“Greetingsss sir, what bringsss you to my humble abode?” said the grey-haired women with a hiss peering out of the doorway to her hovel. She was dressed in faded black robes like a witch. The full moon was high in the night sky, meaning magic was in the air. The dim light from within her hovel partially illuminated the features of the man outside. The man was extraordinarily fat and the brass buttons of his shirt struggled to contain his enormous girth. His pigish face was rather ugly being lumpy and riven by pockmarks. His clothes were patchy and worn from travel. The smell of hot porridge wafted enticingly in the air.
The man’s name was Antone. He was a traveling salesman, of no particular renown, who was in route to the town of Duskwood. Antone was accompanied by his half-starved mule laden with cheap trinkets and other snake oil wares. He had taken a short cut off the main road, but had gotten himself somewhat lost. Although he was accustomed to traveling, the potential for warm victuals and a surface softer than the ground for sleeping was simply too much for him to resist. “Good evening mi’lady! I seek food and shelter for the night before I continue my journey on the morrow. I have some untrimmed coppers with your name on them if you will accommodate me.”
Had the light not been so dim, perhaps he would have noticed that the women had unusually scaly skin, and a long, forked tongue that caused her to hiss somewhat when she spoke. But then again, maybe he did notice but thought it polite not to say anything. In any case he winked and grinned a toothy smile that was too wide even for his fat face.
“Yessss of course, I’ll have you for sssupper tonight.” said the grey-haired women as she opened the door. “It will be nice to have some company for a change. Now my dear, why don’t you take a seat by the hearth over there? I’ll fetch you a bowl of porridge.”
The porridge was a thin gruel, and hardly appetizing, but to Antone it was a hundred times better than the stale bread as hard as stone he usually ate. He offered his thanks and began to eat greedily from the bowl with a wooden spoon. The porridge began to dribble down his double-chins and in that moment he looked exactly like a hog eating slop from a trough.
While the merchant was busy stuffing himself with porridge, the grey-haired woman interrupted him with a question. “Do you like fairytale ssstories my dear?”. Antone knew that he was probably the old hag’s first visitor in a long time, so while he did not care to listen to her story, he nodded anyways. “Good!”, said the woman, “I will tell you the tale of Heracles. It is a ssstory of strength, of dessstiny, and of adventure. It all began many yearsss ago in the classical age of the world”.
“The intentions of an act are meaningless when compared with the consequences.”-The philosopher Epirus the Younger
The twilight sky was darkening and the oncoming of nighttime brought forth the cold. It wasn’t a biting winter cold, instead it was the cold of springtime which was not altogether unpleasant. The spring air was fresh and crisp and promised new beginnings for growing things. Overhead the grey clouds foreshadowed the rain that was sure to come. Beneath the sky was a high mountain peak of granite. On that mountain were two persons that looked like ants climbing upon it. As it so happens, those persons were twin brothers. Brothers in a contest of whom would be first to reach the summit.
“You are growing tired, little brother!” taunted Heracles. “Perhaps I should call you Iphicles the slow” He quipped, continuing his climb without so much as a pause for breath. Heracles was always the stronger twin; it was hardly a fair contest at all.
Iphicles replied, not loud enough for his brother to hear, “We shall know the real winner soon enough my brother”.
* * *
In those days there was a kingdom named Roem located on the western edge of the continent. Roem was, like many kingdoms at the time, an small and otherwise unremarkable city-state ruled over by a warrior-king. Heracles and his brother Iphicles were sons of King Leo who named them after a mythical hero. The boys were princes and they knew their father’s kingdom as well as anybody could claim to. As boys, they had ridden and played from one end of the kingdom to the other. Although that wasn’t particularly difficult either since the entire realm could be traversed in a single day with enough time to return for supper. As children, their father’s kingdom had seemed impossibly vast and filled with adventure. Now it just seemed small.
