The Stranger (Short Story)

One fated night, on a forgotten darkened path under a pale twilight sky, I fought against the heaviness in my heart and lost.

As a mercenary, whose trade I recently departed, I had dealt death as easily as one creates life. In the wars of gods and men, of religion and race, and money and power, I slew many. I had killed men, women, and children. I had destroyed the peasant, the soldier, and the noble-born. I slaughtered equally the guilty, the innocent, and all who merely stood in my path of existence. When one finally loses their humanity, there is no one to trust except the cold, sharp steel at your side.

But now, my trusted companion lay at the bottom of the river before me, and I was soon to join it.

At what exact moment in time I lost my humanity, I do not know. In some ways I do not think I ever possessed it at all. War had killed my parents. It destroyed my family, my friends, and my lovers without compunction. It made only sense that I should join its ranks to continue the assault on my fellow men, to rob everyone of the sanctity of life that was denied me. It was what gave me life, as if each death at the end of my weapon gave me strength just as quickly as it took that of my enemies. Although I originally believed of no such gods, it was as if I was serving some higher power whose blood sacrifice rewarded me with life. What was taken away from me had been returned. In death I had found life.

But over time, as the dark machinery of war churned creation into death, as the flowers in the field were crushed beneath stamping feet, and the sun blotted out with smoke and ashes, its power began to wane. With each life I took, and each soul that I sent back to its maker, the energy I took from them became more fleeting with each victim. Before long I had fled the armies, and began roaming the countryside aimless and weak. Within days I was nothing but an empty shell, and when a chance meeting with some local brigands left nothing but two useless souls dead at my feet, it was like the killing had started to draw my energy rather than replenish it.

The unknown gods of chaos and destruction that I served had deserted me. They may have never existed at all.

I felt nothing now except the bleeding of my own soul into nothingness. That event was exactly one month ago, and now, as I stared into the murky blackness of the raging river below, it was merely time to dispose of my corpse. The soul had already withered away.

It was then that I met the stranger. In my dark contemplation I had not noticed him appear by the path along the river's edge. He was an ancient man, with eyes of ice. His gaze chilled my already empty soul, but with a friendly wink, and tip of his hat, he greeted me. I did not detect malice in his presence, but I felt a strange sense of great, ancient power. I felt fear, but it was not fear of the person that stood before me, but a primal sense of dread of the unknown.

"Where dost thou go, young man?" he whispered. His voice was like a song on the wind, a haunting melody that seemed unlike any timbre that a mortal throat could produce.

I tried to look away as I replied, but his powerful, hypnotizing, glance forced me to look directly into his eyes. Yet no matter which way he turned, or how I adjusted my stance, part of his features remained hidden in the shadows. It seemed that at any one time, only one eye looked towards me.

"I am heading to the next town, as I have traveled far and long, and I need food and drink."

I managed to break away from his glance for a brief second, as one is wont to do when they lie, and studied the rest of his imposing figure.

He wore a great, grey cloak that billowed about him in the cool, night wind. His robes underneath were of the same colour and texture, and it was difficult to discern his figure, although it was clear he was a tall and stout man, with a thick chest that heaved with his every breath. Old though he was, his every movement betrayed the great strength and agility that lay behind the years of his countenance. His gnarled, bony hands clutched tightly a long wooden staff. At its end was carved an image of a raven's head.

"You have traveled far, as I have," he continued. "But it is obvious you do not know where you go."

His question stunned me like no other, as if he had asked whether I was living or dead. Indeed I had no destination, except maybe the cradling arms of oblivion. Maybe he could read my dark thoughts of consigning myself to the eternal within the raging currents of the river below. He knew that I was ready to send my soul to its true destination; to be cast afloat towards seas of destiny where chaos reigns complete. My spirit would join the whirling eddies of matter, time, and space, and rejoin the creator at its source, or to be torn asunder to the dark voids of nothingness. My decisions and choices in life seemed nothing but futile in the face of that great torrent of randomness that is the universe about us. Its choking, stranglehold on the delicate souls of men is evidence of a cruel, inhuman, and ultimately, malevolent intelligence. I could not fight it anymore.

My fear gave way to a light humour, as I realized that this apparition was yet another attempt to thwart my last chance at self immolation. My final rebuke to the powers over destiny was to merely cast myself at their feet and commit my soul to eternity where it could not be enslaved; a place where I would no longer be an instrument of divine tyranny.

"And where would you be traveling, dear sir?" I bowed slightly, in mock recognition of my ancient foe.

"I have no destination," he replied. "Yet I still travel across these lonely roads."

His voice seemed like a forgotten tongue, lifted from ages past whose history and knowledge is known only to the dark recesses of the few men (if they are indeed men) cursed with such visions of times primordial.

"It is few that know their destiny, for it is an ever changing ideal."

He paused, and it seemed like he grew greater in height, as if his shadow expanded and blocked out the stars that were just forming in the pale autumnal sky. His presence smothered the last of my confidence, and I backed away, shrinking from the dark power that emanated from his being. I cast my glance down towards the river again, readying myself lest this emissary of my unknown enemies enslave my soul forever. I looked back, and he had resumed his normal appearance of a simple, old man, leaning heavily on his cane. But his voice retained a tone of malevolence.

"I tell you this, young man. Some may alter their course, if they feel that they possess the honour and right to walk with the gods, and be privy to their plans."

He smiled, offered me a tip of his hat, and quietly shuffled off down the river's path and over a hill. He was gone as mysteriously as he had appeared.

