The greatest Slayer in the realm

The morning council meeting had bled into the afternoon, and now the claws of dusk dug deep into the hearts and minds of the councillors. The king had taken to his bed just after dawn when the news came in, pale, wordless and shaking, eyes glazed with a fear that none of the attending doctors could slake. The councillors were left with an empty throne to hear their carefully worded proposals, to hear their idle bickering, and now, their spittle-strewn deprecations. In the last hour "If we send ten thousand soldiers, ten thousand men will die, ten thousand families will be broken and we will have ten thousand widows to pay their bitter silver wage! You would cripple the army and beggar the realm, and do nothing but aggravate the Beast!" was the only thing approaching a plan. This peerage of the realm, the highest council in the land, brought to red-faced dockside shouting. The servantry clung to the walls, daring not to breath or refill spilled cups. In one corner, a third-rank butler and the chief of the scullery swapped coin on whether the distinguished gentlemen would come to blows before midnight. Good odds, they both thought.

The ancient stone-hard table was strewn with forgotten meals, puddles of wine and damning reports on the state of the nation. The tremendous map embedded in the centre of the table showed every road and trade wind to the finest detail the royal cartographers could depict, but the centre was merely an artistic slew of scowling mountains and hidden valleys. Gleaming black stones were scattered amongst those roaming peaks, marking possible locations, but they were all the result of historical estimates, fragmented reports from the peasantry and no small amount of guesswork. All the same, it painted a damning picture. Outside the stained-glass windows of the council hall, the harvest was being brought in, and the first whispers of snow could be smelt on the breeze. To call the levies in off the fields would guarantee them a bad harvest, a worse winter, starvation in spring, and in all likelihood, a failure to manage the next crop, and then a famine in the next year... To call the levies right now, to slowly muster them to the capital and then throw them all into the uncharted mountains, just as the blade of winter fell across teetering supply chains? The Beast might not even see a single one of them, let alone have to kill them.

A reliably stout clock sat at the back of the hall, the relentless march of seconds and minutes drawing them closer to midnight, and to winter. Each man at the table was master of his own domain, but unlike the rest of the gentry, had achieved this role on at least some amount of merit. Not one of them was a fool or a wastrel. Not one of them shied away from hard truths when plague threatened or piracy struck. Not one of them could see any reasonable way out of this mess. To doom the realm in a hopeless howling frenzied charge, or crawl on hands and knees back to the king, and tell him "we cannot do it"? Men had been hung, drawn and quartered for less, and for this utter dereliction of their duty, the King had every right to cut them into pieces as a lesson for their successors.

As the bell of the clock struck twelve damning chimes, the arguments had fallen to sullen silence. The servants had left the jugs of wine on the table, and slumped against the walls, dead on their feet. Not one of the councillors would meet the eyes of the rest. In all likelihood there was nothing to do but sit here and wait until the candles burned out, sit here and wait until the king arose from his bed on some foul concoction of the doctors, sit here and wait until winter fell like a cool silk cord around all their throats, sit here and wait while the orders went out, and the men marched out, and didn't march back.

The Lord of Roads was a strange position, an old post, older still than the Treasurer or the Secretary to the King. His was the role of places between, of no fixed destinations, of strange happenings between here and the middle of nowhere. He had been sat in silence and staring out of the council chamber for at least the last hour. As he gazed out on the darkened, flickering lamp-lit city, his reflection looked right back in at him. Mocking. Mocking him with his age, and his silence. He was just a man. Gussied up in fine robes and bright cloaks and gleaming mail, plied with food and drink until he rotted in the ground or where he sat. Forgotten by his insolent children until his inheritance draped around their necks, and corrupted them as well. He was just a man. What was he supposed to do? He was just-

"We're just men. Any soldiers we'd send out, just men as well."
His voice was slurred by too much wine, not enough sleep. Still, it broke the silence like a stone through the crust of an iced lake. One of the councillors awoke with a guilty snort, almost falling out of his chair. The rest looked up, blank-eyed with despair and stale fear.
"We're just men. We need something more. We need a hero."
The Treasurer found his monocle from under the table. Then he found another gulp of wine, and in it found his voice. "Do we... do we have any of those?"
The Lord of Roads stood, staggered, strode over to the window. Stared at his wrinkling reflection. It stared back, so he turned to fix the council with a glare.
"No. No we don't. But we can improvise."

Two royal attendants, or "The King's Men" as they were called, found half of the improvised hero the next morning. They stood out like a pair of purple sore thumbs, even though it was a rather well-to-do establishment just inside the city walls. It was a top-shelf sort of place, but with one particular table that was never cleaned, never touched, and only occupied by one particular man: The last of the old Slayers, a breed unlike any other. Perhaps they had done their job too well. As the seasons turned, the world found it had no more use for men like him, and turned them to drink, or the gutter, or to fester in some far-off border keep. Perhaps, in some country far away and long forgot, the Slayers might still ply their trade and take on apprentices, but around here, the wheel of progress had ground them into dust. This one has taken the last of his prize money and invested wisely in wool and wood. It kept him in a sort of genteel ruin, while he carefully drank himself to death.

