"Are we there yet, cripple?" asked a man wearing chainmail armor that jingled like a folk song.
"Nearly," the reed-thin arms of the man who answered swung in an odd way each time his stiff right leg stepped on the ground, "we should reach the spot in a few minutes."
"What was your name again, cripple?" the jingling warrior asked.
His two companions neared because of the narrowing forest path. Matching his gait, they sounded much less musical.
"It's Franz," the near-emaciated man answered, struggling to lead men walking with an unhurried manner.
"What a stupid name," a voice from behind Franz chimed in, "did they call you that because you're so ugly?"
The three brutes all laughed in unison at the question.
"I can't rightly say," Franz answered with a mournful frown.
"What's with your leg?" the same voice as before inquired, "Did you get born ugly and useless too?"
More laughter snaked its way around the darkened forest trees.
"No," Franz said, then gulped and dragged his fingers along the knife he kept hidden in his clothes. "I was just ugly at first."
Franz played along in an attempt to not raise suspicion and to his surprise, it worked. The bandits all laughed out loud again.
"Yeah, I remember you now," the clattering ruffian said.
Franz knew they called him Gash.
"Who can forget a face as ugly as yours?" Gash's condescending tone bounced off the trees and rang out back at Franz.
"Skova got your sister instead of you, right? Man, she seemed like a tasty morsel," Gash shook his head, the lecherous, exaggerated sadness made Franz grip the handle of his knife. "If only he'd let me get to you like I asked." Gash clicked his tongue with displeasure.
"If only," Franz whispered under his breath.
The path opened up and the bandits came closer.
"What was that, cripple?" a painful nudge threatened to throw Franz off his feet.
"Nothing," Franz said louder. "We're getting close. It should be around here somewhere."
Wind caressed the, now thinner, foliage. Moonlight shone through the moving leaves and specks of silver danced on the dark green floor of the forest. The bandits fanned out, moving through the darkness with the disregard of uninvited guests. Franz limped forward to a patch of grass, flattened by scattered pieces of armor. Gash came over, his hungry eyes scouring the ground.
"There's nothing here," one of the men said, scratching his ear. "Where's the treasure?"
Franz did not reply and drew in a breath.
"Help! Help, someone is trying to steal your armor," Franz yelled as loud as his hungry chest permitted.
Rough fingers closed around Franz's throat. Gash held back only a fraction from outright killing Franz. The two other men took positions around nearby trees. Through the near-crushing force of the grip, Franz heard weapons being drawn. Gash threw him to the ground like a worthless, broken toy. Franz tried to yell again, but a fist smashed his nose. The blood flowing into his still recovering throat made him choke.
"What is this, cripple?" Gash grabbed him by the shirt collar and hoisted him up. "Did you lie to us you little shit?" Another blow followed, landing on his mouth.
Franz's head hit the ground. The only thing he could do was raise his left hand as a shield. The feeble defense did nothing to lessen the savagery of the next hits. Shafts of moonlight mingled with the flying blood as Franz's eyes began to close. His last attempt at protection fell on the grass.
"I'll show you what happens to liars," Gash said through grit teeth, his fist rising up for a final, fatal time.
"Hey what's this?" a man cried out from the side.
Gash lost his focus. Franz saw a chance and tried for his knife. Nothing happened, his body was not responding. Tears welled up in his eyes, a wide pit seemed to encircle him, then begin to climb to the skies. Struggling with all his might, he only managed to shift the hand on the grass. Cold metal touched his fingers. The contact rippled through the material and it began melting. Horror focused Franz's consciousness as gray liquid climbed up his arm, taking the shape of a gauntlet. Gash grabbed the gauntlet with his right hand trying to push it down, his left poised for another strike. The gauntlet's armored fingers moved on their own, digging into Gash's flesh. Franz gripped the knife and stabbed it into the bigger man's stomach.
"What the..." Gash stopped midway as his arm began shrinking until it turned into a prune.
The gauntlet swelled with power. The strength at the tip of Franz's fingers could crush rocks if he so wished. Metal flowed up his back, embracing his torso and legs. His whole body disappeared, devoured by this pulsing armor. His already unsightly features contorted into a knot of grotesque fright. The jaws of the suit finally closed around the horrid light coming from his forlorn stare. Franz's free hand moved on its own, plunging gauntleted fingers into Gash's torso. The bandit moved his lips but no words came out as his head slumped down and terror filled his pallid skin. Rivulets of red moved towards the armor as if drawn in by an invisible funnel. Franz turned his head away from the hideous sight.
