Short story written in December 2014 for T.Allen.Smith's Paint a Thousand Words Challenge.
THE BLACK KNIFE
"Death walks the earth in a pale cloak.
He can be seen only in darkness,
And those who see him must follow and obey."
A drop of blood remained in the goblet, glittering like a carbuncle in the candlelight. Once he would have greedily licked it up, but now the cup barely slaked his thirst. This body was old, and his mind beat within it like an ember hidden in ash.
Nothing! No sign of what he sought but whispers. He had come so far, to the barren edge of civilization--ruling over mudmen in a crumbling tower. They called him Lord, but their words meant nothing to him. His only communion with ordinary men was one of death. In that moment he knew more of their hearts than they would ever know in the fruitless stretch of years that they called living. In this, he gave them more honor than they deserved.
There was a knock at the door, barely audible over the sobbing wind.
It was a woman, with the shadow of his guardsmen behind her. Her hair was long and dark as evening, and she wore a buckskin tunic. She was fine to look at, but womanflesh no longer stirred him as did the pleasures of the Fair Arcane. She carried a bow and dagger, but he did not care. Frail though this body might be, he was beyond the threat of mortal weapons.
She was a huntress from the village. He knew why she had come.
"I bow to your bidding, my lord." She gazed at him like a blind thing, cowed at last. These people were like beasts--they understood nothing but threats.
"Then you will find for me what I have asked?" He did not need to raise his voice.
"I have found it." She reached into her quiver and drew out a thin bundle bound in rags. He watched, incredulous, as she began to unwrap it, and he saw the glimmer of a black opal's fire. It was unmistakable to the senses, both mundane sight and arcane vision. The First Knife, wrought of black fireglass and black stone. A smile stretched the papery skin of his face.
The woman hesitated. "Is my husband still alive?" she whispered, pathetic in her transparency.
"Yes, yes." He waved one crooked hand. It was likely true, for the guards would not begin on the prisoners until daybreak. But now that he knew she had the power to find the relic, it seemed to him a grave offense that she had not brought it sooner. It would be fitting if her husband were the first one to feel the work of the Knife.
"Come, bring it to me!"
She came as though pulled by a chain, and set the blade upon the table before him. After all these long years, it was within his grasp. The Knife severed not only flesh, but the material of the soul. With it, he could harvest the essence of a man's life as easily as he could cut out the meat of his heart. This was the feast he had been waiting for.
"How did you find it?" he asked her, his eyes fixed upon the gleaming thing. "Tell me."
She trembled but did not dare refuse to answer. "I went into the wood at dusk. I had decided to serve you, my lord. I walked across the river’s ice, to the foot of the mountains where the barrows lie. There I saw three gray owls in a tree."
"Why should I care for owls, girl?" He stroked the glassy flat of the Knife, scarcely hearing his own voice.
"To our people, it is a sign. Owls hunt alone. When they gather, it is because the souls of the dead are in them, watching through their eyes."
"It was then that I knew what must be done. I went down between the barrows. The others fear it, but I do not lose my way. I searched for the one that my father had marked." She stopped, and when she spoke again her voice trembled, but was somehow clearer. "Then I saw a strange woman in a white cloak, walking among the graves. When she turned towards me, I saw that she had my face. I knew then that she was Death."
A frisson went through him, and he could not have named it. "You met Death," he sneered, almost inclined to laugh.
"They say that Death has no face of his own. In the same way that you know your god, I knew who she was." He heard the woman’s breathing in the dimness. "From beneath her cloak she drew the black knife, and held it out to me. My lord, she spoke to me."
"What was it that she said?" he asked idly. She was speaking nonsense, but if she had indeed been given the Knife by a grave robber, he would know who it was.
The edge of the blade shimmered before him, enthralling. The howling of the wind was far away now, and its cold could not touch him.
"She told me to bring it to you, my lord. She told me that you have sinned against her and her power over men. And for that, my lord, you must die."
As the echo of her words reached him, the opal on the hilt of the Knife flared with burning light. He could not move. It was as though a vise had closed around him, severed him from all thought or recourse of sorcery--and the Knife rose from the table before him, humming with power.
The blade turned towards him, and shot into his chest.
He felt it as a sharp blow, and then--a great and roaring sensation that he had not known for a hundred years. Pain, unceasing pain. As he sank into grasping darkness, he saw the huntress's face, pale and staring, and around her fell the wings of a snow-white cloak.