THE SEVENTH SEAL
On a wild autumn night, high up on the mountain ranges of Asgard, the full moon reined in the night. Soft silvery beams bathed a lone figure standing motionless by a roaring funeral pyre—a pyre cremating the last of the White Steppe village’s dead. Few had survived the slaughter. Bright stars joined the sullen-eyed youth in his lonely vigil. His dark, brooding eyes stared through the flames, beyond the hungry orange tongues that licked and consumed the wood. Boiling sap hissed and popped, adding chorus and melody to a skirling wind that sung a dirge lamenting the death of the warrior’s village. As though fuelled by a shared purpose, the fire roared vengeance into the wind.
Rippling waves of shimmering heat rolled outwards from the inferno like rings of a calm pond when disturbed by a stone. The funeral pyre topped fifteen feet tall and measured more than thirty-five feet at its base. It cast a barrier too hot for anyone to come within ten paces without suffering scorching injury. Eyelashes and eyebrows were the first to singe. Bright orange embers were thrown into the starlit sky, kicked high on blistering currents where they became grey ash feathers that floated back to the ground. The blond-haired warrior failed to notice the heat any more than he felt the intrusive autumn wind where it penetrated the seams of his clothes, or the ash that speckled his shoulders and hair like a shroud. For more than three turns of the hourglass, the man had barely moved except to add fuel. Each time he threw a log onto the fire’s summit, a balloon of sparks mushroomed upwards, their multi-coloured lights fading, twinkling out one by one. Thinning clouds of scorched, charcoal-burnt flesh rode the heat currents, mingling with the aromas of burned leather, fur, and bone.
Tender brutal rage stole the young man’s youthful countenance. Red chilli pepper hot hatred burned in his veins, compressing his lips, making his features appear harder and older. A narrowed squint put crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, erasing his laugh lines. The dour-faced youth wore double-thick buckskin pants, a wolf skin vest under a chain mail shirt that fell the mid thigh, and a spotted snow leopard cloak draped around his broad shoulders.
Strapped across his wide back a two-handed broadsword rested diagonally left to right. Its wire-wrapped hilt protruded above his left shoulder—within easy reach. The gloomy-eyed warrior’s blond hair and robust musculature resembled that of his Asgard father, Connor, but his green eyes and high cheekbones belonged to his Atlantean mother, Jayleen. Tarn, son of Connor, the last warrior of Atlantis, stood tearless while the voracious flames consumed the corpses that he fed the pyre. Family, friends, and neighbours were nearly all reduced to ash, returned to the earth whence they came. White Steppe village, once home to more than six hundred men women and children, was no more. With the exception of Shaurii, his hut-sister, and those who had married outside of the village, he was the last member of the clan; a mountain clan that had raised him in the absence of his deceased father and mother. This was the second time that he had bid farewell to those he loved.
When he was five years old, and accompanied his father on a hunt on the mainland, a volcano had erupted, followed closely by an earthquake. Tarn watched from shore as the awesome power of nature’s apocalyptic forces destroyed his island home, Atlantis. Having barely escaped the ensuing tidal wave, his father brought him to the mountains in Asgard to be raised by his father’s ancestral village.
They arrived at the White Steppe village at the same time as a band of slavers was preparing to launch a night raid. Connor threw himself into their midst, ruining their ambush. The din of pain-wracked screams and clashing steel woke the village. White Steppe warriors rushed into the fray, too late to prevent Connor’s death; too late to prevent Tarn from becoming an orphan, but not too late to save the village.
Lying on his deathbed, Connor made Tarn promise to retrieve Kalen’s sword, a weapon said to have once belonged to Kalen, the patron God of Atlantis. Following Conner’s death, the village headman accepted Tarn into the White Steppe clan. The headman gave Marta, a widow who had lost her son and husband in another battle, the task of raising Tarn.