About ten feet away the bandits were dragging a skeleton from behind a nearby tree. They noticed what was happening, dropped their deceased cargo, and dashed towards Franz. Behind the two rushing men, the skeleton rose up as if pulled by tangled strings. Twitching and jerking in unnatural directions, the pile of bones made it to an upright position. Gold etchings gilded the skeleton's bones from skull to toe. The weight of a sword pulled the skeleton's right arm back. In a fluid motion, the skeletal arm rose and a gleaming sword arc decapitated the nearest bandit. The impossible grace of the swing made Franz's eyes bulge behind his visor. The blade sank an inch into flesh when the skeleton pulled it back. Instincts made the other bandit stop and turn around. The demise of his compatriot did not for a moment impede the swing of his bludgeon. The skeleton evaded the blow with a deft backward movement of its hollow torso, then retaliated by slashing the bandit's mouth. With masterful precision, the tip of the blade pierced the bandit's cheeks and severed the joints holding his lower jaw. Blood sprung from the surprised face. The bandit fell to his knees, hands shaking and reaching for the lost part of his face. The skeleton danced behind the punctured human and with a carefree flick of its bony wrist, slit the man's throat, releasing him from his panicked search. Franz tried to get up. His crippled leg worked like it should, so he managed to scramble close to the crimson fountain that used to be a man. As soon as the armored fingers touched the body, it began to deflate and shrivel. Within moments, the bandit turned into a human husk, wilted skin taut over jutting bones.
The skeleton attacked again. Its sword sped towards Franz's head. The armor raised his hands and deflected the blow. The sword rang from the impact and flew off to the side. The skeleton leaped backward and caught the blade in midair.
"So its awakened," a voice spread through Franz's mind. "Regretful that." The voice sounded firm as an oak tree in a storm, yet a deep and timeless sorrow seemed to nestle in its roots.
"What?" Franz said out loud and took a few steps back, this time of his own volition. "Who said that, was it you?" He pointed to the white bones etched in gold.
"Indeed," the skeleton nodded and got closer. "I am the guardian of the desecrated, divine instrument ensnaring you."
Franz looked at the armor, then up at the skeleton. Its bony arm had risen and the sword's point stood leveled at Franz's heart, droplets of blood dripping to the green forest canopy below.
"I will free you from this burden which only I can carry," the skeleton proclaimed, then attacked.
The armor moved him from danger. With no other available source of life it siphoned Franz. His vitality fueled the paradoxical suit as it ate away at every minuscule part of his body, struggling to keep him alive. Fear settled its gargantuan weight on his chest, twisting his face into a grimace that could scare a grown man to death.
"What have you done you foolish boy?" the voice despaired inside Franz's mind. "Why did you help it feed on these men?"
The skeleton's demeanor changed, all hostile intent disappearing from it. The sword it held fell from its hand.
"Go over to that man's body over there," the skeleton's voice regained composure and it pointed to the first man it had slain. "Quickly!"
The voice echoed so loud that the words seemed to bounce off objects in the real world. Franz took a few shaky steps and stood over the murdered man.
"Place your hands, or any other part of the armor, over the blood..." the words were unpleasant, almost painful inside Franz's head. "...it will do the rest."
Franz the instructions and as soon as he got close, cold blood seeped into his hands. The armor became more spry and a lot less awkward. It seemed to be satiated for now and Franz incurred no penalty for making sharp movements. He let out a breath of relief, then a sharp edge touch his throat. A simple movement in any direction was now enough to end Franz.
"Is there a village nearby?" the voice of the skeleton spread numbing dread throughout Franz's head.
Only moving his left eye, Franz saw the gold bone etchings cut the gloom with their shine.
"Yes," his quivering lips answered.
"Are there more evil men there?"
"A few, yes," Franz said, voice breaking.
"Lead the way," the skeleton's lower jaw jumped up in a short but imperious gesture.
"Why?" Franz couldn't stifle the question.
"We shall procure more blood for the armor there. I cannot have you dying now."
The sharp edge ceased touching Franz and the skeleton went about the business of salvaging. Its pale fingers foraged clothes from the dead. Putting on the bloodied pants and vest, it then covered half its skull with a helmet, while its ivory face was embraced by a dark indigo strip of cloth that coiled around its neck. Beneath the shadow of the disguise, hollow, dark sockets peered silently at the night. The clothes and armor lent the skeleton some definition, but moment it moved the illusion was broken as everything swayed like curtains grazed by a soft breeze.