Outside the borders of the kingdom stood the monumental ruins of a vast and ancient city partially buried at the bottom of a vast pit. Only the tops of the highest temple ziggaurats and towers could now be seen. Most people that saw it wondered what had happened to cause the city’s destruction, and wondered what kind of disaster could have swallowed a city whole into the earth? Like most youths, Heracles and Iphicles liked to explore; and what better place to explore than the ruins of a partially-buried ancient city? They spent their days climbing the ruins pretending to be kings, or heroes slaying wicked monsters.
The ruins were filled with carven stones providing the only insight into the people that once lived there. Many of the carvings depicted ancient kings and chronicled important battles that they had won, or heroic deeds they had accomplished. Although the carvings also contained written words providing context, the language the words were written in meant nothing to anyone anymore. Other carvings depicted images of four gods. Two with the bodies of men, two with bodies of women, and all with the heads of animals.
Young Heracles was memorized by what he saw in that ancient city and began to wonder what else might lay in the lands beyond the borders of their father’s kingdom. Heracles was not sure, but he vowed to himself that one day he would go out and explore the world to find out.
One winter King Leo contracted a coughing sickness that caused him to spit up blood. The sickness withered his powerful body in a matter of weeks. After the passing of their father, Heracles was crowned king. Heracles was born to rule of course being the eldest twin, but some thought that he was too young and not yet ready to rule. It was suggested that a regent should be employed until Heracles grew of age. Like all youths, Heracles was known to act rashly and with emotion instead of employing reason and words. Except Heracles possessed far greater strength than normal boys of his age, and was used to getting what he wanted. He was also adventurous and desired more from the world than the small kingdom he ruled over could ever provide him.
Iphicles was very different than Heracles. He was strong, but nowhere near as strong as his brother. He instead was gregarious and made for a natural diplomat. He was also cunning and understood how to lead and inspire people. Where Heracles pounded his fist and yelled, Iphicles would speak softly and use flattery to win the respect of others. By any measure Iphicles could be considered a true bureaucrat. A person who understood the proper order and place of all things.
But Heracles did not like bureaucrats anymore than he liked common thieves. He believed he ruled his kingdom absolutely. This meant he would not tolerate sharing power with Iphicles, even if he was his own brother and twin. Wasn’t he the king after all? What business did his brother have in usurping his kingly authority? Heracles made it clear to his brother on numerous occasions. Iphicles was his brother but was not the king. Heracles was king. That was all there was to it. What Heracles didn’t know was that Iphicles had grown resentful of Heracles, and believed himself better suited to be king than his brother who didn’t even understand how to rule. If Heracles would not listen to reason, then Iphicles would find another way.
In his anger Iphicles thought up his devious plan. He would challenge Heracles to a contest of strength. His brother would never decline a chance to show his superiority to him. All Iphicles had to do was make sure his brother had an accident. Heracles would be dead without any witnesses around, and Iphicles would become king. Yes he could imagine himself as king already.
* * *
Heracles was first to the summit and he rested for a moment to catch his breath. Suddenly Heracles heard a snarling voice from behind him.
“There can be only one!” Iphicles screamed.
Before Heracles could even turn around he was pushed forwards. He stumbled, then fell. Heracles was in free fall and the air rushed around him. The crack of thunder could be heard loudly above the rain.
A curse borne of vengeance is known to draw the eyes of the gods. As Heracles fell from the mountain he cursed his brother. As it so happens, the gods were watching that day.
The Dark Pact
“Blood is the river of life, and we drink gratefully from it. Blood is the sustenance of the heart, and the heart is the key to the soul. The soul walks the path into heaven.”–Slaughterpriest Torsek
Heracles was stirred to wakeness. His head pounded and his memory was foggy as though he had too much wine to drink the night before. He lay upon his back and saw an azure sky above him. The grass was soft and gentle upon his skin. He sat upright by pushing his elbows out behind himself. A gust of wind caused the grass to dance with life. The birds chirped their songs melodically in the trees and curious red squirrels could be seen running about in search of nuts most likely. Everything seemed so…perfect.
