I was sitting at a table playing cards when something crashed into my conscious and yanked. I fell backwards, dropping aces, out of my chair and rolled once before the floor seemed to turn mushy under me and I was falling. There were lights and colors, strange smells and the sounds of piping. Something strange was pulling me, keeping my attention down as I fell. The lights and feelings didn't change, and there was nothing to compare myself to, but the sensation of movement. A shape flashed past me, a woman, dark and hard eyed, and the yank stopped. She was gone in the lights behind as I plummeted into the light in front.
I hit the ground and rolled. Without standing I looked around, seeing the large, open plain covered in knee height grass and a scared horse. The horse's nostrils were foamed, and it reared at me. I had to get up to leap backwards, and that's when the bullet hit the side of my head, killing me instantly. It hurt.
I woke up. My arms were bound, there was a burlap bag over my head, and the air was thick and insufferably hot. Fortunately, my hands were bound behind me and my clothing had been taken. I started picking at the small bump in my skin. Soon it came loose and inside the mess was knife blade, half the length of my finger. I cut myself free.
I was in a coffin. To my left was a furnace door, and a fat, sweaty man was tossing wood onto it from a pile. The furnace door was suspiciously wide, and radiated the heat and noise of the blasting fire. I rolled out of the coffin and stood up behind the fat guy. I grabbed a piece of wood and hit him with it in the base of the skull. He dropped.
The fire in front of me roared. Inside was a metal grate, a few feet wide and long enough to hold a coffin. Through the grate flames were leaping and rising, not yet strong enough to incinerate me but growing. The heat was unbelievable, burning my face and fingers, but not warming. There was something chilling, terrible about the fire. Burning to death would probably be the worst way to die. Intense, full body pain like hell, blinding light, and no place to hide. In spite of the fire, I froze. Without looking away, I retreated until my back hit the coffin and then I covered my face. I was staring forward through my hands, unable to see the burning but knowing it was there.
My fingers found the hole in my head. Tentatively, I poked at the side of my skull. I could stick all my fingers in and touch soft, squishy matter. On the other side of my head was a small, neat hole. I pulled my hands down and stared at them. Little flecks of gray matter were in the tips, with the blood and hair.
"This isn't possible," I said aloud. I tried to figure out what was going on. There was something about a card game, falling, and then searing pain. But before that, nothing. Not a blank wall but an emptiness. It was like trying to see beyond my peripheral vision. There just wasn't anything there.
The guy on the ground groaned. He was trying to roll over. I snapped back and looked around.
There were half a dozen coffins stacked against the walls, and one on a table besides mine. Inside was a corpse. His skin was waxy and blue. I prodded him a few times but his body was stiff and he stayed dead. There was no one else in the room, which looked like a basement or cellar.
The guy had managed to roll onto his hands and knees and leveraged himself upright. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and that obviously brought a spasm of pain. He winced and looked up, directly into my eyes.
"Yes," I agreed. "I am. And you will be. Who shot me?"
"I saw the hole in your head! I put the bag over you so I wouldn't have to see it. I'm sure of."
"You mean this hole?" I turned so he could see it again, and he gasped.
"Black magic." Probably, I thought. The hell if I knew but I was not about to give that away. Besides, who argues with black magic? "Who shot me?"
"There's no such thing as-" He didn't finish because I hit him when he started arguing about black magic.
"Who shot me?"
"Where am I?"
"Orpheus wouldn't believe you were dead until he dragged your body back and had you burned. He'll be here to witness it when the fire's hot enough."
"Good plan." I approved. "Now, Orpheus is going to see a body burning so unless you want to be it, burn that guy now and tell Orpheus it's me."
The guy was scared, and talking fast and sloppy. His eyes were getting wider and wider, and I wanted him to calm down before started screaming. With something to do, he turned and began throwing wood on the fire without looking at me, working franticly.
I looked myself over. I was naked, probably as a result of being searched, and there was a good sized hole in my chest that sucked as I breathed. Someone had been very thorough. I touched the side of my head, and put my fingers part of my skull should have been. The hole was still there.
There was a longish robe and boots in the corner of the room that I put on. The only door was letting in flurries of snow, so no one should be suspicious if I stayed bundled up. I peaked through the crack, and saw a tall man with several attendants coming.