Their trek back was quiet as pleasant summer sleep. The only thing breaking the silence was the rhythmic jingle from the skeleton's armor. Each time it took a step, there was a soft tug on the armor towards his mysterious companion.
"We'll be there soon, sir..." Franz said over his shoulder, stealing a glance at the armored skeleton.
"I'm not a knight, boy. What I am is a phantom so might as well call me that. If we speak again...you may call me that," he urged Franz along using his, now gloved, right hand.
The armor reacted, making Franz lose his balance. The Phantom dodged back, drawing his sword and putting it to Franz's neck.
"Glutinous perversion," the eerie voice growled inside Franz's head. "Unappeasable as ever."
The Phantom's free hand trembled with rage. Franz froze in place, trembling from the Phantom's outburst.
"I spoke to the armor," he said, tapping the flat of the blade at the metal. "Keep it as far away from me as possible. It can absorb grace from just about my striking distance, so the next time I fell drained, you'll be missing your head."
The Phantom sheathed the sword, took a step back, and crossed his arms in expectation.
"Do we understand each other?" the question's grim tone chilled Franz's whole body.
"Perfectly, sir," Franz nodded so hard it looked like someone shook him by the shoulders.
The Phantom gestured for his guide to resume. Fifteen minutes later they entered the village. Houses huddled together in harrowing proximity as if the fright of their occupants had pulled them together. Franz walked with confidence by the dim lights of the structures. The bandits were waiting at the inn for their promised treasure. When they neared the outlaws' new home, the armor's surface began to squirm against Franz's skin.
"What's happening? It feels like the armor is made of water," fright leaped out of his eyes, but couldn't penetrate the darkness of his visor.
"It's the anticipation. The armor hasn't gorged like today in decades, and now it senses a veritable banquet within reach."
Franz gulped and attempted to focus his mind, but a ceaseless stream of freezing liquid drained the warmth from every inch of his skin, touching the heartless metal.
"Remember, we're here to feed the blood of the wicked to the armor, not injure the undeserving. As the cursed thing's appetite dwindles, you will have more control. So if you hurt an innocent, I will end your miserable existence."
Franz opened the door, his teeth chattering like percussion instruments. The large hall held fifteen more bandits than before, making their full count thirty. The bar's countertop shook as foam flew from a now empty mug. The bandit leader, Skova, raised both of his hands up in triumph and the inn exploded in cheer.
Rage burned from Franz's injured foot up to his throat and into his eyes. The armor followed the call to violence and headed toward Skova. Two quick steps led Franz to the middle of the room. The aggression he exuded so powerful that the others drew weapons. The armor's visor rippled into a new form, one that would accommodate a wider range of vision. A weapon struck the back of his neck. Franz shifted his gaze and grabbed the attacker's arm. With an almost gentle pull, the arm tore free, and gobs of blood splashed across his breastplate. The man diminished in his grip. Releasing the drained criminal, Franz took a confident step forward. A boulder of a man crashed into him, then they both obliterated the nearby table. The man locked his hands around Franz, keeping him on the ground while a multitude of feet converged on their position. The armor made short work of the bulging hands. Flipping over, Franz let the armor guide him. Remaining low to the ground, he began to move like an animal on all fours. He touched men's legs, and moments later, they were mere husks. With another four of the bandits dead, Franz jumped up on the table. His eyes followed the dagger thrown by the Phantom as it sank into a man's throat. As the body began to fall, the Phantom jumped and used the deceased's shoulders to launch himself in the air. During his flight, he turned in mid-air, skull facing down, and spun like a wood drill. The sword in his hand arced in a perfect, gleaming circle, eviscerating four bandits.
An immense hammer's head slammed into Franz's back. The table beneath him broke, and the following impact left a wide crater on the wooden floor. Using his feet, Franz toppled the man heaving the giant weapon for a second strike. The added power was enough for him to free himself from the broken floor. Jumping up like a resilient insect, Franz turned to see the drained body of his attacker. Scanning his surroundings, he realized there was no pain inside the armor when he fed it. These precious moments free of suffering made his lips curl into a deranged smile, hidden under the malevolent helm.