"And now," hack, hack, cough, spit, the breath sour and the lungs ragged with age "You come to me? To train some upjumped lallygagging thriftless wastrel in a suit of daddy's platemail? Don't make me laugh, I'll start coughing till I puke. Again." The King's Men looked askance.
"Sir Calloway is a champion in the tilts and-"
"Oh! Jousting! Yes wonderful, how wonderful, and does he mean to gallop his jangling charger all the way from here to the mountain reaches and out the other side with the princess skewered on the end of his, heh, lance?" The King's Men looked affronted.
"As my compatriot here was about to say, before he was- well, Sir Calloway is not just a flawless jouster, he also led the sortie over the walls when the False Duke sold us out to our enemies. Handpicked knights to take on a fortified position, into the jaws of what was known to be certain death. And he only lost two of them in the attempt!"
"Yes. Well, from what I heard, the castle was retaken, but no trace of the False Duke was ever found."
"But the castle was indeed retaken! By only Sir Calloway and his handful of lieutenants!"
The Slayer gazed at the two of them. The King's Men were fat little things, wrapped in silk and linen, like grubs in a cocoon that would never hatch.
One of them sense a sale. "And, and of course you'll be richly rewarded for your leal service to the crown." Perhaps they were right.
"No. I have enough money. I want my title reinstated, Champion Slayer of the Realm."
The King's Men blinked.
"And if this Sir Calloway is successful, he becomes my official apprentice."
"I'm not sure-"
The two of them looked at each other. Then turned and nodded towards the ancient, drunken creature. What else could they do?

It takes time to outfit even the most threadbare crew required for a wagon train. At least a day? An hour, to get the horses warmed up a little? Apparently not. Under normal circumstances, "we leave immediately" is followed by frantic packing, the wrangling of horses, irritated repacking, arguments over various chores, a stumbling attempt at an exit, followed by putting the whole thing off until a more reasonable time the next morning. The Slayer was put on one of the horses that the King's Men had ridden in on, who stayed behind to settle the old man's tab. The less said of that particular financial transaction, the better. The other King's Man made a few assurances and wheeled away to send off a bevy of messages, but was totally mired in bureaucratic squabbles and didn't even see The Slayer to the city gate like planned. It didn't matter. As the scraps of letters spread through the city, a gull soaring over might've been able to see it slowly erupt into assorted types of chaos, like the first drops of rain hitting an anthill. Rumour spreads faster than any plague, and the city had spent all of yesterday winding itself up into every sort of knot. As Sir Calloway galloped down the cobbled streets, the locals were of half a mind to get out of the way of those sparking hooves, while the other half seemed inclined to throw their cheering, screaming bodies right in his way, for however else would he know that they loved him? Despite a number of close calls, there were no fatalities. He dragged a streamer of hollering fans all the way out of the city, a tattered parade of tangled yells that knew not what it said, but that it was best said as loudly as possible.

As The Slayer and Sir Calloway took the measure of each other, skinny boys on fast horses were sent down the roads, carrying official letters festooned with every possible royal seal. They fanned out to inform the estates and farms of the endeavour that was already underway. One particular letter was on its way to a baron, to call in a truly ancient debt his family owed the crown, for a wartime ransom and rescue. The origins of the debt were most of the way to legend, but the terms in the letter called for the theoretical, ludicrous sum to be settled for a much more modest accounting in hard currency. Coffers like that one opened up all the way along the highway from the capital to the wild borders, purchasing a scrap of haste at any cost.

Neither Sir Calloway nor The Slayer were much impressed with the other, but that was fine. They were both professionals, serving for the honour of the King, and that was that. The Slayer was obviously a decrepit ruin, a grey-haired fool at best and a greasy charlatan at worst, but the King's Men had chosen him, and they were appointed by the King, and what was a mere knight to question the will of his King? Sir Calloway on the other hand was a brown-haired hatchet-faced thug that inspired no confidence in his ability to do anything other than ride a horse bravely, hold a lance bravely, plant a flag atop a hill bravely, and die badly. It didn't matter. The Slayer had drunk enough to pickle any two men you care to chose, but he still remembered his second apprentice. That one had been worse than the clanking soldier beside him. And besides, wasn't he the greatest Slayer in the realm?