"Push him in, now." I ordered. "I'm going to be watching. You breath one word of this, you mention me, if you imply I'm not in that fire in any way, I will kill you and then find you in the next world and do worse."
"Yes." He nodded franticly. The table holding the two coffins was on wheels, and he rolled it to the door of the furnace. There were several piles of firewood and a good sized pile of uncured furs. I hid behind it.
The door swung open and five men came in. The leader had a sword on his hip and a hunting rifle on his back, while the other four had swords and pistols. The fireman was just finishing pushing the coffin in.
"Is that him?" the leader asked.
"Why is he burning already?"
"Because he scared me, sir. There was something unnatural, something evil about the way he was dead, and I couldn't bear it."
"All dead men are the same." The leader snorted.
"Not that one." There was real fear in him, and the leader, Orpheus I presumed, noticed it. The fireman's eye's were wide he was twitching slightly. He was also making eye contact with desperation, scared to let his eyes wander anywhere about the room.
"Coward," Orpheus muttered. "I didn't think you would ever believe this childishness."
"Neither did I," the fireman said, truthfully and with feeling. Orpheus scowled at him.
"We saw the hole in his head, sir," added one of the guards. "I put my sword through his chest myself. He's dead."
That guy also needed to die. I decided to rush the lot of them. What was the worst they could do, shoot me again? Stab me? Kill me?
"He was summoned by the witch when she fled." Orpheus replied. "I don't make any assumptions about witches."
I stopped and settled back down.
"Look, the coffin's coming apart." A different guard pointed into the fire. I looked in and the fear hit me, knowing it have been me in there. What if I didn't stay dead for that either? Could I burn and return, an eternity of fire and pain that even death couldn't stop? The prospect was too hideous to contemplate, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. Forever in the fire, forever in the searing, the agony, the heat and the pain, that was the ultimate fear.
"He's already afire. See, his limbs are burning off." One guard observed detachedly.
I shut my eyes and forced thoughts of fire out of my head. Orpheus had four guards. If I was lucky I could drop one before the rest saw me. The fireman would either run or fight with insane desperation. If he stayed, that would be five on one, four of them armed and probably competent. If I lost I would be killed again, and it took me a while to come back last time. I would be fed to the flames, and that could not happen.
I was starting to panic again, so I opened my eyes and fixed them on the leader. He was taller than the others and had a short blond beard and hair. Somewhere in early middle age, his face was beginning to wrinkle at the edges of his eyes and mouth. He looked like a hard man, and the careful way he had tried to assure himself I would stay dead supported that.
They watched the cremation for a while. The guards were talking among themselves in low tones. One finally referred to the leader as "Orpheus, sir" and I locked his name to his face. Orpheus didn't speak, he just watched the flames. When at last he was convinced I was gone, he turned and without a word walked out into the night.
"Well done." I stood and walked back to the fireman. He stared at me. "Now spit and speak the name you were born with."
He had to work his mouth and tongue for a while, since his mouth was dry. Finally he got enough saliva to let a drop dribble to the floor and said "Oman."
"Do you swear on your life that is you own, true name?"
"Yes," he whispered.
"Then by your name I can find you. Should you speak of me, I will know, and I will destroy you. I bond you to your silence, Oman, I bind you from speaking of me." I said it on a whim, but the words seemed heavy and potent in the air. He shook violently as I said them, and then went limp and almost fell over. I turned, swirled the cloak, a walked outside.
Outside it was biting cold. The snow was about two feet deep in most places, but there were paths stamped from doorway to doorway. The door led to a small courtyard. Around were buildings but very few people. The buildings were backed by a high wall broken with towers and one deep gatehouse that looked like a tunnel. Nowhere looked more or less inviting that anyplace else, but one place had no smoke rising from it and the pathway to it had a light, undisturbed dusting of snow. I went to the door, pushed it open like I knew what I was doing, and went in.
The room was large, and filled with shovels, plows, and bags of seed. One wall was hung with disorganized tack and gear. The place smelled of the earth and cow dung. A short search yielded some horse blankets and pair of farmer's pants, which I put on.
My head and chest had both started to hurt, so after rubbing some feeling back into my fingers and toes, I opened the cloak and checked myself. The blood about my chest wound had frozen to the skin, making it difficult to breath. I stared at it in shock. While I watched, it thawed, and I began to drip blood into the floor. Another search turned up a reasonably clean strip of cloth, so I bound my chest and wrapped my head in that.
