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Sunday, September 24

Gapers Block

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We stand frozen outside the tower chamber — myself, the sorceress Nan, the boy Alfie and the rebel chieftain Rhett, weapons in hand and silent prayers upon our lips. From behind the chamber door, Kayne appears to already have marked our arrival.

"You truly believe this will work?"

My heart plummets through the pit of my belly, even as I attempt to compose a nonchalant repartee. Before I can answer, though, the guttural purr of the Hag Queen M'yrrgh speaks for me. "Kaynie, of course it will work. Don't you trust me?"

The syrupy sweetness of her words turns my stomach, and the others wince; Rhett makes an exaggerated gagging motion that would have produced much jolly laughter if not for the gravity of the situation.

Only this final door stands between me and my nemesis, the Dark Lord Kayne — he who murdered the goodly King Mandrake, whose armies of Black Guard overran the kingdom, who looked on as the lands went to seed and the people gave up hope. He who I have cursed and pursued these last 15 years.

I have come to destroy him, and this I shall do.

"Remember, Kaynie," M'yrrgh continues, "you promised to let me control the thing, once you bring it back under your power."

"Mmm," Kayne grunts. I move to the keyhole and spy him holding an object, a small crystal, similar to the one with which he controlled the horrible Beast that he summoned to this land in the Forest of Arboula, as I stood by bound and helpless. In a cunning gambit the sorceress Nan destroyed that crystal, just before freeing me, and since then the terrible creature has roamed the land, savaging villages, burning forests and worse. Meanwhile, Kayne spreads rumor and false tellings among the people that it was I who called forth the Beast.

"You know," Kayne says after a moment, "Gort is convinced that once the original crystal was broken, any attempt to regain control over the creature with another crystal will only anger it — and draw it near."

"Gort is a fool," M'yrrgh snaps, and I wrinkle my nose as I hear her spit upon the floor. "He's been sulky and disagreeable ever since I came to stay with you."

Kayne grunts again and turns away from the Hag Queen, holding aloft the crystal and moving toward the window. "Unnamable One," he intones in his hollow rasp, "you were brought to this realm to serve my whim and wont. Come to me, now, that you may prove your allegiance." He turns back to M'yrrgh. "Perhaps I'll feed the Axman to it."

"Only if it hasn't already choked on your corpse, fiend!" I leap through the door, my ax held aloft. The others burst in after me — M'yrrgh shrieks and Kayne thrusts the crystal into his robes.

"Axman," he sneers from within his dark hood. As ever he is clad entirely in black velour that drapes upon the ground, and one skeleton-thin hand raises to point a pale finger at me. "Your time is over, it passed with the life of your precious king. Too long have you dogged my footsteps — this day you shall die!"

"Shut up," sighs Nan, sounding bored.

"Yeah!" Rhett yells, and waves about the cudgel he carries.

But Kayne and M'yrrgh begin to recite incantations and the air grows electric with gathering magic. I signal the others and we charge — my ax rises overhead as I bear down on the vile Kayne, only a few feet more—

The floor rumbles, suddenly rubbery and uneven beneath my boots, and I stumble to my knees. On my right I see M'yrrgh tip over, and Rhett's cudgel rolls past with a lopsided gait. Only Kayne remains standing and he rushes to the window. "Your time is nearing, Axman!" he cries, raising the crystal overhead once more. "The Beast has answered my call!"

"Put it down, Kayne," Nan growls. "You'll get us all killed."

At this the Dark Lord only laughs, holding the crystal out the window. "To me!"

M'yrrgh regains her feet, taking this opportunity to hurl a vase at Nan; the boy intervenes, deftly batting it from the air with the flat of his sword, then kicking it away. The tower rumbles again, and the battle is joined.

With Kayne still at the window, Rhett elects to throw the cudgel at him, a maneuver that proves supremely ill-conceived as the club sails over Kayne's shoulder and out the window. Trying not to roll my eyes, I flank Kayne from the other side, moving in with my ax before he can complete the spell on his lips. He does, however, manage to set my beard aflame somehow, and I slap at it furiously as I spin to follow him.