By this time, wagons full of food and supplies had joined the pair, as well as the best, swiftest handlers that money could buy. At ten times the going rate and the shadow of the noose if they derelicted in their duty, the posse accompanying the knight and the Slayer were attentive to the point of maddening. An arrangement was eventually made, the two of them would ride ahead down the road a ways, stop and discuss Slayer lore for a while, catch up in the evening, and spend the cooler parts of the day training. Sir Calloway was set to sparring against two, three, or four of the baggage handlers, with a training sword, no sword, one arm tied behind his back, against a thicket of quarterstaves, blindfolded, and in one particularly memorable occasion, blind drunk. It was hard for Sir Calloway to go without his armour, but it was necessary for him to learn how to fight without it. Against the Beast it mattered not a jot if he was draped in the finest enchanted regalia of the Lost House. Since we all knew what happened to them.

A heavily detailed missive was sent all the way back to the castle, along with a filthy silver key that The Slayer plucked out of the inner pocket of his antique leather jacket. It had been worn since it was new, and was now antique, so that should give you some idea of its state. Messages and supplies and reinforcements trickled in, then poured in, then flooded in from every direction as the wave of letters spread out through the kingdom. Wagon trains and farriers, soldiers and porters, washerwomen and blacksmiths and all manner of hangers-on, local guides and merchant lords and no small number of wanderers on the roads that fell into the ever growing, ever rolling town that the journey had become. The letter that the Slayer sent eventually had a reply, in the shape of a blackened steel trunk that had to be hauled in a wagon by itself, a huge assemblage of locked drawers, strange hatches, and one fresh red bloodstain that marked the latest person who tried to open it. Sir Calloway and The Slayer spent every other day cooped up in the wagon with that steel trunk, delving deep into the secrets of the Slayer's art away from prying eyes. Neither you nor I are going to be privy to those secrets either, so don't bother asking.

The roads were churned to a quagmire by their passing, and as the gentle caress of Winter turned to a colder bite, the Slayer was champing at the bit. One of the guides had grown up in the mountains as a boy, and he sat with The Slayer over the maps and watched the skies while Sir Calloway recovered from the latest ruthless training session. The two old men approached the the wagon handlers, and eventually a roster was determined where the wagons would roll on, day and night, replacing the beasts of burden and men of toil as needed. They would all be worked to exhaustion, but not to death, and left behind by the caravan with their pay to make their own slow way back to more civilised lands. The wagon train rolled on, burning as much lamp oil each day as a modest mansion hosting an all night summer party, and Sir Calloway was pitched into a ceaseless rattling world where the winking sun mattered not.

The nature of their journey was no secret, and as the spirit of adventure filled weary hearts with joy it spilled into songs of old. The Slayer hated those songs, and made no secret of it, but still the stories of Beasts Slain and Glory Won flitted amongst the porters and peasantry. Vicious Beasts were tracked and cornered, heraldic shields scarred by tooth and claw, but the Knights, Princes and Slayers always brought victory and safety to the people of the kingdom. The one remaining actual Slayer could only think of all his brothers-in-arm that fell beneath that dreadful roar: his master, his apprentices, his allies, his friends, all gone. All dead. Or worse, all declared useless and left to rot by a kingdom that sang the songs and abandoned the subject. But the porters didn't know that, and with Sir Calloway to occupy his time and a suspicious lack of anything to drink anywhere in the entirety of the caravan, The Last Slayer had lightened a little. Instead of flying into a rage against the singers, he would ride away from the wagon train until the merry voices were just merry noises, to stare up at the stars and count the names of the dead.

Winter paved a flurry of ice and sleet beneath the hooves of the three struggling horses. The Beast had been sighted by one of the scouts, to mingled relief and terror, and the Slayer knew of a lair in the mountains that had been cleared out almost a century ago. Sir Calloway had learned enough Slayer lore to tell that the Beasts were creatures of idle comfort when they weren't ravaging the countryside, and that they made a habit of finding the most comfortable of lairs while they plotted out the next attack. This was it. The final approach. He left the guide, the Slayer and his own horse behind. They would wait as long as they could, and return in a day if they couldn't, then every day after that. Then once a week. Then the month after that. A cache of supplies would be left, fresh water and iron-hard rations and bandages and winter clothing. Every possible chance of survival against the elements, for what kind of story would it be to face the Beast in its lair, and die of cold on the way home?

The lair entrance was nearly at the top of the mountain, a huge shaft that tunnelled straight down. The wind caught the lip of the cave and swirled in seeming delight, sending drifts of snowflakes tumbling every which way, and seeming fit to pitch Sir Calloway off the side of the mountain. He persevered. Down below, handholds were few and far between, but he had a mostly controlled descent into the darkness below. He persevered. Above, the wind howled like a hunting beast and the weak winter sun was slowly pared away like fruit under a knife. He persevered. The Slayer hadn't given him any last words of wisdoms, no snippet of useful advice for his new sort-of apprentice. It was by tradition. No hearty handclasp or nod of recognition would ever mark the moment when a Slayer left to face a Beast. It was not their way to farewell the departing.