It had felt cold outside but not murderously cold. If it had been cold enough to freeze blood that quickly, it must be truly frigid. Or my blood had grown cold. I felt my skin. I didn't feel cold or warm.
So I must be dead. I had a fatal head wound, a fatal chest wound, and Orpheus, who seemed a thorough individual, was content that I had gone. I checked my pulse. Nothing. I stopped breathing, and waited. After a while, nothing happened, and I felt fine. I was dead.
Well, according to Orpheus I had been summoned by a witch. I had no reason to doubt his honesty, so that meant I was a bad guy. Orpheus had shot me, and I intended to have violent, painful revenge. There were no twinges of conscious. Moral and philosophical questions solved, it was time for business.
By moonset what few people who were walking about the courtyard had retired. The stars were bright above me, few clouds in the sky, and the night had a clear darkness that was perfect for sneaking about. High in a tower, one window was lit with a steady gold light. I stared up from the courtyard, watching it. Torches and gave off red light. Candles burned steady, if you had enough of them, and were the right color. They were also expensive. The base of the tower was behind the largest building within the keep, a hall most likely.
The doorway to the great hall was shut, but I opened it quickly and went in. There was a wide, smoky room where dogs and peasants slept in piles before two great hearths. A few of the dogs looked up and one barked, but someone hit it and it went silent. I passed through. Around back were a few corridors and rooms, and I passed through them purposefully. It did not take long to find a stairway.
At the third landing, four or five doors branched off. Light was coming from beneath one and a sleepy guard was sitting down beside it. He looked up groggily and sniffed.
"Hey, farmer. What are you doing here?" He seemed too bored to care.
"Nothing," I replied seriously, looking around. "Just wondering and not disturbing anyone." The landing was small, and when I faced the guard, I took two inoffensive steps that put me within arms reach.
"Well you're bothering me."
"Then I'll be leaving." I shrugged, made it look natural.
I punched him in the throat. He gagged, made a hacking noise, and his eyes bugged out. I grabbed the side of his head and spit loudly while I put my knuckles into his temple. He went limp in my arms, and I set him back in his seat.
The lit door was unlocked. I went in with the guard's sword and gun. Orpheus was sleeping face down on his desk, a pile of papers and documents spilled about him. Indecision warred within me. Ultimately I went back out, pulled the guard in and dumped him in a corner.
"Orpheus," I said loudly, shutting the door.
"Eh?" He picked his head up and peered about. Before he recognized me I hit him in the jaw with the sword hilt, but sideways so he tumbled out of the seat to the floor. By the time the shock wore off, I had the blade at his eye.
"Every moment you're talking is a moment you aren't dead."
Orpheus stared at me. His eyes went wide and his face white. He didn't resist as I sat on his chest, the sword against his face.
"Good. Why did you kill me?"
"I obviously didn't."
"You did. I came back. Why did you do it?"
"You're a spawn of the devil."
I considered that. It seemed reasonable. "Who was the witch?"
'Anybody up here named Fiera?' I asked myself. No memories replied. "Who's Fiera?"
"You don't know?"
That casual implication that I was somehow lessened by admitting ignorance infuriated me. I shouldn't care because this guy's life was over anyway, but I did. My eye twitched slightly and Orpheus started talking.
"Fiera was one of the dark counselors of the King Nemoch of the north. Last year we crushed his army, talking this castle, and he and the witch fled."
'Nemoch?' I asked again. Nothing was there either.
"You weren't in charge, or you would have said I. Only underlings say we. Who do you work for?"
"I work for no one. My lord is the King of Thanes."
That didn't ring any bells either, so I dropped that line. "When Nemoch and Fiera fled, where did they go?"
"To the west, across the sea."
"Why did she come back?"
"I don't know. My men caught her sneaking into the cellars and gave chase, but she rides like the wind and escaped."
I scowled at him. There was nothing else to ask before I killed him. I shrugged and was about to stab him through the face when he said something interesting. "I have had time to search to cellars and think I know what she was looking for."
"There's a room deep underground with all manner of strange devices. A great number of paintings. When we took the castle, she may not have had time to take everything. Perhaps she came back for her possessions?"
"What is in the room?"
