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Burial of Nightmares

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Salia Olschmidt ducked into the small shack, through a small basement window she was barely able to still crawl through. She hid herself behind one of the old tables, and waited for the heavy steps of the local guard outside to pass by. As he walked by, calmly by the sound of things, she gave a sigh of relief, and smiled.

            We eat well, tonight!

            Casually, she cast the small coin purse onto the dirt floor in front of her, the fattest one she had ever lifted. And the look on that noble’s face! Completely clueless for all the town to see…

            Can’t wait to show Landau.

            Just as she was about to open the purse, the proper basement door opened. She froze, her hands on the purse, and gazed on the stairway before her. But then, a boy’s face appeared, under a mess of blonde hair. Looking down at her with bright blue eyes, the boy smiled, and, as quietly as he could manage, scampered down.

            “Scared the hell out of me, Siegfried,” said Salia, giving some space on the cold, dirt floor.

            After he sat down, Siegfried Schtauffen shrugged.

            “Lord Vogel throws a fit over a missing purse,” he said, “demanding heads and any other limb that comes to mind. I just figured I’d check in.”

            “Caught,” she said with a smile.

            “I imagine you're set for a while,” he said, opening the small sack about his shoulders.

            Steam and a beautiful aroma filled the air. Siegfried reached in, produced a muffin and handed it to her. With her stomach growling, she snatched it from his hands and inhaled it like a serpent eating an egg.

            “Your mom’s the best,” she said, between bites as she basked in every blueberry and grain that graced her tongue.

            “I try to play coy with her,” said Siegfried, “but I think she knows where I go.”

            But then the boy frowned, letting out a sigh as he held the other muffin in his hand. Once Salia finished off the last crumb, she raised a brow.

            “You alright?” she asked, her mouth cleared of crumbs once more.

            “Dad’s still off in those ‘crusades’,” said Siegfried.

            Salia nodded, recognizing his melancholic gaze.

            “He’s been sending coin our way,” he went on, “but… the next one is coming in late. She’s stubborn as always, but…”

            While she did not care for the idea, she nudged the coin purse toward him. He shot up his brow.

            “I’m sure there’s enough for both of us,” she said, “and Landau and the others.”

            Siegfried pressed his lips together, and then shook his head.

            “I’m not taking from you,” he said. “I have a roof over my head, you…”

            “We’ll be fine,” said Salia with a chuckle. “If a local lord can’t find us…”

            And then, Siegfried pushed himself on his feet.

            “No!”

            Salia blinked.

            “I’m sorry…?”

            “What are we even doing?” he said in frustration. “Robbing people? Scraping by while the rest of the town just moves on?

            “What do you expect us to do?” said Salia.

            But the boy was not finished. “To do? Who is doing anything? Heinrich’s father gets mugged on the way here, and the guard gives him a shrug? We’re barely holding on, because of some war in some land we barely know?”

            Finally, Siegfried gave himself a moment to breathe, before turning to Salia and kneeling.

            “Listen to me,” he said. “Friends barely older than us get dragged off to war, given steel, armor. And I’ve been outside with the heaviest stick I could find, swinging and…”

            “What…” said Salia, rubbing her head and still trying to put the fragments of his scatterbrained plan together, “... are you getting at?”

            “We got that coin, right?” said Siegfried, an oddly hopeful look in his eyes. “We could have our meal, and move on to the next spoiled lord. Or—hear me out—we visit the smithy. We get our own steel, take our own tasks, and make bandits regret ever eyeing our roads.”

            Oh, Christ above…

            “You want us to become mercenaries…”

            “That’s exactly right,” said Siegfried, “we can scrape by watching the outside of the pub, and then… go from there. We train, we can teach ourselves… How hard could it be?”

            “So…” said Salia, “your answer to keeping us out of danger is to put us into danger?”

            “That’s…” said Siegfried, the cogs in his head switching directions, “a way of putting it, but…”

            But then his face went stern.

            “Those crusades are going to come for more of us,” he said. “So whether it is that, or for that coin purse…”

            And that’s when she felt that cold weight in her stomach. There was a thrill to being unseen, to snatching an unknown amount of coin from someone who did not need. And she had lived, her parents lost without a footnote in the pages of history, by these rules, by her own game. But, as bullheaded as he was, Siegfried was not wrong. One of these days, maybe even soon…

            “Most of us don’t know how to fight,” she said, feeling a weight in her stomach. “The black eyes I see on Landau.”

