully," Tego said. "Keep in mind all I've taught you. Koor is no baby demon, like that snotling Farg. Farg's head came off rather easily." Tannen could almost hear his brother's grin beneath the black cloth. "But Koor, he's a nasty one. He'll fight with claws, and teeth, and that wicked tail. Spikes on that will run a man through before he sees them coming."
Tannen hoped Tego had not heard him gulp.
"One advantage, perhaps," Tego continued. "Koor did not throw spells at me when we met at Brocken. Perhaps his magic is weakened, or perhaps he just likes to get his hands dirty, and enjoy the feel of men's blood on his claws and the flesh in his teeth." Tannen knew his brother was smiling as he said that; Tego rather enjoyed battle himself. The black-masked man continued his surmising: "In any case, if he's holding back on magic for some reason we may win the day with speed. Maybe one of us can gut the bastard while he's ripping the other in two." Tego's laugh rang off the trees, and cold sweat soaked Tannen's crimson mask.
They rode through Nillivit, and through a gauntlet of eyes and cheers. "Let us pound a sensible story out of these peasants," Tego said. "We'll soon know where the demon hides."
"No!" Tannen said. "I narrowed the choices to two. South was wrong, so north it must be. These villagers" -- his eye caught Yassima, waving a kerchief -- "are exceedingly dull, brother. Let's not tarry among peasants." Tannen spurred his mount.
Tego caught up quickly. He roared over the drumming hooves, "The saucy redhead seems not so exceedingly dull, brother, and she has eyes for you. Let's hope we slay all seven soon, so you can enjoy the wench before her charms fade!"
Tego charged ahead, with laughter that echoed off the trees. Tannen stared at his brother's broad back, and wondered how Tego had inherited such gusto and courage -- and why he had not.
Blood dripped from leaves, pooled amid roots. Strewn limbs were so mangled Tannen could not tell which parts belonged to which man. The circle of carnage extended many yards, and there seemed enough to build three corpses.
"Koor indulged himself here," Tego said quietly.
"Yes," Tannen said. "It had the desired effect on those who escaped. Scared witless." Like me.
Trees towered, their straight trunks like the bars of a great cage. The horses, rooting among weeds and brush in search of grass, snorted often, and lifted heads nervously every time a bird tittered or a branch snapped.
Tannen found himself behaving the same way. He felt trapped.
Tego knelt by a deep print. "Koor's a big one. Should be easy enough to follow. Let us..."
A scream from the woods cut Tego short. Black mask and red turned toward the sound, and Tannen whipped free his Sword. Three men rushed over a fallen log thick enough to hide a horse. They leapt downward, waving clubs and yammering like madmen. And mad they were.
"Demon taint!" Tego cried, squaring to fight.
Tannen had heard of such, innocent men driven mad by the touch of a demon. They became slaves to the monster, guarding its lair, bringing it sacrifices, spreading the fear.
There was no saving men such as these -- so the Faceless Sons did not try.
The insane trio charged forward. The fastest man drove his club at Tego's head. Tego's great axe flashed once, and the arm whirled away in a stream of blood. The club struck Tego's armored shoulder, but a return sweep of the axe threw gore across a thorn bush.
The other two rushed Tannen. The Faceless Son dodged one blow, parried another, then sliced a throat. Mad eyes widened further as that man fell dead.
Tannen leapt backward, and his remaining foe charged. Tannen was ready for that. A crouch, a thrust -- and the man impaled himself on the Sword of Prowess.
It had taken only a few heartbeats.
"That's all of them," Tego said. "Never stood a chance, the poor bastards. You fight well, brother."
Tannen said nothing. Of course it was easy, he thought. We are nobles of Brythane, bearing weapons forged by wizardry. We've nothing to fear from men, be it three or thirty. But against Koor...
"I've picked up the trail," Tego said. "Let us go fight some more."
Tannen followed, though each step took force of will. "I do not feel good about killing those men," he said.
"I know," Tego sighed. "Nor do I. They were innocents, pawns. Remember, brother, we fight to end such evils. Dead demons cannot make any more men like that."
"We cannot end evil," Tannen said, almost amazed to hear himself speak aloud but unable to stop. "We might slay all of father's demons, yet evil remains. It is a useless quest."
Tego stopped, and turned. Eyes blazed in the black-masked face. "We can end this evil."
"Must we, brother?"
Tannen almost wilted under his brother's rising anger, but he had said this much, and so would say more. "Brythane is safe. These demons fled. Why must we hunt them down? They plague other lands now, other people, not ours. Let others defend themselves, if they can."