"Lots of stuff." He was desperate to keep talking. "There are several large trunks of clothing of a most peculiar nature, as well as a large number of small parchments and devices of no value. There are paintings, all of which seem to be about a cycle of characters-"
He didn't finish because someone hit me in the back of the skull. It hurt unbelievably and knocked me flying. I crashed into the desk and brought it down about me.
The guard was holding a big metal pestle that I'd peripherally noticed lying against the wall when I came in. Behind him, Orpheus was getting to his feet. So much for this. I drew my gun and shot him.
The gun crack sounded like thunder in the enclosed space, and the bullet came out at about three miles an hour. It moved stately and deliberately across the room, and the guard negligently batted it aside, still watching me.
"Right," I said aloud. "Swords it is."
The guard stayed back, covering Orpheus as he stood. Orpheus clearly wasn't doing too well, he had to brace against the wall to stand and was bleeding from his forehead. I climbed upright myself and stepped forward.
The guard retreated, keeping the pestle before him. That didn't make any sense. He should have jumped forward and began beating me like a red headed step child while I was down. I shrugged.
I feinted right, left, rolled past the pestle and kidney punched him. Orpheus was already out the door now and I ran after. A couple of guards were running up the stairs between me and my quarry, so I didn't so much attack them as jumped over them, fell down two flights of stairs, and crashed into the back of lord Orpheus' knees. We went down in a pile.
Somebody grabbed my arm while I was trying to stab him and pulled me off. I broke his fingers, he let go, and I stabbed another guard through the leg. We were in another hallway, a long low ceiling corridor full of the smell of torch smoke and stale sweat. People kept getting in my way, but I finally had my feet under me and Orpheus in sight.
Someone grabbed the back of my head and yanked. My hood and wrappings came off, pulling clumps of frozen blood and scalp with them, and I twisted to stay upright. The guard behind me was looking at the ruins of my head in shock. I hit him in the jaw as hard as I could, lifting him off his feet and throwing him five feet into a stone wall. He fell and didn't move.
"We're finally alone, Orpheus." I smiled and checked around to be sure it was true.
He was standing again, unarmed. His eyes were full of fear and desperation. I ran forward and swung.
He rolled, I slashed again, and sparks shot off the wall as my blade ground against the stone. Brilliant in the dark, I stopped and involuntarily blocked my face from the fire. When I could see again, Orpheus had grabbed a torch and was waving it before him. I feinted over it but, unwilling to commit past the flames, couldn't swing far enough to get him.
"Scared of fire, demon?" Orpheus sounded cocky as he kept me at bay.
I threw the sword at him. It hit him in the center of the chest, point first, and stuck there. He looked at it in shock.
"Not enough." I replied, even cockier.
He stabbed me with the torch.
My blood caught fire like oil. Unbelievable pain filled my body and I whirled, screaming until I had become a human beacon. Words cannot describe the feeling of living immolation, but worse was the proximity to fire. Total immersion in everything I dreaded while all of my dread became manifest and my worst fears proved true. I didn't fall down. I kept running about, unable to stop the pain, until I final burst out to the central courtyard and tried to roll in a patch of snow.
The fire burned hotter and brighter. I lit the entire courtyard and all around me guards and peasants watched my flailing. Orpheus, sword still hanging from leather armor, stared also. The spectacle kept them in shock and finally I fell backwards, tumbling down a dark hole and splashing through the frozen surface of the well water. My burning clothes remained on the surface as I sank.
Again, I didn't stay dead. Either that or death just didn't stop me.
Even underwater I smoldered for a while, but eventually that went out. I was incapacitated and lay at the bottom curled in a fetal position underwater in the dark. Sometime after it dawn, people pulled my sodden cloak from the well with pikes and hooks and probed around a bit. I remained still.
I began to reconsider this whole vengeance thing. It clearly wasn't working out too well. I still couldn't remember anything past the card game. All I could remember about that was having five aces, which meant I cheated at cards. The fall, what must have been Fiera passing me, my arrival to this place was clear but there was no meaning behind it. I had the impression I deserved whatever I had coming.
Still, I might have very good reasons for everything, reasons that I just didn't know. I had the impression that important parts of my memory had been destroyed and probably weren't going to come back. After carefully reviewing every detail of my conversation with Orpheus, no new bells were ringing and no inspiration stepped up.