The chill within my soul had grown to such proportions that I felt as if my heart had turned to ice. But within seconds of the stranger's disappearance, my body relaxed as the warm blood began to make its way through my veins again, a reasonable sign that I had not perished in the encounter.

I cast a furtive glance at the swirling water below, suddenly feeling its beckoning call of eternal rest. An internal battle was now underway at the core of my being. The river, an avatar of the forces that represented linear existence and the spiritual stasis of the unfeeling natural universe was trying to lure me underneath its icy depths.

Deep within the recesses of my soul, however, an opposing force had now reared its head; a force of light, piercing the darkness like the dawning sun. I could feel its emanations, but it seemed both within and outside of me. The face of this new power, just like the shadowy face of the mysterious stranger, was hidden to me. For how can anyone look into their own heart, their own soul and see for themselves the mystery that lies beneath? I've never been able, nor had the strength or courage to find the soul that I lost, and now it seemed the appearance of the old man had caused it to reveal its presence.

It is an ideal, both immortal, and grounded to the physical universe in which it exists. It is never lost, but only forgotten. Above all, it possesses a sentience and omniscience beyond the understanding of the mortal shell it inhabits. I cannot fathom what destiny lies in store for me. I am sure my soul does, and it will never offer me even a slight glimpse of my future, or even my distant past. It is a ghost of the eternal now, a fleeting shadow of a higher power that is all I ever was, am, and will be.
"Some may alter their course," said the stranger.

I am not privy to the plans of those wretches who inhabit the pantheons who rule the universe. My life is an ever-changing tapestry of despair and death, yet my core self lives on, absorbing the experiences for some unknown purpose.

I glanced down at the river. Again, it was pulling in all that I hate about myself, bringing me further to the brink of oblivion. But the light within me was stronger, and I knew that as long as one shred of my being knew that my soul had not deserted me, I was doomed to live and fulfill my destiny, for good or evil. The soul had won, but in that, maybe I had truly lost.

I drew back from the edge, the river's icy grip finally released. Feeling cold and hungry, I made my way back to the path towards the next town. The wind had picked up, blowing the trees back and forth like waving hands pleading for mercy from the gods above. The path winded down the hill, eventually meeting up by the banks of the river. Down here, it seemed the rushing water did not notice my presence. I felt refreshed and encouraged. I even felt a glimmer of hope that I could somehow come closer to the knowledge of my own being, now that I had averted my destruction. I leaned over and cupped my hands full of the icy water and splashed it on my face. I felt invigorated, and laughed until tears were streaming down my face. I was alive! And for the first time in many years, I was glad of that fact.

My days of dealing death and decay were over. I realized that the soul only grows with the use of the spirit to create, not destroy. War and chaos only bred a whirling darkness where no light could escape; a black hole of stagnation that merely collapsed into itself. It may provide fleeting, temporary power, but is built on nothing but emptiness, leaving nothing tangible to sustain and balance its energies. I had almost thrown myself willingly into that maelstrom of nothingness, never to return, the light of my soul extinguished forever from existence.

I smiled and wiped my face with my sleeve. I paused as I caught something out of the corner of my eye; some glint, or flash in the moonlight. It came from further on down the river in the direction I was heading. I crept cautiously among the trees by the riverbank. I wondered if it was the old man camped by the river. It could also be brigands, leaving me in a dangerous position as I was now weaponless and lacked the further spirit to continue fighting my fellow men, even if they meant me harm. I continued down the riverbank, pausing from tree to tree to ensure my secrecy.

Again, I caught a flash of silver, this time it was very close to my position. I froze again, my body stiff with nervousness, my breath shallow and uneven. There was some dark shape lying by the edge of the river. The scene was momentarily darkened as passing clouds obscured the moonlight, but as I sat there, frozen with fear, the clouds gave way, flooding the edge of the river with the ghostly light of that lunar sentinel.

There was a body lying face down on the shore, its upper torso partly submerged in the water.

I waited a few moments, but did not detect any movement or sound coming from the body. I approached closer, realizing that this person was most likely dead; the victim of some robbery or other disagreement. I thought for a moment it could be the old stranger, but this person was wrapped in a dark, brown cloak, with shorter hair, and more youthful physique. I grabbed the body by the cloak and tunic, and pulled it out of the water, flipping it over on the wet grass by the river bank. The sight of death had never bothered me, and I had seen much more gruesome corpses on the battlefield; those mutilated, stinking husks of the remnants of human beings.

I turned the head towards me to look closer at the face in the moonlight, and recoiled in absolute horror and despair. Collapsing in utter misery at my discovery, a silent scream uttered from my lips as my throat was unable to form a coherent sound. I sat there for hours, unable to move, speak, or think.

I finally realized with fateful resignation that I did have a soul, and that one could be privy to the plans of gods and know their destinies. The lilting voice of the stranger drifted through my memory like the words of a forgotten song.

It seems I did consign my soul to oblivion, but even in that effort I failed, for I still served those cruel masters and their tyranny and enslavement of the spirit of mankind. The stranger was indeed my ancient foe. In the fleeting moment that I thought I was free, that the creative powers of my soul unleashed, I was nothing but the pawn of a terrible, higher power. I was to remain his servant, always. An agent of chaos and death, of stasis and darkness, even as I further collapsed into that black hole of spiritual death. I assumed now I would join his unholy armies in some other conquest. My body was nothing more than physical armour for a doomed warrior; a fated soul who would fight eternally for the forces of entropy until he himself dissipated into nothingness.

And now in this world too I was nothing, for the face of the drowned body on the riverbank was my own.

— Written by Daemonskald, 34th Summer