Riding this new high borne of brutality, he pushed off the ground using only his right hand. Following the Phantom's example, Franz swirled in the air and stalked his next prey. The bandits had enough sense to get out of his way, so Franz landed on a chair. With a quick scramble, he was back on his feet, posture low, belly almost touching his knees. His eyes scoured the ruined hall, resting on the bar where all bandits had mustered. Lunging forward like a shade, he consumed the first two almost instantly. A rain of blows fell on top of him. Their impacts were as threatening as a forest fire in a snowstorm. Releasing the drained, Franz's hands moved like whirlwind, each touch swift and deadly like a murderous gale. Looking for stragglers, his eyes caught a man he'd missed. The Phantom jumped off a nearby table, lunging like an arrow. The last survivor's head rolled on the floor a moment later. The Phantom landed with the impeccable grace of a king's dancer, then sheathed his sword with a single, intimidating motion.
Franz put his hand on the counter and jumped over, landing in front of the huddled Skova.
"No, please no, I'll give you anything."
The bandit leader's pathetic pleas stirred a murderous blaze inside the belly of Franz. He leaned down, struggling with all his might to keep the armor from grabbing the man immediately.
"Can you bring back my family?" he said, vocal cords vibrating like the low growl of a wounded animal.
"What are you ta-"
Franz ripped a few fingers from Skova's hand before he finished his question. Skova's screams echoed, their sound bouncing off the uncaring metal currently digging into his flesh. The wails got louder, and Franz's smile grew wider. He ripped and ripped and ripped until the feared bandit leader Skova was just a heap of torn meat and shattered bones. Franz took a breath and smelled blood. Usually, the armor absorbed all that it could. Franz focused his gaze on the pile of Skova beneath his feet.
"Repulsive," the Phantom's deep voice brought Franz to his senses.
Franz looked up to see palpable judgment coming from the eyeless stare.
"And what do you know?" Franz asked, sliding over the counter.
The Phantom took a few steps back.
"You have no idea what these animals did to the village each year. What pain they caused," Franz loomed forward, and the Phantom retreated one step back.
"They killed and raped and stole, all because they could. This is what they deserve," Franz threw his hand back towards the pile of corpses, his voice rose in pitch as his despair grew. "Maybe this thing isn't as bad as you say." Franz drew his hands up and watched them with amazement.
"Maybe I should use this to clean every stain the world has suffered? Maybe I should keep it for myself?"
Lowering the gauntlets and stretching his fingers wide, he leaned forward, poised for attack.
"Before you indulge these moronic thoughts spawned by carnage," the Phantom took a fighting stance, sword at the ready. "Consider that you have nearly no control over the thing. It takes life irregardless of your intent. You may be able to remove quite a few stains, but soon after, that thing will devour everything else as well. The armor was made to protect God's champion and not to be used for revolting work like this." The point of his blade cut the air as he gestured to all of the dead.
"And who's fault is that?" Franz shouted and attacked.
"The Darkweaver's," the Phantom answered, releasing the hold over his sword.
Distracted by the odd action, Franz did not see the Phantom's other hand begin to glow then swell. The salvaged clothes around it no longer looked hollow as if draped on a moving wooden cross, instead, the hand had become into the vibrant fist of a holy warrior. Golden eyes bright like the lanterns of a lost boatman ignited behind the mask of the Phantom. The clothes around his arm shone with greater intensity as his fist connected with the cheek of Franz. Sprawled on the floor, the young man lost consciousness. The last thing he remembered was the endless pity that seeped from the Phantom, through his skin, and into his mind. Pity for his undead self and the role he had to play in these events.
Phantom stared at Franz for a long moment, then he grabbed a nearby table and dragged it across the floorboards until it blocked the way in. Picking his sword off the floor, he sat down on the table, placing the weapon on his lanky thighs, gloved skeletal fingers gripping the hilt.
Not an hour later, curious heads cracked open the entrance and peeked inside. The Phantom raised the sword at the gawker. The head ducked out of sight, and there were no disturbances until morning when Franz stirred.
"Ah, my head," he moaned from the floor and touched his cheek, now swollen to the size of ripe fruit. "You didn't have to hit me that hard."
Sitting up, he pouted at his crosslegged watchman. The helmet over his head seemed to have disappeared after the Phantom's punch.
"You didn't have to get stupid ideas either," the Phantom shot back, tilting his mask head in order to hammer the point, "yet, here we are."