Three great strides brought Tego mask-to-mask with his brother. "I hunt them because I said I would," he growled. "I need no more reason than that. Nor do you, brother! You swore an oath to Orn, and donned the mask. Our father brought these things into the world. His shame is our shame, and it is our duty to erase it."
"His shame is not my shame!" Tannen cried it with such force Tego backed up a step. "No guilt compels me to seek death in a demon's lair! I didn't..."
"Afraid?" Tego roared. "Orn's Waters, you are afraid!"
Tannen fell silent.
"Brother." The black mask moved back and forth slowly. "A coward, born of a house of heroes." Tego turned away, an act that stung Tannen as much as the words. Tego stood like a statue, gazing skyward. The great shoulders shuddered with rage, and mighty fingers gripped the axe haft as though to crush it. Tannen waited for Tego to loose his anger in a torrent.
"Father trampled on our family's good name, and now... this. Why did you take the oath?" Still, Tego would not face him.
"How... how could I not?" Tannen hated the way his voice quivered, how insignificant it sounded. "You took it, and Trev..."
"Speak no names!" Tego's voice filled the forest, as though it might shake trees. "We gave up our names, our lives, until our quest be done!"
"I... should not have."
Tego's grip tightened on the axe, which hummed softly now as it neared its demonic prey. Tego's free hand balled into a fist. Tannen hung his head.
"Stay here, then." Disappointment dripped from his tone as Tego strode forth. "I'll do what needs done."
Tannen watched his brother disappear in the woods, then fell to his knees. Tears welled in the red mask.
Tannen knelt. His fingers twisted the mask, and he stared at it, hating it. He tried to dredge up memories of training, of learning to use his speed and agility to fight as well as his older, stronger brothers. He remembered fallen foes, victories, brilliant strokes.
But those enemies had been human, and his mind could grasp that. Koor... Koor was beyond understanding. Beyond courage.
Fool! He gritted his teeth. Conquer the mind, master the fear!
He summoned the lessons, and fought to use them. He filled his mind with the visions: Himself, tall and proud. Sword in hand. Knees steady. Breath calm. Koor. Leering, hating, merciless Koor. The demon strike. The evasion, the parry. The power of Saralaast flowing from blade to hilt, to hand, to arm and back again. The silvery flash. The streaming, steaming blood. The demon head, rolling away.
But the visions refused to obey Tannen's commands. They melted, mutated, rebelled. The Sword would not bite on demon scales. His body moved too slowly against demonic speed. Talons pierced him, teeth tore at him. Demented laughter echoed through the woods as a scaly arm lifted a ruined head.
It was not Tannen's head.
It was Tego's.
And he realized now the demonic cackle was not inside his head.
"No!" Tannen roared, and the Sword of Prowess flashed free. He raced toward the sound, heedless of thorns that scratched his face and roots that grabbed at his feet. He plunged forward recklessly, desperate to reach Tego before it was too late.
The red mask remained, forgotten, on the ground.
He hurdled a body, a demon slave left dead by Tego's great axe. He stumbled on another of his brother's fallen foes -- then a living demon slave rushed him. Tannen parried, whirled, and the great Sword hissed as it arced and rasped as it sliced bone. The man fell in two chunks, slashed through from left shoulder to right hip.
Tannen ran, almost blindly, toward a demon roar. Silver glittered through the trees, a dazzling brilliance -- sunlight on water. A great splash, another roar, and Tego's defiant cry! His brother lived!
Heartened, Tannen rushed toward the lake. Tego stood on the bank, axe poised and dripping blood, as Koor rose from the waters. Part serpent, part man-thing, the nightmarish demon towered above Tego. Yellow snake's eyes stared from beneath a wild mane of flame-red hair, while long claws aimed at Tego from either flank. It swiped once, twice, and Tego's axe rang off the hard talons. Then Koor's tongue flashed -- yards long, a heavy pink mass. It struck Tego's broad chest, and the man went down as though a lance had speared him.
The talons took aim.
"No!" Tannen bolted forth, used a fallen log as a prop and launched himself into the air. The Sword sliced air in a great half-circle, and Tannen's arm coiled to unleash the fury that would send it arcing again in a slash to behead the damned beast. Then the serpentine, spiked tail lifted from the waters. It writhed above Koor's head, then struck like a whip.
A hammer blow sent Tannen flying. His body skimmed cattails, then plunged. Pain numbed him as he sank into the cold water. Crimson clouds oozed from his ribs where the spikes had raked him. Chill seeped into his wounds.