Years later, during his seventeenth winter, Tarn stumbled upon an old man cornered by a long-toothed snow leopard. Tarn slew the deadly cat and rescued the man. During the fight with the snow leopard, he was seriously injured. By the time he had recovered from his snow leopard venom-infected wounds, an avalanche blocked the pass to his village. He wintered with Torrocka, the elder man he had rescued from the snow leopard. Torrocka was an Atlantean priest who had once served Kalen’s temple. When the earthquake and volcano struck Atlantis, Torrocka and half a dozen of his brethren had been on a pilgrimage to Kalen’s Sword Chamber to conduct the summer solstice ceremony. They returned from their duties to discovery Atlantis’ destruction. Torrocka educated Tarn and taught him to read and write. Tarn learned that Torrocka had spent the past twelve years searching for him and his father.
When spring opened the snow-blocked pass, the pair travelled to his village where they found all of the adults dead and the children missing. Imaran, the Lord of Mahnaz, had cast a deadly freezing spell over his village, abducted the children, and fled south to his Stygian lair. Tarn swore the rite of vengeance against the black blood cult, and embarked on a journey, with Torrocka’s aid, to retrieve Kalen’s sword and then set out to rescue the kidnapped children.
Assassins awaited them in Galpernia where they searched for word of the abducted children. Torrocka died when he stepped between a sword thrust meant to strike Tarn down. Alone, Tarn continued south in search of Imaran when he met up with Barath and Valna, a brother and sister cursed by Pentath, a wizard of Mahnaz. Pentath cursed Barath to become a wolf, and Valna a doe, for all but the twilight hour that separates day and night. Tarn and Barath swore brotherhood and allegiance to the destruction of Mahnaz. The oath-brothers journeyed to Mycenar where they faced Pentath in the bowels of his tower. Barath slew Pentath, but in doing so, condemned himself and his sister to their curse. With Pentath dead, they went on to Rhaetia to wage war against the sorcerers of Mahnaz and to learn if Shaurii lived, for they had already learned that none of the other village children had survived.
In Rhaetia’s near abandoned streets, atop the black temple of Mahnaz, after a long and tiring battle, Tarn faced Lord Imaran. Just as he was preparing to slay the wizard, a red-winged demon swooped down out of the dusky night and bore Imaran away. Seething furious wrath, Tarn launched a throwing-dagger at the receding sorcerer, striking Imaran high on the shoulder.
The only member of Tarn’s village to survive Imaran’s cruelty was his adopted hut-sister, Shaurii, who would have been sacrificed to satisfy Imaran’s dark desires had it not been for Barath. The three of them returned north. Shaurii and Barath stayed behind in Mycenar to search for Valna, Barath’s sister, while he returned to Asgard to send his people to Valhalla. Barath and Shaurii would join him shortly.
Tarn recalled Imaran’s ominous last words warning him to beware of his wrath. Fierce anger welled in the pit of his stomach. He had not only returned to build a pyre for his people, but to fulfil a deathbed oath of vengeance against the southern slave raiders, and to find Imaran. The red-winged demon that had spirited Imaran off the tower had carried the wizard north.
Tarn stared blankly into the burning pyre of his father’s people—of his people. His memories of Atlantis were few and dim. Mostly he remembered her great golden towers toppling as the earthquake and tsunami devoured his home. Now he was alone, again, and bidding farewell to Marta, his adopted hut-mother. A woman he both loved and thought of as warmly as Jayleen, his natural mother. Green eyes blazing emerald death, Tarn tilted his head to the sky to pay homage to his father’s mountain God.
“Hear me Vulcan! Brave and good people enter Thy Hall this eve. Grant them a seat at Thy table among the honoured. ’Tis their inheritance upon a warrior’s death. Grant me vengeance, or hinder not the warm shade of my steel,” he warned, speaking the words his father had taught him.
Staring fearlessly up into the heavens, his stubborn visage dared Vulcan, the God of the Forge, to answer, but he did not. Vulcan, forever the Silent One, demanded only bravery in battle, and honour in how one met his death. These two qualities guaranteed a place in Valhalla among the honoured warrior kin. The large youth stood raging by the burning pyre, motionless, until a hand fell on his shoulder.
Jungle-cat quick, he jumped forward and spun around. His hand flashed to the hilt of Kalen’s sword. When he completed his tigerish leap and crouched low in a fighter’s position, naked steel gleamed in his fist and a deep growl issued from his throat. A man stepped out of the darkness. Light glinted off a golden, polished metal breastplate.