            “Then he’s already taken the first step,” said Siegfried. “We get hit, we strike back. And once we have enough, we find our own house, our own home. Wooden floors, furs…”

            The ground felt really cold then and there.

            “We’re already thieves,” she said.

            “We can be better.”

            She looked up to Siegfried.

            “Maybe we’ve angered a few people,” he said. “But we can win others over. Heinrich’s father doesn’t have to come home empty handed any longer. My mother won’t need to scrape by, and we’ll carve our way into the hearts of others.”

            Salia sighed. “I think you’ve read about Sigurd one too many times…”

            “We can be heroes,” he said.

            Heroes…

            Now there was a word Siegfried, herself or the others had not used in quite some time. As kids, they were knights, the sticks in their hands were swords, and any empty plain they could find were great battlefields or the lair of dragons. Even with war so far away, a child’s imagination had no limits.

            The limits of growing older would weigh on them soon. But somewhere in even Salia’s practical mind, she yearned for that old stick a dog hid away years ago. Can it be a sword? Can they rise? Will lords and royalty look upon them as dependable, and not as the urchins that they were?

            Salia had found comfort in the ground of that basement. As cold it was, she knew it was hers, and she knew very few could find her. But Siegfried was right. Someone, at some point, for some reason, will kick down that door, will drag her away and she will be lost.

            Not if I kick first…

            Pressing her hands against the floor, she stood to her feet. All the while, Siegfried watched, as though surprised that his harebrained scheme worked. After dusting herself off, she picked up the coin purse from the ground, grinning at its thin but decorative violet design. Just from feeling the weight, she knew it was not remotely close to what Lord Vogel’s coffers held.

            But it was enough.

            Siegfried opened his hand, and Salia gripped it. With her other hand, she gave him the coin purse.

            “I’ll find Landau and the others,” she said. “You get those swords ready.”

            Siegfried gave a proud smile, his brow lowered and face red with a new joy.

            “Let’s be heroes then.”          

 

As Zasalamel stepped through the empty halls of the castle of Ostrheinsburg, the bottom end of his steel scythe echoed with every step. In meager light, the dark shapes of the fallen laid strewn about, the dry remains of their blood filling the cracks and dents upon the walls. Many wore their armor, but many others lay with just the clothing of local commoners. All of them lied with glassy, widened eyes speaking of their final, terrible moments of agony. So many souls, who would occupy nary a footnote in history, lost…

            No, far, far worse than lost.

            The deeper he had walked through the forsaken halls, the more he felt the old, familiar presence. To say it was from his younger days was, of course, deceiving. Memories from hands of a past life, mightier than he possessed then and there, returned to him. A bloody battlefield, his own bloodlust, the screams of so many soldiers long forgotten, the utter battle drum of his heart and the glaring eye in the flat of the weapon he swung… The sword would take him, of course, but he was, to his knowledge, the only one to recall the killing blow through his own heart.

            Soul Edge is near.

            But even after many lifetimes, of many names and of both man and woman, surprises are still found. Soul Edge should not have shattered to the plain steel of a young woman. And yet, it had, and its pieces spread like wildfire across Europe. The Azure knight took up the blade, his name unknown, and only then did its opposite, the Soul Calibur, return to the fray.

            But cursed sword always returns…                    

            As he walked through a curve in the hall, rays of moonlight cast its light through a set of stairs. He carried on up the flight, and, finally, black starry sky welcome him through the doorway at the top. A great chapel opened before him, its pews and rooftop long since scattered into splinters and pebbles. Half of the floor collapsed, separating him from the golden pipes of an organ glinting with the stars at the other end.

            In the stain glassed moonlight upon the stone floor, a familiar hilt stood, its sapphire blade entangled in a hardened, tentacle-like stretch of roots. Zasalamel traced down the length of the blade with his golden eye, and he realized that it was plunged into the side of another blade. Around it, blackened pieces of steel were scattered.

            As he stepped closer, he grinned, as it appeared that this generation had, yet, another curiosity in store for him.