He rose, and shook water and hair from his eyes. He was near the bank, in water only waist-deep, but too far away to help his brother. Tego sprawled on the bank, unmoving, the mighty axe beside him and humming loudly in vain. Tannen spun, seeking the Sword.
It was gone, lost somewhere beneath the sun-dazzled surface.
I have to do something, damn it! Then, with all the force he could muster, he roared. "Bastard demon filth!"
Koor's head turned toward Tannen, and the demon's neck stretched and craned. The neck extended from the mass of flesh at its shoulders, until the demon resembled a turtle poking its head from the shell. The body remained where it was, menacing the unmoving form of Tego with claws that could rend horses, but the neck stretched further, and further, as the demon's head moved toward Tannen.
The leering toad-face advanced slowly, its tongue trailing in the lake. It laughed.
Tannen could not move. His legs seemed to be granite, his sudden-found courage mere dust. Koor's face came closer, closer.
Please, Orn, Tannen thought. Give Tego the strength and sense to flee while this thing devours me.
Koor's head loomed above him, only an arm's length away. Tego's axe had traced scarlet trails across the monster's face. The thing's long mane hung down until it brushed Tannen's shoulders. The mane framed Koor's ugliness, and curtained off the rest of the world until Tannen could see only death.
"No mask," the thing rasped, in a voice that seemed cauldron-stirred. "Insignificant. You will be a slave." Its great mouth gaped wide, and saliva oozed down the hideous tongue.
Koor's tongue shot inward, and it turned toward the masked man. "He lives?"
The great neck coiled toward the Faceless Son on the bank. The unmasked man -- insignificant, forgotten -- made his move.
Tannen lunged forward, and grabbed the great dangling mane. With hideous speed, Koor lashed toward Tego. Dragged by the demon, and trailing a bloody wake, Tannen hung on for life -- for Tego's life.
Tego cried out in agony and rolled away as Koor's vicious teeth tore a hole in the earth where the man had been. Koor raised his head, shook it and howled madly. Tannen held on until the demon's head towered again over the spot he wanted. Then Tannen dropped, and grabbed the humming axe.
The blade swept upward as Koor attacked. Tannen had no strength to match Tego's, and the axe had weight beyond what most could bear, but fear for his brother's life fueled the stroke, and magical power coursed through the haft and into his arm. The axe's hum became a bestial snarl and the blade streaked like steel lightning. The edge cut deep into Koor's jaw. Blood and scales rained upon Tannen.
Tannen heard Tego stir behind him, and he cried out in defiance and renewed hope. The axe swept again and left smoking wounds and hissing bubbles of blood.
Koor roared. The massive tongue shot at Tannen, and he hacked it. A segment fell and curled, the remainder flapped like a bloody banner. Tannen now saw something in the demon's eyes. Something he himself knew all too well.
The axe haft thrummed in his grasp, and he slashed again. And again. And again.
And Koor's head rolled away.
Tannen fell on his rump, exhausted, as the demon's body fell burbling back into the lake. The serpentine stump of its neck trailed behind it, smearing the grass with steaming gore. The head remained on the bank.
Tannen inhaled sharply when he heard Tego's raspy breath. "Tego!" Tannen leapt to kneel by his brother's side. The big man's armor was dented, and claws had torn flesh in many places. The older brother coughed. Not spitting blood, thank Orn, Tannen thought. "I'm sorry, Tego," he said through tears. "Gods, I'm so sorry! I ..."
Tego slapped Tannen, knocking him backward and stunning him to silence. "Quiet, idiot."
Tannen rubbed his jaw and hung his head. "I understand your anger. I let you..."
"Hush, or I'll knock you again!" Tego weakly raised a fist. "Stop blubbering. Brother, you must forgive me." Tego's eyes were diamond-hard within the black mask. "I was wrong to call you coward. You just needed something truly worth fighting for. Thanks."
Tannen sobbed. Tego's eyes smiled.
Tannen rose unsteadily. "Have to find a healer. I'll fetch the Sword from the lake."
Tego stared. "And the mask?"
Tannen paused. "I'll find that, too."
© May, 2013 Steve Goble
Steve Goble Steve Goble's sword-and-sorcery fiction has appeared in numerous venues. One of his short stories — "The Gods-Forsaken World" from
GrendelSong # 2 — was an honorable mention in “The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008,”edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. His story "Love and Scorpions" appeared in the April 2012 issue of Swords & Sorcery.