For a moment, he forgot his conversation partner was a skeleton. The Phantom's movements were smooth and lifelike enough that if Franz hadn't seen him put on his clothes, he wouldn't believe anyone that posited the figure in front of his eyes wasn't human. Shaking his head, he placed his hands on his knees and pushed himself up. The armor still had no weight to it, and Franz enjoyed the chance to move around like a normal person.
"Let's go," the Phantom's stern voice hacked Franz's jovial mood. "You've satiated the armor, for now, so we should make haste."
"Just a moment," Franza's hands waved in an appeal for time and he dashed back to the bar. "I'll be right back."
Vaulting over, his feet landed in a sticky, pale red stain. The remnants of Skova lay in shadow, their destruction still evident enough through the dark veil. Leaning over the counter, he vomited. The last of his human sustenance was now lost, half-digested on the floor. Running his gauntleted hand over his mouth, Franz felt the Phantom's eyes watching him from behind their shroud. He spat and turned his attention back to the corpse. Blood and pieces of flesh strewn around the body like the aftermath of an inquisitive child playing with dirt. Setting his jaw, he knelt down to get the item he sought - a short bow in the grip of a severed hand. Touching the weapon summoned the deep pain of arrows piercing his leg. He stood up, and his leg tried to buckle as it had after the injury. The lifeless, perforated body of his sister flashed before his eyes, and rage tightened his fists. He spat at remains, then stomped over to the Phantom, stopping five feet away.
"One last stop. It's on our way out, so we won't be long," Franz said in a tone as flat as the sanded floorboards, then pushed the door open.
A few villagers jumped back in surprise, scowling at him. He ignored them and kept walking. The Phantom followed close behind, surveying the villagers. On their faces, he saw anger, sadness, and pity, but the most overwhelming presence in this myriad of emotions was disgust.
"Get away from us!" a man finally broke the uneasy silence, and others followed suit.
"Why did you go and do that, you idiot? Now they're gonna come and kill us all!" a woman shouted and threw a potato from the basket she carried.
It hit Franz's left temple. He winced but continued walking. More people complained and threw refuse.
"Why didn't you mind your own business, cripple?"
"Your sister shouldn't have protected you!"
"Yeah, if only you'd died instead of her, we wouldn't be in this mess now."
The shouts devolved into obscenities and insults, then into rock-throwing. Small and medium-sized rocks pelted his face and armor. After the first solid hit to his cheek, he lifted both hands. He didn't know how to call upon the helmet once more, so his gauntlets cradled his head as protection. A few minutes later, they were out of the village, and the mob had lost interest in tormenting a sad, ugly creature that didn't even have the decency to fight back.
The Phantom had felt strong conviction from the crowd. The sigils on his bones reacted to strong emotions and beliefs. That wasn't their main purpose, but it was a by-product that sometimes useful. The hate of the mob felt justified by each of its members, and now that they were far enough away, the Phantom felt Franz's desire to help his fellows dwindle into resignation. A large shift in worldview, much like strong devotion and conviction was easily sensed through the sigils. Franz had just realized that he would never be one of those people. The last time the Phantom encountered profound sadness such as this was when he had extricated his body from the armor or what was left of it. The two of them walked through birch trees adorned with fiery leaves that shielded rough tombstones from the harsh sunlight. The sun supplied just enough light to ignite the red color over their heads as they venture further into the meadow.
Franz slowly walked to one side and knelt down. The morning light fell on the upper half of his face emblazing his brown eyes into crimson beacons of regret. Tears ran down his cheeks. His fingers closed around the small bow with shattering force. The loud snap interrupted the gentle chirping around them. He lay the broken bow beneath the gravestone with a trembling hand, the ends of his mouth quivering.
"I did it, Adel. I got him back for killing you," armored fingers dug into the soft earth. "I'm so sorry you died protecting a worthless person like me, but don't worry, I made sure he paid for what he did."
His shoulders shook, and his head slumped forward. Droplets fell without a sound on his clutching hands.
"You'd never wish for violence on anyone, probably even the man who killed you, but after I tried to help the village and got hit by rocks for it, I finally understand how different and amazing you really were. Everyone just wants to hit and hurt others, be on top, and give orders. But you weren't like that, and now you're gone because of me."
Franz stood up, pulling his hands to wipe his face, and stopped midway. Inspecting the dirt on them for a moment, he then wiped away the tears, leaving dark streaks around his cheeks.
"Goodbye," he breathed out, then turned to the Phantom who pointed with the hilt of the sword towards the mountain on the horizon.
