Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Crimson Death

The five of us entered the arena, an enclosed circle of hard-packed dirt surrounded by marble walls covered in runes and glyphs painted in blood. In the center sat our target upon a plain block of stone: an old man in broken armor and wielding a rusted sword. Though he looked weak and frail, the hundreds of corpses scattered around him told us there was more to the man. Some I recognized as famous or up-and-coming Hunters, all of them still in armor and many still clutching their weapons. Some had already been reduced to unrecognizable bones. Other corpses were bodies of monsters: werewolves still covered with fur; vampires with their flesh decayed to give us a look at their fangs; giant ogres; and even a dragon, its petrified bones partially buried in the dirt.

My four companions approached, brandishing their weapons. I hung back wary of the old man, and curious as to why The Hunter Guild placed such a high bounty on one trapped man. The old man finally looked up from his seat, a haunted look in his eyes. "Please stop," he said in a voice barely more than a whisper.

Gareth, a giant bruiser hefted his two-headed great axe and laughed. "Sorry old man, but a job is a job. The guild is paying a fortune to the one that brings back your head," he said with a laugh. The other three laughed along with him.

The twang of a bowstring punctuated their laughter. At that distance, I expected to see the shaft of the arrow sticking out of the old man's eye. Instead it appeared in the old man's free hand. With a flex of his fingers he snapped it in half and dropped the pieces into the dirt. The old man stood with his head lowered, the point of the sword still scraping at the dirt. "I gave you your warning to turn back. If you're just here for the money, then you might as well slit your own throats and save me the trouble," he growled without raising his head.

The spearman on Gareth's right approached first, his polearm held at the ready. He circled away from the group to attack the old man from the side and leave the team in the old man's blindspot. What people tend to forget about spears is that it's not just the length of the spear but how swiftly the man wielding it can move that determines its range. I'd seen this man cover several feet in a hurry even carrying the eight-foot pole.

Suddenly he launched himself forward, the point making a beeline for the old man. The old man was faster. An experienced fighter he stepped toward the spearman's thrust, knocking the wooden pole away with the rusted sword. He planted a different sword into the spearman's chest, one he must've picked off of the many corpses lying in the dirt. The spearman staggered back, releasing his grip on his weapon. The spear hit the ground and a second later so did its owner, shock on his face and a hole in his chest. I paused trying to bring my focus back to the whole fight, what happened to the sword?

A loud, dull thud answered my question as it struck through the bowman on Gareth's left. The blade ended up halfway through the man's stomach The old man had not forgotten about the other three men and threw the sword like a dart. More impressive was the fifteen feet the piece of steel covered before striking its target with lethality.

The swordsman in our group approached next. His single-edged sword glinted in the sunlight, a contrast to his opponent's rusted one. "I'm not sure what you are, but an honorable swordsman would never allow their sword to fall into such a state as yours," he said as he approached cautiously having already seen the deaths of two of his comrades. He stalked slowly with his sword raised, ready to strike.

The old man confronted the swordsman in a much different style, his sword held almost forgotten at his side while his free hand swung casually. Even in full armor, he walked at an even pace, stepping over bones and bodies with ease.

Our swordsman started to circle the old man, looking for a weakness and a moment to strike. Rather than copy his approach as other swordsmen would, the old man continued to head straight for him. Finally sensing his opportunity, the swordsman struck slicing downward upon the old man.

The old man however wasn't surprised and parried the blade aside. The swordsman struck again with a horizontal slash that the old man nimbly avoided. Then came a thrust. The old man stepped aside and up toward the swordsman, hitting him with an armored shoulder. The swordsman staggered back and the old man swung his sword low, catching him in the leg. A normal sword would've taken the man's leg off. Instead, the rusted blade knocked the other man off-balance and he fell to the ground. The old man was upon him, battering the fallen man with blow after blow filled with an endurance that should not have been possible. Between the swordsman's chainmail armor and the old man's rusted sword though, none of the strikes cut into flesh.

Slicing and stabbing aren't the only ways for a sword to deliver a killing blow, however. Finally, the old man stepped back and the swordsman's ragged, wheezing breath was the only sound we could hear in the arena. The old man must've broken ribs that punctured a lung, as well as shattered countless other bones too. "I never said I was a swordsman, but I am the survivor," the old man said as he delivered a hammer blow that crushed the fallen man's skull.