            Soul Calibur had plunged through the eye of Soul Edge!

            This was not the first time that accursed blade had fallen, but never like this. He stepped closer. Yes, that presence was familiar, too familiar for any one man, but there it was. Somewhere, in that entanglement, the cursed sword still had a fraction of life. It would not be enough, not for his own purposes.

            But countless lifetimes did not leave him a fool.

            His eyes swept through the chapel once more. First, he caught sight of a pauldron, and then a breastplate whose leather straps had burned, and then a gauntlet for a left hand. At first, he thought its blue coloring was a trick of the stain glass windows, but then he found a full helm with a singular horn sticking out from the forehead.

            The Azure Knight…

            But where was the man himself? He had heard legends that the cursed blade leaves nothing left of the man who held it, but he knew better. Somehow, the eye of Soul Edge was pierced and the wielder’s armor was cast aside, and, perhaps, escaped?

            Answering that question, he knew, would leave him very little. But then he jabbed at the pauldron once more. To the naked eye, there would be nothing but a bent piece of steel, but Zasalamel’s golden gaze saw memory upon the material like a stain. As within the shattered pieces of Soul Edge, the cursed blade left its mark, its hold and, most importantly, its thirst.

            And like a small seed, it was enough.

            Zasalamel lifted his left hand, and the scattered pieces, of both the Soul Edge and the cursed knight’s armor, clattered upon the ground slowly converging with each other. Weakly, light rose from the shattered eye of the blade, and a violet-crimson light began reaching from its edge and enveloping the azure plates. Its steel boots stood, and the armor built itself until standing upright like a man. Within the plates, the eerie light continued to emit, before ashy muscle filled in, like copper filling the mold of a statue. And so this body grew, up the legs, filling the breastplate, its left arm and up its neck, and—

            The sorcerer stepped back as his golden eye widened. Gripping the shaft of the scythe in his hand, he watched the ashen muscle take a strange turn. Zasalamel thought nothing of the missing armor for its right arm, but then it began to grow beyond what its body should have, twisting its five fingers into three claws, opening and closing as though feeling had returned. From its shoulder, a tusk like spike protruded.

            And then the blackened pieces began to rise, gathering about this creature’s armored left hand. As they spun in place like many falling rocks, the eerie light returned, enveloping the pieces, gathering all into a long shape. The light subsided, leaving a greatsword in the walking armor’s hand red and jagged, with the faint circle of an eye staring out from the void within the flat.

            The armored hand took a firmer grip of the twisted hilt, as two red eyes burned from inside this creature’s helmet, glaring at the sorcerer.

            “Good,” said Zasalamel.

            The eyes burned brighter as it took its first step. An orchestra of metal echoed through the chapel as it growled from within. Another step followed, another echo, its hostile presence palpable from where the sorcerer stood.

            “You hunger, do you not?” asked Zasalamel.

            The creature stopped, balancing itself between that deformed hand and the great sword in its grasp. And then its eyes turned, facing the hilt of Soul Calibur.

            “Oh, there will be time enough to pry yourself from that sword’s grip,” said Zasalamel. “But you will need your strength once again.”

            “Souls…”

            Even after so many lifetimes, the sorcerer felt a shiver listening to the creature’s words. All wielders hungered for such a thing, but standing there before him was hunger incarnate. Everyone who sought the blade had a reason, of course, but whatever reason this echo of the previous wielder possessed, it had been stripped down to bloodlust.

            And that was all the sorcerer needed.

            “Head southwest,” said Zasalamel. “An old, forgotten temple in the Alps where you were once held. It is there where you will truly be freed. And there will be many souls on the way.”

            The creature growled once more, turning to the one of the walls. It marched, its steps sure, gripping the deformed hilt in his hand as the blade glowed. It lifted the phantom of Soul Edge, and then thunder struck as it swung down. Dust, brick and glass gave way to the jagged blade, scattering upon the chapel floor.

            The dust cleared, leaving a blasted hole through the brick and the walking armor nowhere to be seen. Quick, heavy metallic steps echoed from below, as Zasalamel stared out southwest over the trees of Black Forest. Just beyond the edge of the woods, the rooftops of a village stood. Into the mountains beyond, as Zasalamel knew, the forsaken sanctuary awaited.