He then began to think about what had happened to him. He remembered the mountain…his brother…and falling. Yes, he had certainly been falling. Maybe he had drunk too much wine?
Heracles stood up, brushed his clothes off, and surveyed the surrounding land. He was on a low hill and saw trees, but no buildings, no farms, not even roads. Until in the distance he spotted something. About a mile-and-a-half distant stood a great and proud oak tree. The tree must have been many hundreds of years old no doubt because of its considerable size. Under the tree’s weighty branches he saw the silhouette of a person. Heracles, not knowing where else to turn, began to walk in the direction of that tree to meet whomever it that stood there.
The stranger was under the shade of that great oak tree. They were clad in black robes with a black hood which obscured most of their features. They stared at Heracles as he approached but said nothing. Heracles could see a little of the stranger’s face, and what he saw looked strangely unnatural. It was a women’s face with scaly skin. Her eyes glowed the color of fresh blood. Heracles was not afraid, but was lost for words.
The stranger broke the silence. A chilling wind blew forth and shaped itself into unearthly words. The syllables were jagged and stiff as if they had been cut into pieces by rattling bones. “Heraclesss, you have come at last” is all the stranger said.
“How do you know me? I don’t recall knowing your name.” Heracles replied.
The stranger chuckled then smiled. The sound of which was deep and sharp, like claws scraping loudly against stone walls. The stranger’s razor sharp fangs flashed for an instant. “I am the angel Kabraxis. I am here because the godsss have sent me. The gods have been watching your dessstiny, Heracles, with great interest.”
“The gods? Destiny?” said Heracles. Like most, Heracles believed in the existence of the gods and their heavenly powers. He worshipped the sun god Zeus for the life he provided, the storm god Poseidon for the rains he provided, and a whole pantheon of lesser gods for their blessings as well. People in that time were superstitious and quick to attribute any cosmic events such as droughts or earthquakes to the machinations of the gods. Correlation or causation, it didn’t matter. The stories of the gods provided easy explanations to the people for how the world around them worked. It explained why the sun rose and set each day, and the changing seasons of the year.
“The true godsss of course, not the falssse ones you worship now.” Smiled the angel with sharp teeth. “Life can be thought of like a great wheel. A wheel on whose rim liesss eight spokes, making one complete turn before repeating the cycle anew. Four spokesss of the wheel represent the true gods: the Warrior, the Father, the Mystic, and the Wanderer; while the remaining four represents the cyclical nature of time through the changing ssseasons.”
“False gods? What do you mean?” said Heracles.
“The godsss you worship were inventions of mankind, mere storiesss believed to be true. But there are real gods and once, long ago, mankind worssshipped them.” The angel paused then continued, “This is where your dessstiny comes in Heracles. It is your destiny to reintroduce the true gods to mankind. In exchange the godsss will give you life again so that you can have justice against your traitorousss brother. You, Heracles, will become the strongessst man to ever live like the mythical hero you are named after. You will adventure across the whole world and all will know your greatness.”
Heracles clenched his fists at the mention of his brother. He wished nothing but vengeance for his treachery.
“The godsss only show mortals the path.” hissed the angel Kabraxis. “Those chosen must still walk the path. If you wisssh to live again, then hold out your hand and receive the blessing of the godsss.”
Heracles offered his hand palm up. The angel drew forth a wicked dagger and slashed it across Heracles’s palm to form the rough shape of an eight spoked wheel. The slash caused blood to flow from his hand and drip onto the ground. The dirt drank his blood with greed.
Suddenly the world around him began to change. The once blue sky now turned a deep shade of red. The grass withered away leaving only dry straw behind. Heracles looked back to the angel for explanation, but saw nothing except for a dead oak tree. He was alone again.
Fire erupted a few feet away and the flames quickly spread in his direction. Heracles ran to escape the fire. He felt sweat drip down his forehead from the heat, and felt the earth shaking beneath his feet. His path was blocked ahead by a widening chasm that stretched left-and-right as far as he could see. Heracles needed to escape the flames and reach the other side. He readied himself and ran forward at a sprint then he jumped. For a moment he was certain he would reach the other side. But he fell short. He started to fall. The chasm was deep and his eyes fluttered then tightly shut as the air rushed around him. His mind faded to blackness. All was emptiness. All was darkness.