Both Gareth and I stood in shock as three of our comrades lay dead at the hands of one old man in less than a minute. The only difference between the two of us being our proximity to our potential executioner. "What the hell are you?" said Gareth as a quiver in his body shook the axe in his hands. He started to back slowly away but only made it a few steps before fear froze up his body.

A change had come over the old man. Physically he still looked like nothing more than a frail knight, but now there was something else about him. Something terrifying. I would run for the doors if I hadn't heard them lock behind us. And if I wasn't so excited. As if after all the men and monsters that died by my hand, I'd finally found a creature worth hunting. But more than that, there was something about the old man that called to me.

His hand gripped his sword with a renewed strength. A smile filled his face full of yellow-stained teeth. "The Guild calls it The Crimson Death," the old man said, a levity in his voice. "It's a mantle that seeks out and attaches itself to only the most proficient of killers. One that has slain enemies on the battlefield, hunted down monsters that walk in the shadows, even cut down their own comrades. The mantle feeds itself through blood and death. That is what sustains me. That is what you find yourself standing against, a being made only for battle and murder."

"Why did they offer a bounty if they've already trapped you," asked Gareth as if words might keep him alive longer where action clearly wouldn't.

The Crimson Death laughed. "The mantle must be sustained or it either moves on to a new host or dies. And the guild wants it sustained and trapped as their ultimate weapon against the night. Monster slaying. War fighting. These things don't happen as often enough anymore. The guild uses some of our more over-confident Hunters as small morsels to sustain me, luring you here with dreams of riches and fame."

 Gareth stood frozen while the old man closed the distance and now started to circle around him, his breath right on the other man's neck. "You're a sacrifice to me. Your destiny to merely join the other corpses that surround us."

The brute hunter regained his nerve, jolted to life either by the closeness of his opponent or the realization of his doomed fate. He swung his heavy axe, a blow I'd seen fell trees so thick I couldn't wrap my arms around it. The old man stopped it with the flat of his sword and directed it downward. Meeting with a strength he'd never before encountered, Gareth lost the grip on the axe and one side buried itself in the dirt. The Crimson Death dropped his sword and wrapped his hands around the back of Gareth's head. He jerked the bigger man's head down, seeking to guillotine the brute's throat on his own axe. Gareth let the blade cut into his palms as he braced himself on his own axe to stop it from getting to his throat.

A clang rang out through the arena as my knife bounced off the old man's armor. Stunned, the old man paused his attempt on Gareth's life to stare at me. "Ah, I'd forgotten that there were five of you. I thought perhaps you would slink off someplace to die," the old man said with a smile.

I smiled just as wide to match the monster. "I heard them lock the gates when we came in, and based on what you said earlier, I doubt they'll re-open it. Besides this looks like it'll be a lot of fun." I drew my own single-edged sword and held it out to my side, an invitation of challenge.

The old man released Gareth's head, shoving him aside with contempt. He hefted his rusted sword and rested it on his shoulder. "You seem different than the others. You're not here for the gold, are you?"

Our swords met with a clash that echoed across the arena. "I heard there was a monster that I could really test my skills against," I said as our swords ground against each other. Our eyes locked together. For a brief moment the predatory smugness disappeared and I saw something in them I didn't quite recognize. We parted and immediately I struck again, hoping to catch the old man off-balance and unaware. He wasn't fooled, however, and parried my strike. I rolled away and avoided the counter-strike that was sure to follow.

Once again, I took note of the corpses scattered in the dirt as I regained my feet. I bore the scars of battle from killing similar monsters and my fair share of humans as well. Different creatures required different hunting tactics, even humans. The Crimson Death would have learned all these tactics too in all the years it survived.

"I can see now why The Guild offered such a large bounty for your head," I said.

The old man continued to smile as he stalked toward me. "Were you not paying attention? I'm The Guild's monster. The bounty is just a lure."

"Or perhaps The Guild is looking for a new monster to call their own. A new killing machine," I said. I came back with another strike, a slash coming up and across the old man's body. Predictably he knocked it away with the flat of his sword. Anticipating a quick counter-strike, I spun but stayed within range to deliver a thrust at his chest. The Crimson Death's years of experience saw through my attack and managed to adjust his own slash into a strong parry. My sword flew from my hand and landed twenty feet away.