Franz nodded, trails of anguish still visible on his cheeks, and shuffled in the indicated direction. The trek through the dense forest was like a lazy walk through the field on a lazy afternoon. Every hour or so, Franz would look back and check on the Phantom, who seemed on edge somehow. Now, near dusk, the sword was at the ready for an attack.
"Halt," the Phantom ordered. "We shall rest here for the night. You gather firewood and start a fire."
Franz followed orders and began to search while daylight remained. When he gathered enough, he returned to find an already assembled ring of stones. The Phantom was sitting with its back to a nearby tree, sword at the over his knees. Franz tried to pay no attention to the blade as he started the fire with a flint found inside a pocket of the bandit-appropriated clothes. A calm flame soon burned, its light extended only to the sword in the Phantom's lap. Gleaming edges ready to fly at Franz at any moment. He tried to back away further, but the tree he leaned against refused to move.
"Why did you take those men to the forest?" the Phantom voice sounded like the dark trees themselves spoke.
"I hoped there was a knight living there. Over the years, I've heard sound of metal hitting metal and always imagined it to be a sword fighter training or fighting off bandits."
As soon as he spoke, embarrassment spread its heat through his cheeks.
"And what if there was no one?"
"I had a knife ready," Franz wiggled his hand behind the breastplate and got out the knife he'd hidden, "but if there was no one, they weren't going to let me go, so I was going to surprise one of them and...kill them."
Convictions of the days past swirled in his mind. Determination to take at least one bandit down, to strike against the village tormentors, those that had stolen even the sliver of a chance for a normal life from him. Hot tears clawed their way to his eyes but were quickly incinerated by anger.
"I see you've realized killing isn't so easy," the Phantom said as Franz struggled to keep his face from showing emotion. "The armor makes it almost mundane, you touch them, and it does the rest. But the man with the bow, you killed that man out of anger. I felt it from across the room. What did he do exactly?"
The Phantom's incorporeal voice spread through Franz's mind with judgemental connotations.
"What's it to you? He's dead now anyway," Franz said through grit teeth, doing his best not to sound belligerent.
"Just trying to determine if what we did at your village was justice or simple slaughter," the Phantom tapped his left ring finger on the blade. "I would like to hear the whole story as it happened so I can make my judgment." The Phantom's words conveyed a request, but his tone left no room for defiance.
A chill not caused by the late hour scurried across Franz's skin. He gripped the plates of armor on his thighs and began reciting the story of how he lost his family.
"I was born frail and not the kind of frail you can cure by eating well or exercising. Something was wrong with my leg for as long as I've been alive. I was the second child, my sister, Adel, the firstborn. She told me stories about father, how he used to smile a lot when I was born, even though there was something wrong with me, he hoped I would get better with time." Franz paused a moment to weather the pain of memories.
Swallowing the lump of past events stuck in his throat, he continued.
"But I never did, and when I was about five years old, our mother passed away after a very bad harvest. She was giving me her portion of food, hoping that I would get better, but all I did was eat her life away. All the sacrifice she made was for a worthless piece of trash like me," Franz spoke the words, staring into the peaceful flames, the sadness he'd kept tucked away bubbled out of him like dark oil. "One day, my father tried to wake her up, but she had died during the night. From that day on, my father didn't speak to me very much, and I tried to avoid him as much as possible. He and my sister would eat dinner, and I would wait for them to go to bed before eating what was left."
Franz released his thighs and pushed his knees up to his chin. He cradled his shins and continued.
"Adel was the last treasure we had, so father did everything to protect her and keep her well-fed, so she could grow up strong and find a good husband," his voice became quiet like the soft rustle of grass, "but I was stupid and got in the way. One day I was feeling so sad and useless that I went to the fields and started working. I needed to do something, even if it was the smallest thing in the world, if it could help her the tiniest bit, it was worth my pain. Around noon, Adel came running from the village, trampling through the potato rows I'd planted. When she reached me, she told me father had been killed by some bandits who were going after all the men in the village. Someone had told them I was working here, and she rushed over to warn me. She shoved my shoulders and told me to run. I tried, I really did." Franz gasped for air as the terrible memory clutched his throat.