The way down was steep and freezing, and Sir Calloway was newly glad that he had forgone his steel and chainmail. The dry air falling from above was met by a weird almost-steam coming from below, and bizarre twists of wind trickled around his thick soft boots. As he went deeper and deeper into the earth, he began to shed his outer layers of wool and fur, until he was wearing only a thin black suit and his vital strapped pack of Slayer's tools. His breath had been steaming in the winter's air above, and now trickles of steam wriggled up by the light of his minuscule purple lantern. Following the way he had been taught by the Old Slayer, he let only the meanest trickle of light slip between his fingers, observing the path ahead, before stepping forwards in pure darkness.

The air was filled with scraps of steam and his flickering, probing lantern light, and one thing elsewise. The Slayer had described it, as best he could. As they had sat together in the wagons, he had spoken of old journeys and old Beasts that he had faced. The sounds and signs of a Beast at rest, of a Beast on the hunt, were strange and otherworldly, but the Slayer did his best to describe them. Apprentice Calloway had listened closely, and seen the look in the old man's eyes. He didn't understand all of it, but he understood that look. The haunting of old terrors. He felt it now. The pulsing vibrations that buzzed up his shinbones, that tickled in his ears and set his heart pumping. The Beast was asleep. He had a chance. He persevered.

Any situation could become routine, no matter how terrifying. Any routine allowed the mind to wander, no matter how disciplined. Sir Calloway was a knight, blooded and battle-hardened. He was an Apprentice Slayer, no matter how swift his training. But he had grown up on the same stories as any other boy. Of Beasts hunted, fought and defeated, yes, but also stories of ravening Beasts that had swept across the countryside worse than any storm. And of course, everyone knew the fate that had befallen the Lost House. And now, a Beast had crawled its way out of story, flitted straight into the very capital city where he lived and breathed. And now he, just a man, sought to thwart it. Just a mortal man, to fight an otherworldly monster. His mind drifted in the moments between the gleam of the lantern, filling the darkness with a menagerie of monsters: bloated spiders and giggling goblins and nameless snarling snapping blobs of teeth and claws. Each flash of light banished them back into the imagination, but never did he see the Beast he was here to kill. Not even his worst nightmares could conjure that monster before his blind eyes. Instead, it placed it right behind him. A silent presence, not slathering, not growling or howling, just waiting patiently, a hovering invisibly at his back until he twisted around to look behind. Then: snap. He couldn't stop. He couldn't collapse, down here in the bowels of the earth. He couldn't turn around and crawl home. He could only march deeper, surrounded by imagined monsters.

Eventually, hours or years later, he flicked the lantern closed but was left with a single red dot in the centre of his vision. He shook his head to dismiss the tiny figment, but it stayed resolute. A light, shining back up the tunnel towards him. He mastered his breathing, controlled his footing, and headed towards the light. The air has grown a fraction warmer with every pace he had taken down, and was now stifling and a little sulphurous. He was certainly nearer to the centre of the world, to a place where the rules of the world above held little sway. The light grew brighter in stages, graciously letting his eyes adjust after the endless march through the underworld. Leaving behind the purple lantern and his climbing gear in the tunnel, he paced forwards with endless care towards the light. Eventually, he beheld the source: a gleaming pool of radiant liquid rock, the heart of the mountains, slowly trickling past and thrumming with limitless heat. It lit up part of a gargantuan cavern, the walls and ceiling vanishing away into darkness even with the uncanny bonfire in the centre. It was many times the size of the cathedral in the capital where he had sworn his oaths, and his mind had to twist a little until it was convinced he had not somehow come out onto the surface into a starless night.

Sitting at the absolute limit of the radiance, perched on a slab of smooth rock beside the wreck of a royal carriage, sat the only remaining child of the king. Gleaming red rubies festooned her dress, glowing in spite of the layer of dirt. The princess spotted Sir Calloway as he crept down into the light, having to look twice with her mouth a perfect O of surprise, fear and hope. She gleamed even brighter than the jewels, despite the splashes of dried blood and the pinch of hunger that crossed her face. Sir Calloway spared her but a single glance to check she was unharmed, and then focused on placing his feet with a dancer's care around the loose stones scattered across the chamber.

The ceaseless pulsing vibration, the not-sound that had accompanied him all this way into the depths of the earth, stopped.

All the hairs on the back of Sir Calloway's neck stood up as one, soldiers stranding to the attention of a dread unlike any other.

The silence was a roaring, trembling pressure trickling down his spine. And then-
The call of the Beast. The delicate chirp that heralded a nightmare unlike any other.

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