I had enough time to manage a "Shit" before the old man knocked the wind out of me with a shot to my stomach. A heavy weight slammed onto my back and knocked me face first into the dirt. As quickly as I could, I flipped onto my back and blindly swung my legs hoping to surprise the old man as he came in for the kill. Instead my feet kicked nothing but air.

The old man appeared at my side. "A good attempt. An inexperienced fighter might've made the mistake of going right for the kill. I however, am not that," he said, his smile never faltering. He lifted a sword he must've picked off a corpse and plunged it into my chest.

Pain erupted in my chest as the steel made its way through my body and out my back. Unfortunately it was a relatively thin blade and must've missed my heart or I would've been dead. Perhaps he got a lung, I thought, as I struggled to cough up the blood slowly choking me. The old man straddled my soon to be dead body and pulled a knife from his belt. "You should've heeded my warning and walked away. Instead you'll die here, helpless along with the rest of your comrades," he said, bringing the knife to my throat.

I coughed again. "Two things," I struggled to say, "Number one. A Hunter is always armed for a hunt." I jerked myself upward along the blade pining me down and stabbed him between the ribs with a bone I'd picked off the ground. The Crimson Death howled with rage. "Number two. Not all my comrades are dead," I said.

A giant, two-handed axe swung through the air and took the old man's head clean off. His body fell forward, limp and lifeless. I heard the head bounce once, twice and then roll to a stop. Above me stood Gareth, his axe still held at the ready, perhaps in case the headless body got back up.

I stared up at the giant, then at the sword in my chest. "Pull it out and help me up," I manage to say without passing out from the pain.

Gareth just shrugged and yanked the sword from my chest. He pushed the old man's corpse off of me and then lifted me to my feet. I placed the rag he tossed me over the hole in my chest.

"Let's get out of here and get our reward," Gareth said, turning to the arena doors. We trudged to the doors, Gareth pulling further and further away with every step. "By the way, didn't that old guy mention some sort of supernatural mantle?" he said with a laugh. "If it were real, wouldn't I get his power now?"

I was weak and barely able to breathe or walk. I knew that with my injuries I shouldn't have been alive much less able to make it this far to the gate. "As the mantle sees it, technically I killed the old man and you were just my tool. So, the mantle is truly mine. All that's left is for me to claim it." I felt a tingle jolt through my body, a surge of power, and I no longer hurt. Forcing myself forward at a suicidal pace I lunged at Gareth and drove him to the ground. My hand found a knife Gareth kept strapped to his belt and I put it into his neck repeatedly.

I rolled myself off of Gareth's corpse, breathing heavily. I removed the rag from the wound in my chest and stared down at it. Blood continued to flow but I needed to see it. With every breath I felt more and more of my life slip away. Suddenly something settled upon me, like a heavy blanket. The wound in my chest closed up and I instantly felt healed. Then I felt my smile widen, almost supernaturally big, and I knew that my gambit paid off. I picked myself off the ground and turned back away from the arena doors. I'd cut down humans and monsters alike. I'd done battle with the supernatural. I'd even cut down my own comrade that saved my life. I was now the King of Killers, The Crimson Death. I settled myself upon the stone in the center of the arena, awaiting the next challenge.


Based off the Reddit Writing Prompt: A group approaches a frail old man in broken armor and a rusty sword. All around him are dead bodies. He whispers, "Please stop." or something like that (it was a long prompt). When I first saw this, I knew I wanted to write a story for it, mostly because I was and am still struggling with two superhero stories that are very dialogue heavy and I needed something with more action. As I started writing, I got the inspiration to use an idea from back when I was in high school: The Crimson Death. That's how you can tell I thought of it in high school, what a lame-ass name. So, The Crimson Death is supposed to be a human transformed into a monster thanks to the sheer amount of killing s/he has done. It's supposed to be the ultimate killing machine in other stories I've thought up but never written. Well, anyways, I got to write a bunch of action scenes so that should satisfy that urge for a while. And yes, I know that the whole section involving the old man killing the main character's comrades could've easily been cut out as it really contributes nothing to the story, but like I said I was looking to write action scenes, so those are staying in. While I still have to finish the superhero stories, I also started on another one that that is also very dialogue heavy so hopefully this will sustain me through both of those. On another added note, I started re-reading "Ex-Heroes" and I remember Peter Clines, in one of his author's notes at the end of the story, remarking that he came up with a lot of the superheroes writing comics as a kid. I'm not sure if this had anything to do with inspiring me to reuse a character I came up with so, so long ago, but maybe.

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