            The sorcerer knew that these would be the last living moments of that village, filled with souls that this walking, armored creature would not miss. But millennia of past lives, of foundations crumbling, and societies rising and falling, left no more room for pity for a few meager villagers. Death awaited all, and he remembered every edge against his throat, every burning touch of poison, every final moment of starvation, and every skull shattering blow of a hammer.

            And yet, there was no peace, no final rest for his soul.

            He turned his eyes from the village and stepped toward the entangled blades.

            Death awaited all. But at least their souls can be of use.

 

Siegfried Schtauffen sat upon a barstool, accepting the pewter pint from the innkeeper with a nod. For a moment, he simply basked in the clean clothing and warmth of a fireplace. Behind him, patrons chatted and laughed, and he enjoyed the sound.

            It was, after all, the first he had heard in years.

            “Thank you,” said Siegfried, his otherwise deep voice still shaken.

            “Wouldn’t be right,” said the innkeeper, scratching his beard, “leavin’ a man with nothing but his skin out on road. Sword looks a bit big for ya.”

            Brushing his unkempt blonde hair aside, he glanced down at the greatsword leaning against counter. Though, “greatsword” was not quite the term for it. It was wider than most swords in the area, and Siegfried once mused that it was made as a joke or to match some absurd legend.

            Years of practice, however, practically rendered it a feather in his grip.

            “It’s… suitable,” said Siegfried.

            The innkeeper shrugged. “I meant nothing by it.”

            Siegfried lifted the pint to his lips, the first he had had in years that he had given up counting. And for a blessed moment, he could breathe, even if it was the stagnant aroma of beer stains, fires and every steely guard to visit this inn.

            But deep in the back of his mind, he could not be too careful, for he had thought it was over before. The burning eye of Soul Edge glared back from the abyss of his mind, its final glimpse, up the length of Soul Calbur as the holy blade pierced its accursed iris. He recalled a flash of light, some groaning of some kind, and, for the first time in years, cold air. Somehow, he found his old sword, and, without a patch of cloth upon him, ran out. Siegfried knew there was a fight, but memories of wielding Soul Edge were left scattered.

            A fight? One fight? Try a million.

            Though “fight” would imply the victims had a chance. Thousands of faces cried out their final gasp, their last screams, under the accursed sword, as blood drenched his armor, his skin, and his very soul. For revenge? For taking something back? All reason blurred and there was only the slaughter.

            And yet, he escaped and there he sat, calm, exhausted, all his muscle strained and his legs sore.

            But what now?

            He heard the door open behind him. At first, he thought nothing of it, but then a cold chill traced his back. Slowly, Siegfried took another sip, keeping it quiet as he listened in. It was an odd silence for someone stepping in from the road, nary a greeting nor a sigh. Steps followed, not toward him but by the fire. Humming to himself, the innkeeper simply moved some bottles about, paying the new guests little mind.

            Lifting his muscled frame into a better posture, he feigned groan, stretching out an arm and chancing a glance toward the fireplace. A younger man’s blue eyes locked gaze with him for a second before he turned to the fire. Others may have paid it little heed, but Siegfried was familiar with the sentiment.

            The man recognized him.

            Twice, the blade took control of him. Even during that respite in between, he was confronted by many a vengeful soul for his crimes. And so blood continued to follow him. There would be no trial, no ear willing to listen; just many bladed fangs of the furies at his heels.

            Siegfried and Nightmare, bound in an endless slaughter.

            “I might turn in early,” said Siegfried putting the empty mug on the counter.

            “Of course,” said the innkeeper, giving a nod. “First door on your right.”

            Taking up the greatsword, he stood and walked to the stairs, keeping his gaze straight in front of him.

 

Siegfried sat up in his bed, sweat pouring down his face and body, free from a dream that had escaped his memory. He had heard a shout, and the smell of fire reached him. Turning his head toward the window, he found only black smoke billowing just outside.

            “Everyone out!” he heard the innkeeper from outside.

            Just as Siegfried leapt to his feet, there was a heavy knock on his door making it shake in its hinges. Grabbing the greatsword by the hilt, he pulled it from its scabbard as the metallic crack pierced his ears, and the door slammed against the wall.