Across the room, M'yrrgh is floating objects from the long table that occupies one wall and firing them at Nan and the boy — plates, knives, candlesticks. Nan points at one of these, a ceramic jug, slows it in the air and sends it looping back toward the hag, where it smashes against her shoulder. She sends up a scream that turns all heads.

All, that is, except for mine. For my attention is fixed on the window, where the enormous head of the Beast has appeared, answering Kayne's call.

It is black, reptilian, replete with scarred horns and sabre-like teeth that drip corrosive saliva. Its maw opens, covering nearly the whole of the window. When it snaps, the putrid stink of rotted flesh flows into the room, and Kayne throws back his head to laugh.

"Well done," he gloats. "Now — the Axman!"

In response the creature withdraws its head from the window, only to smash one of its terrible claws through the wall beside it. The tower shudders again and bits of rock fly all about, but I do not turn my head, nor close my eyes. The creature scrabbles for a foothold in the room, distracted, and I rush forth, swinging the ax made by the dwarf alchemist Mullerbinns.

When its blade slices through the creature's scaly black armor, which has deflected both steel and spell, I can only stare stupidly. It is not until my ears recoil from its outlandish scream that I realize what has happened — the Beast can be wounded by this weapon, and if it can be wounded, it can be killed.

As I wrench free the ax I see Rhett running across the room, pursued by writhing tendrils of flame that Kayne has conjured. M'yrrgh, meanwhile, seems to have grown green tentacles from her wrists, with which she has bound the boy Alfie and is moving him toward the gaping hole in the tower wall. Nan picks herself off the floor, rubbing her head, swaying.

I cannot wait for her. M'yrrgh's tentacles have the boy outside the broken tower wall, his feet dangling in the air, and behind him the Beast's claw, still dripping thick black blood, hanging limp. Nan is moving and I can see there will only be one chance. Leaping forward, I bring the ax down upon the tentacles, just after Nan grabs the hag's shoulders and jerks her backward. The boy falls to the stone floor inches from the edge and rolls out the Beast's reach, its claw again searching the room.

Nan and M'yrrgh grapple upon the floor, and as I dodge to avoid one of Kayne's lashes of fire I watch Alfie knock the hag loose with a well-placed kick to her ribs. She jumps to her feet, as does Nan, and they step toward one another — both raise their hands to work magic, but one of Nan's forms a fist and lashes out with a crack.

M'yrrgh's hands fly to her face. Nan has broken the Hag Queen's nose.

A horrible squeal erupts from M'yrrgh's throat and she rocks backward. When the Beast's curved claws wrap around her misshapen torso, her screams climb an octave. Then comes the sickening crunch of her bones, and then she is gone, dragged down from the tower.

"No," breathes Kayne, watching her corpse plummet.

It seems Rhett has busied himself tearing loose a table-leg, and now attempts to pursue the Dark Lord with it, but he is one step too slow; Kayne twirls one finger and Rhett's feet catch together, sending him to the floor where his head cracks against the stone, and he is out. I continue to be vexed by Kayne's writhing ropes of flame, which seem to trace my every move, and Nan is somewhere still rubbing her hand. Then I see the boy, stepping sideways up to Kayne.

When I cry out, it is too late — Kayne rounds on him and throws forth a hand, conjuring a wall of force that slams the boy against the wall with a heavy thud. I shout, twirling out of the fiery knot that encircles me, and approach the villain.

Before I reach him, the wall erupts again and the Beast's other claw sweeps the room. Nan leaps backward, back into the stairwell, and I dive ahead, landing nearly beside Kayne. Before either of us can do the other in, though, the Beast thrusts its reptilian head through the opening, lantern-yellow eyes ablaze and fixed upon us. Its mouth opens wide.