After nightfall I pulled myself to the surface of the water and pushed my head up. I could see torchlight and flickering shadows. Guards must be posted about the well, and they were armed with fire. I sank back down and explored the underwater parts of my prison.
There was a hole in the stone wall, and I poked and prodded at that for a while. A few stones around it came loose from their mortar. Beyond that was earth, too deep to be frozen, and a single long tunnel about the width of my hand. I followed it, widening it as I went.
The shaft stopped at another stone wall. I stuck my fingers through the small opening, braced my other against a stone, and pushed. Nothing happened as I cranked until my fingers buckled and my nails broke. I reversed myself, pushing and pulling, and something began to give. One of the stones twisted in its position. Another crank and it moved back. A moment later I crawled through the hole.
It led to a small basin, only a few feet wide but almost ten feet deep. Everything was pitch black. I surfaced and listened, but the darkness was also silent.
I crawled out and felt my way around. It was a good sized room, the walls had wood paneling and the floors were smooth. When I found a door and cracked it, there was a dimly lit room outside. That had light coming from under the main door and I could hear movement. I carefully shut the door and continued searching the room.
Besides the door, chest high, was a small stick poking out of the wall. Accidentally I pushed it down, and the whole room flared into sight. I whirled and stared, but nothing moved.
Absolutely nothing moved. The light was strong and steady, steadier than a host of candles or daylight. It seemed to be coming from a series of things in the ceiling. When my eyes adjusted, I finished inspecting the room.
This was definitely the room of paintings Orpheus had mentioned. There was roughly two dozen, all done in the same hand. They were of ten people, mostly men. I walked about, staring briefly of each in turn.
I recognized only one. The woman who passed me in the light stood before a mirror, such that the painting looked like a reflection. Her right hand was reaching forward, seeming almost about to come out of the canvas, while her left painted something out of sight. The whole image was so lifelike, so realistic that her large, bluish halo was almost discordantly out of place. The halo was wrinkly, circular but full of internal lines and swirls. Confused by the discordance in the work of a clear master, I stared deeper into the painting. I could make out the wrinkles in her skirt, the play of light and shadow on her hands and face. It was undoubtedly Fiera, the witch who had summoned me.
"Havok," the painting said.
I kept my wits together barely.
She was standing before me in the flesh, yet still in the painting. The halo was gone, and I could see the way her red hair gleamed. But more than anything else, I was fixated on her eyes. They seemed deep, cold, and terrible.
"Havok, is Orpheus dead?"
"No." It was an effort to speak.
"Why not?" she demanded. He eyes grew even harder, and I felt her gaze pierce into my brain, tugging at my few memories.
"Well, he isn't really that bad a guy-"
"No excuses!" She glared at me, and my fledgling sense of identity was blasted into pieces. "He has done you great harm." Which was true. "That is unforgivable." I agreed with that. "You must kill him." That also seemed to follow. "You must kill him now." Her logic was infallible.
"Think of him. Do you not crave his blood?" I considered Orpheus, and from the back of my mind came a cold, burning rage that consumed me and rendered me willing to pay unspeakable prices to inflict my revenge. It dwarfed my previous malice. I had never noticed it before, but the shear magnitude of my fury meant that it had always been a part of me.
"Yes, Princess Fiera." I don't know why I called her that. It just felt right.
"What did you call me?" she demanded. My feelings were obviously wrong.
"Princess." I tried to look away.
Her gaze had shifted from a drill, boring through me, to a rail I hung on, holding me upright.
"Why did you call me that?"
"That is what Orpheus called you."
I was able to stitch together a few bits of memory. Orpheus, my sword at his eye, some words that he spoke came together. They dispersed like smoke on the wind when she spoke again.
"Why do you not know my true name?"
"My memory was shot out." I turned my head, still meeting her eyes but enough to let her see my largest injury
Her expression changed, but it turned only more malicious and skeptical. Defensively, I touched the hole in my skull. It was missing. My head was clean shaven, but intact. I no longer had any idea what was going on.
"It does not matter," she said. "You must kill Orpheus."
Her gaze blasted into me again, searing every nerve like the fire, testing me for weakness. There was none, and she found only total commitment to my goal. While she remade my will in the reflection of her own, I briefly glimpsed her purposes and powers, but fell away from forces I could not comprehend.
"Yes, Princess Fiona."