            The blue eyed man stood in the doorway, sword in hand, brows bent in a glare.

            Siegfried clenched his teeth, as he felt a pang in his chest.

            “I know what you want,” said Siegfried, knowing his words fell on deaf ears. “But, please—”

            “Plead to my brother,” said the man, lifting his sword, the flames behind him dancing upon the length of his steel.

            This man was far from the best trained man Siegfried had ever fought, with his sword forward and his clumsy footed charge across the room. With the edge of his greatsword, he shoved the man’s blade aside before sending his own forehead into his jaw. The man’s blade clattered upon the ground as he stumbled back, the fires roaring ever closer behind him.

            With a curse, Siegfried dropped his own blade, the great length leaving a mark in the wood.

            “We can climb out of the window,” he said. “We don’t need to do this—”

            Returning to his feet, the man drew a knife from his belt as smoke billowing from the floor underneath him.

            “I have all I need right here!”

            Siegfried threw his hands forward, catching both wrists as the man shoved him against the wall. Slowly, the man’s fire lit knife inched toward the scar down his right scalp and cheek. Siegfried threw the man’s arms into the adjacent wall, forcing the knife out of his hands. Bracing his feet, he shoved the man away from him.

           The man’s landed with his knee on the floor. Wood snapped and the floor before Siegfried gave way, dropping the man into the opening pit of smoke. Siegfried could see no more of him; there was only the echo of screams and cries of agony from below.

           Once more, Siegfried took up his greatsword and swung it at the window, shattering it into shards. Still, there was naught but smoke just outside the frame, but with a final clean breath, he leapt out, leaving the inferno behind. Closing his eyes, he felt a plank of wood give way under his shoulder, breaking his fall for but a moment before falling into dirt below.

           With blind desperation, he scrambled to his feet and ran until the cool air of night found his face. Certain the fire was behind him, he stopped himself, turning his gaze to inn, still feeling a faint heat from fire that nearly enveloped him. As he took a breath, all he could do is watch. Another snap of wood echoed into the air as the inn’s roof caved in and posts buckled.

            Another soul was lost to the fire, another blade out for his throat, another smoldering corpse. His grip tightened about the hilt of his sword as he clenched his jaw. For the first time in his life, he had tried to save someone out for his head, for once in his life tried to talk things out.

            Like that woman years before…

            But death would find its prize nonetheless.

            Siegfried heard a cough, just as he turned toward innkeeper, stumbling away on a limp leg. As the man neared, he brushed the soot from his face and hacked up the last bit of the billowing smoke from his lungs. Siegfried reached for the innkeeper.

            “I’m alright!” the innkeeper said, waving his hand and coughing some more. “Someone got into my liquor stores.”

            “I’m…” said Siegfried. “I’m sorry.”

            The innkeeper let out a bitter laugh. “Well, you didn’t start it!”

            Siegfried padded the man’s back as he let out one last cough.

            “I think everyone made it out,” he said. “You see anyone?”

            The mercenary opened his mouth, but then silently nodded.

            The innkeeper gritted his teeth. “What happened?”

            “I… couldn’t save him,” said Siegfried, feeling another pang in his heart.

            “Aye…” said the innkeeper, as he straightened his posture. “Well, the cold won’t be merciful for long. We’d best get moving. I know another one, belongs to a friend, up the road.”

            But Siegfried shook his head, before turning his head to a nearby forest line.

            “I will camp for the night,” he said, before stepping away.

            And Siegfried did not recall what the innkeeper said. Laying the flat of the sword on his shoulder, he kept his eyes on the shadow of the forest.

            Animals seldom seek vengeance.

 

Kilik opened his eyes, rising to his feet from the rock he sat upon with the grace of a bird. Dusk had fallen upon the rolling plains of this land, far west from his home. With a light kick, his red staff flew up in the air before he caught it in his hand. Trying to concentrate more, he noticed a gleam from his sapphire crystal hanging from his necklace. He felt it in his hand, warm to the touch.

            He recognized the Black Forest from years back, stretched out before him from the hill he stood on under the morning sun. Within these woods, his fight with the Azure Knight and his minions took place. On the one hand, he was not surprised to find his senses bringing him back to the castle of Ostrheinsburg. On the other hand, he wondered why the presence of Soul Edge would return to the same place once more. Somewhere within the red staff in has hand, it burned.