I scramble backward, but Kayne flicks his wrist at the thing and a pale green globe, leaking acrid smoke, sails between the creature's teeth; its jaw snaps down on it and within the thing's head I hear a dull pop. Within seconds its eyes go dull, and it lists to one side of the tower.

There can be no other moment. I take two long steps forward and swing the ax with all my might, burying the blade into the side of the Beast's neck. It stirs but does not retreat, and I bring the ax down again, and once more, hacking a ragged hole in the accursed monster's throat. It slumps, slides, and the last I see of it is its scythe-like claws skittering across the stone as it falls from the tower.

I turn back to the room but pain blossoms in my back, doubling me over and bringing me dangerously close to following the Beast's exit. My hand finds the wall and I turn to see Kayne backing away. For the first time I am able to see the outline of features deep within the hood he wears — gaunt, sallow, a cruel smile playing upon thin and colourless lips.

While I stagger forward, Nan appears again at the door, but Kayne snaps his fingers and it slams shut, the lock turning. "You and I, Axman."

With a shaking hand I wrench the dagger from my lower back, slick with my blood. I toss it from the tower without looking at it. "At last."

Two roars go up in that tower chamber, and two figures clash. I swing my ax as Kayne's hands crackle with rippling bands of white electricity, which he stretches before him. We grapple, swaying this way and that, slamming into the walls and sliding on the floor, wet from the leaking wound in my back.

He shoves me to the floor, aiming vicious kicks at my wound as I turn. I hear myself bellow, catch his ankle in my hand, turn him away. My ax is swinging at him, he steps just beyond its arc, then sears my flesh with his evil lightning. Staggering backward, crashing against the wall, I feel my energy begin to fade.

And still Kayne comes, hands blazing with that horrible power that he brings down upon me, burning, crushing. There are screams in my throat, far away, my eyes squeezing shut.

I do not hear Aflie stir, nor do I see his fingers close about the spoon, the object nearest to his hand. I know only that the Dark Lord Kayne's head twitches around — and for one instant the pain subsides.

Yet this is all I need. I plant one foot in Kayne's belly, knocking him backward as I rise. He stumbles, falls, and my ax follows him down. With one blow he is cleaved in twain, and before his limbs have ceased their frantic movements my blood-soaked hands throw each half from the tower.

Kayne is defeated.


Years passed. In the aftermath of the battle, Rhett's army of citizen rebels rose up and overcame those of the Black Guard who did not surrender immediately. The fighting lasted less than a fortnight.

Against my protests, I was crowned king. It was never something I wanted, and rarely did I savour my duties. More often than not these were handled grumpily by Nan, who became royal chancellor, and she tended to do a better job of ruling than I ever did.

Rhett was appointed captain of the guard and high general of the army, most of which was drawn directly from the ranks of his rebel troupe. As for the boy Alfie, I named him my man-at-arms, and a Blagg the Axman wanted poster still hangs in his quarters, set in a gilded frame.

Mullerbinns, the alchemist, returned to his mountaintop outpost with my blessing, having turned down a place in my court. Eveleth, the woman with whom I dallied in Rheidling and caused much trouble, sends me a card on holidays and on my birthday. As for Wilhelm Warhammer, he was buried in a place of honor in the royal cemetery, beneath an oak tree.

The corpses of M'yrrgh and Kayne were hacked to pieces, burned and buried in a heap of manure. I know because I did these things myself.

My reign was relatively short and blessedly peaceful, barring the occasional gnome mischief or ogre attack. When the time came I yielded gratefully to Nan, who already is grooming the boy as her successor.

In these, the twilight years of my life, I find happiness wandering the royal orchards. I pick apples, breathe the fragrant air, and I smile. I am at peace.

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About the Author(s)

A former mercenary for hire, Blagg is an axman by trade and still carries the banner of King Mandrake, the once and true ruler of the realm. Gapers Block readers are invited to contact Blagg for advice, insight and recommendations at His column appears every other Saturday.

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