Heracles was being shaken hard. He jolted his head, then blinked several times. He saw the morning sky above him. He felt like he had just woken up from a nightmare. He was assisted up by two men, both garbed in the purple and gold colors of Roem.
“Where am I…?” Heracles spoke with some difficulty.
“You slipped and fell my king! Your brother Iphicles reported the accident at once upon his return to the city. We came here as quickly as we could to search for you. We did not hope to find you alive from such a fall.”
“Is that what happened?” said Heracles groaning from the throbbing pain coursing through his body. His muscles were swollen and bulging at twice their usual size. Despite the pain, he felt stronger than ever. He felt powerful.
One of the soldiers offered a hand to help the king to his feet. But Heracles didn’t need it. As he got up he noticed a black scar in the shape of an eight spoked wheel upon his palm. He then remembered what happened and understood his purpose. Vengeance.
“Where was my brother did you say? There a small matter I must repay him for.”
Conquest and Faith
“The strong exact what they can, the weak suffer what they must.”-King Heracles of Roem
In the absence of his more diplomatic twin, Heracles became more and more convinced that might makes right. He didn’t think much about weaker men because he was the strongest after all, did that not prove the righteousness of his cause?
King Heracles led an army to conquer the neighboring realms and take by force what he couldn’t claim by right. Those city-states that did not surrender were put to the torch. All the unfortunate inhabitants then were flayed alive and set atop wooden stakes to die slow deaths while the carrion birds circled overhead. Word of Heracles’s brutality set an example for other cities that might have had a mind to defy him. The skulls of the dead were piled in high stacks as offerings to the Warrior god for their victory in battle.
In his expanding kingdom, Heracles ordered all idols and blasphemous scriptures to the false gods burned or destroyed. In their place a new order was founded. Temples were constructed devoted to the true gods. The four gods had the bodies of humans, and the heads of animals.
Inhabitants of Roem worshiped the four gods, but generally favored one more than the others. The gods represented different virtues of society. The Warrior god, with his bear head, was the lord of war and favored by warriors and kings. The Father, with his bull head, was the god the harvest and of health; he was often favored by commoners. The Mystic, with her raven head, was the god of magic and knowledge. She was favored by the wise wizards. Lastly was the Wanderer with her snake head. She was the trickster god of intrigue and of self-fulfillment. The indulgent and cunning favored her.
The kingdom of Roem had grown immense in a short period of time. Now in his middling years, King Heracles ruled over the largest kingdom the world had yet known. This vast multicultural kingdom was controlled entirely by religion. It was the mortar that held it all together. Faith was their shield and their spear. No enemy could stand before the heavenly warriors of the true gods. The priests proclaimed Heracles to be the physical manifestation of the gods’ will, a living saint. Heracles looked exactly like the mythical hero he was named after too with his mighty muscles, and his deeply tanned skin from a lifetime spent on the campaign trail.
“Mankind is a futile embarrassment. An imperfect vessel imperfectly made. We play at being omnipotent, knowing the potential perhaps lies within us yet it will always be denied to us.”–Disciple Zagtek, church of the Father
Heracles’ determination to expand his kingdom through strength of conquest meant that his life was lived in the saddle and on the campaign trail. He was never able to enjoy the fruits of his victory before he was off again fighting yet another war. Currently he was waging war against the Norse. The Norsemen lived in the cold tundra of the northlands and refused to submit to the rightful rule of Roem. The diplomats that Heracles had dispatched were decapitated by the barbarians and their heads sent back in a bloody sack. Heracles could have just ignored them, because the northlands were barren wastelands of ice and snow anyways, but he felt a need to prove his superiority to them. The Norsemen at the edge of the known world proved difficult to conquer as well because of the mountainous terrain and the arctic climate. Many of his soldiers died of attrition from the inescapable cold.