Tarn moved with impossible speed for such a large man. Easily swung steel flashed across the moonlight. Whoever this intruder was, he had not introduced himself, but had silently approached Tarn’s back. Either action begged explanation, but both combined into only one answer: enemy.
The warrior shared an easy smile as Tarn’s sword descended. With indelible effortlessness the stranger crossed his arms above his head, catching Tarn’s blurring blade on the metal vambraces he wore on each forearm. Such speed and daring, thought Tarn. He swept Tarn’s sword to the side as if an adolescent boy had swung a stick at him and not a fully-grown warrior to be reckoned with. The man took another step forward, coming into the firelight.
Bathed in the rusty-orange glow cast by the flickering flames of the burning pyre, Tarn beheld a man with blond hair tied back with a leather thong like his own. The warrior wore golden breast armour that showed sculpted pectoral and stomach muscles; a broadsword was belted at his narrow waist. The golden-garbed man stood as tall as Tarn, and possessed heavily muscled limbs like his own. The figure’s penetrating blue eyes sparkled pride. Seconds later, his laughter thundered in response to the fierce visage of the sword-wielding youth in front of him. Tarn’s sword arm dropped.
Recognition flowed into him, washing over him like a long wave.
He sheathed his sword and took a hesitant step forward as the man spoke, his words heavily flavoured with an Asgard accent.
“Thou have quested well. I am proud of thee, son.”
Tarn’s steps faltered, stunned by the appearance of his long-dead father.
“Da,” he started. “Forgive me, I have nae fulfilled my vow to thee,” he apologised.
Amusement framed Connor’s grinning blue eyes as he apprised the warrior his son had become. Before Tarn recovered enough of himself to speak again, Connor’s deep voice filled the night.
“Nay lad. ’Tis nae true at all. Thee have fulfilled thy vow to find Kalen’s sword, and the Song of Steel Scroll.”
Connor took another step forward, bringing him within arm’s reach of his son. He placed a large hand on each of his son’s thick shoulders.
“Let me ogle thee lad. Thee have become a man, and a warrior to be proud of,” and shook Tarn by the shoulders. “Come now son, recall thy tongue. Thou look like thee have glimpsed a shade!” Connor joked, his laughter rumbling out across the mountain, echoing back and forth.
Despite the shock of seeing his father, Tarn felt his own laughter bubble up to join his father’s voice. In moments, father and son embraced warmly. With the tension of the previous moments dispelled, Tarn spoke with his old self-assurance.
“How is mother? Doth she fare well?”
“Aye son. Both thy mother and hut-mother trade stories about thee for hours upon end. ’Tis a tiresome pursuit. One would thank Vulcan to ban such prattle in His Hall. Instead, He laughs at Marta’s retelling of how thee snared a snow leopard with but wood bundle straps,” he said, a twinkle in his steel-blue eyes.
Tarn involuntarily reached up and touched the ear Marta had almost twisted off so many winters past. The unconscious act provoked a soft chuckle from Connor. He slapped his son’s back. Despite himself, Tarn smiled at the memory, and laughed as well.
Once the two men had recovered themselves, Connor said, “Thee have made me proud Tarn, but thee still hath much to accomplish.” Gazing intently upon his son, he said, “Our people be in great peril. Thee must unite the Clans and face Imaran ere it be too late.”
Tarn’s intelligent green eyes bit into Connor’s steely gaze.
In deadly tones, he said, “The dog will perish by Kalen’s sword.” Ere his father replied, he asked, “What peril threatens our people?”
Connor’s unwavering gaze did not alter.
“The future be not yet cast. Could I impart more, I would, but my time has ended,” he finished and turned toward the burning fire.
“Can thee not stay?” he asked hopefully, surprised by his father’s abruptness.
Connor walked into the fire and began to ascend the stairway of sparks, his image becoming ethereal. When he was atop the uppermost reach of the flames, and the stars shone through Connor’s transparent body, he stopped and turned around. The full moon lent an eerie haze to Connor’s failing substance. He had nearly vanished.
“No man, or God for that matter, may unfold the future until it is first carved out of the fabric of time.” In a faraway voice he heard his father say, “Thee have Kalen’s blood in thee, as well as mine, learn to master both. Look to thy inheritance. We shall not meet again unless it is in Valhalla. Live free and die well.”