            “Ostrheinsburg again?” asked Maxi, adjusting his vest as his nunchuku swayed from his belt.

            “It’s moving,” said Kilik, spotting an opening in the forest.

            A road, maybe?

            “The presence is stronger ahead,” Kilik went on, gripping the staff.

            “Well, why are we waiting?” said Xianghua, restrapping an armbrace, matching her light blue traveling clothes. She looked up, casting her short brunette hair aside, and tried to follow Kilik’s gaze. Then her brown eyes widened.

            “Is… is it going for that village?” she said, her voice uneasy.

            Kilik clenched his jaw.

            “Let’s get the horses moving, then.”

 

The three could already hear screams by the time they had arrived. For a better part of their haste, Kilik’s view was obstructed by the thicker forest, even though his senses kept him on point. They sped by tree after tree, trampling any branch or leave under their hooves.

            When Kilik reached the end of the forest, into the outer limits of the village, fire engulfed many a house and stable. The support of a guard tower buckled, sending tis burning lumber crashing into the ground into smoldering splinters.

            In the midst of this chaos, Kilik only caught sight of three villagers stumbling from city gate. Dismounting from his horse, Kilik, with Maxi and Xianghua in tow, ran to meet them. The monk could hear the chains of the nunchuku and the song of Xianghua’s blade against its scabbard as they sprinted.

            The first of the villagers, a young woman, stumbled upon her knees as she caught sight of the monk, her eyes widened and arm covering her face.

            “We’re here to help,” said Kilik.

            “Azure…” said the woman, pointing back to the village. “The Azure Knight!”

            Just inside the burning gate of the city, four sets of violet-red eyes peered back, as shadowy forms began to emerge. In their hands, lengths of steel glowed under the firelight.

            “Get to safety!” Kilik shouted, stepping aside and letting the villagers pass by. “Find the guard!”

            The dark forms sprinted toward them, their swords raised and their eyes like bright red stars. As they drew near, they looked as unarmored villagers. But the four figures glared back, bloodlust taking hold of them as though by a puppeteer.

            Corrupted by the evil seed…

            This was far from the first time Kilik or his companions had encountered such a threat. And, with heavy heart, he knew there was nothing he could do for them. Nothing, except to ensure they do not enthrall more into their horde.

            Like a small cyclone, Kilik spun his staff in the air, before the end came across the man’s face with a sickening crack. Though blood spilled from its lip, the man stood there turning his head back to Kilik, opening its jaw in a growl.

            The monk knew that a single blow did little more than earn him a few seconds. But that was all he needed. Setting the end of the rod into the ground, Kilik pole-vaulted himself into the air and thrusted his foot into possessed his man’s chest, sending it to the ground.

            As the blade flew from the villager’s hand, Kilik brought down the rod once more upon his head, glowing a faint blue as the golden end descended like a comet. Another crack erupted from within the possessed man’s neck. From underneath his foot, Kilik felt no more struggle as the man’s jaw slackened and his eyes faded.

            A head rolled by Kilik’s foot, just as he lifted his rod once more and turned to Xianghua. Another body of a possessed man stood but a second before its knees buckled and collapsed in a heap, blood pouring from its severed, headless neck,

            Just in front of the corpse, Xianghua lifted her bloodied blade. Gritting her teeth, as she looked past Kilik.

            “Maxi!”

            “I’m fine!”

            Kilik turned his gaze to another of the corrupted, flailing its arms. Maxi grappled it from behind, tightening the chains of the nunchuku around its throat, before shifting his body. Its neck snapped, before the body hit the ground. In another quick motion, Maxi’s nunchuku found its way under his arm once more, as he gazed across the field.

            Kilik took one more glance at his own fallen opponent, all life, all anger faded. Without even realizing it, he lifted his left hand, touching a small V shaped scar upon his cheek. Another lost one, another…

            “We need to go in there,” said Xianghua, stepping toward the burning town. She turned her gaze to Kilik.

            “Right,” said Kilik, shaking his head. And into the burning streets they ran, hoping against all hope there were still lives to be saved.