It was snowing heavily while Heracles shouted commands to his troops in battle. His armored hoplites slaughtered the barbarians that stood against them with ease on the open battle field. The battle was going well and the norsemen were retreating up the mountain path to their refuge. Heracles gave the order to pursue them and personally led the charge.
The snowy mountain path climbed ever higher and gradually grew more narrow as Heracles ascended. Eventually the path was so narrow that only a single person could walk at a time. The mountain was on one side, and a sheer cliff was on the other. It became impossible to go backwards due to the press of soldiers behind him, he could only go forwards. The wind blew snow sideways and visibility dropped to only a few meters. Heracles continued to swing at the Norsemen with his hammer while he advanced up the mountain path.
Heracles was the strongest man in the world, but even he could grow tired. While he slayed at least a hundred of the Norsemen already, he was steadily growing weaker and his swings with his hammer were growing slower. Heracles couldn’t see anymore because of the blinding snow. He didn’t know if there were only a few of the barbarians left or a horde. For the first time in his life he began to despair. He couldn’t go backwards, but neither could he continue on forever.
A voice spoke to Heracles then. If require my power, all you need do is assssssk.
Heracles did not know to whom the voice belonged, but neither did he care in that moment. Here was a sliver of hope offered to him in his hour of despair. He would take any help he could get.
“Give me the power to smite my enemies!” Heracles replied to the voice.
So it shall be. Said the slithering voice.
Raw power coursed through Heracles’s body as new strength flowed into his veins. The king could feel the weighty presence invade every inch of his flesh. The eight-pointed wheel on his palm glowed red like blood.
The power wormed its way through his body. Heracles felt his bones twist with the corruption. His skin turned black and he fought to hold out against the malevolent presence.
But the demon only laughed. The voice of course belonged to demon Kabraxis. An infinitely ancient demon that was powerful beyond mortal comprehension. She dug her talons deep into his flesh and his vibrant red heart slowly faded away, replaced with a new black tint.
Heracles screamed. But no sound came out. He made a grave mistake he realized only too late. He lost control of his movement, his limbs suddenly immobilized. He fell face forwards onto the mountain path. Frozen tears welled from his eyes as his body lay there stiff in the snow. Heracles was dead.
Heracles’ corpse lay on the narrow path of the mountain and the barbarians were silent and unmoving. Heracles’ soldiers tried to lift up their king so that they might carry away his body for burial.
But in that moment, Heracles’ corpse began to twitch. The soldiers of both sides stared at the jittering body that once was Heracles. The arms and legs writhed and moved about in unnatural ways. It was as if insects or snakes were crawling under the skin desperately trying to get out. Bulges grew from veiny limbs, wet flesh swelled at a rapid rate, and his armor was shredded like thin paper. Heracles’ body rose to a standing position. Black leathery wings unfurled from the monster’s back as the human skin sloughed off in pieces. It was a gigantic bat like monster with the head of a snake. Whatever it was, demon or monster, it was an abomination. The abomination was covered in black flesh, and it claws and fangs were like razors. The thing howled a terrible hissing cry as it emitted a shriek which drove those nearby in an insane to madness and despair. The abomination spread forth its great, leathery wings and took flight off the snowy mountain.
The monster was Kabraxis, and it laughed to itself. Mortalsss are ssso weak she thought.
The remaining porridge had long gone cold while Antone was held captive by the strange tale.
“H…how do you know this tale?” said Antone with a hint of fear in his voice.
“Why… I wasss there of course.” The old women smiled malevolently at Antone.
It was then that Antone realized he couldn’t move. W..what was in that porridge? The light in the hovel reflected red in the women’s eyes. And her snake-like head could clearly be seen.
“How ssssweet it is that you came to me this evening. I was growing hungry for human flesh and now I shall have you for my sssupper.” The demon bit into the fleshy neck of Antone and he screamed. The owls hooted in the distance while the wind rustled the treetops.