"She grabbed me under the arm and started to haul me to the road, but Skova and his men came before we could get out. They got their arrows ready and told my sister to run. They hollered at her, promising to treat her nice if she didn't resist. She didn't stop for a moment and continued to drag me. As they shot, she stood in front of me and pushed us both down," his eyes bulged as his lips turned into a thin, pale line. "They hit her with four arrows in the back, and two went through her leg and into mine. She told me to stay down and not to move then she couldn't take a breath anymore," Franz put hands on his face, eyes peering at the fire through spread fingers. "Her blood was all over me, and soon she became cold. Really, really cold and heavy. I'm so weak that I almost couldn't move her. The arrowhead that went through her got stuck in my leg and that's why I could barely walk, and everyone called me a cripple."
"Regrettable," the Phantom nodded his head, "that's why you took so much frustration out on that Skova person." The exhaustion in the Phantom's voice could fill the space from their cozy fire to the moon in the skies.
"What a base creature inhabits the most dangerous item in the world," as if propped up by sadness, he stood up and took a step towards Franz.
"Base?" Franz shook his head. "What does that mean?"
"It means corrupt, selfish, or insignificant," the Phantom lectured as he stepped into the fire. "Take your pick."
"Hey, wait," Franz put his hands up as a shield and tried to slide up.
The Phantom's sword lurched. It hit Franz's neck with a pacified thud. Light enveloped the blade. Cascading down, it cradled Franz and the Phantom in a soothing, protective embrace.
"Almighty," the Phantom dropped the sword and knelt inside the fire, both of his fists touching the ground outside the stone ring.
The fire did burn his clothes or try to climb up towards his skull. "You would extend your divine protection towards such a lowly creature?"
The light pulsed, and Franz did not know how, but he understood some kind of communication was happening. The light's embrace was comforting, much like the early years of his life when both his mother and father were alive. The brilliance filled his heart with joy as if he was spending a happy afternoon with his family. Another exchange followed, this time, Franz was included in the conversation. He saw the summit of a nearby mountain and the fiery tongues that erupted from its black scorched top. A request, not a command, was given to both of them.
Take the armor and plunge it into the molten rock where it will not have a chance to be claimed and spread its evil, corrupting tendrils.
Franz didn't know what tendrils were and so was given an image of a creature with a frightful head that lived in a vast pool of water. Eight long, squirming appendages helped it skid across a sandy underwater depth. Another pulse of light delivered a message only for the Phantom.
"I will humbly fulfill your request, Peacemaker," the Phantom bowed his head out of the flame, his iron helm touching the ground.
The light withdrew, and the fire roared. Growing intensity, it engulfed the Phantom's body. Its fury threatened to blind Franz, so his armored forearms protected his eyes. Darkness reclaimed its territory moments later. Lowering his arms, Franz saw the Phantom had changed. Where the scarecrow-thin, barely human silhouette had stood was now a figure comprised of luminous muscles. Shoulders too broad to walk through an inn's door and arms thick as bull's legs gripped the Phantom's sword. The clothes he wore now looked like rags unfit to even be in the presence of the man barely contained within their peasant confines. The Phantom did a few practice swings with his sword, nodding with satisfaction.
"Excellent. The Peacemaker's divine power is wasted on an impure and insignificant disciple, but beacons have no right to complain, I suppose."
After uttering those cryptic words, the Phantom bowed his head low and pushed the hilt of his sword to his, now enormous, chest.
"I will not fail in this task, Great One."
"What was that? What happened to us?" Franz asked, not able to stop his erratic blinks.
The blade hitting his throat still kept his muscles paralyzed.
"Do priests not teach you anything about the benevolent Peacekeeper?" the Phantom's deep, pleasant voice came out of his mouth, and Franz glued himself to the tree.
"Uhm, priests don't come out as far as the outskirts anymore," Franz said putting his hand on his chest trying to steady his breathing but only meeting the solid breastplate.
"Impossible," the Phantom said with condescension as smooth and deadly as the blade he'd just sheathed. "It is their holy duty to enlighten each and every citizen of the Holy Empire. They should have sent soldiers to combat those bandits too."
"Well, they never did," Franz stood his round and raised his voice. "I already told you, no one comes as far as the outskirts. My father told me that the land was better when my grandfather and great-grandfather worked it, but now it's barely enough to keep us alive."
The Phantom rubbed his palms together as if trying to start a fire. His feet threatened to form a new path on the ground he paced.
"The Empire must've shrunk after I took the armor away and used the sigils to free my body," the Phantom voiced his thoughts. "Well, at least that explains your blasphemous attitude when we first met."
Franz didn't know what blasphemous meant, and since there was no divine power to provide explanation, he judged by the Phantom's tone that it wasn't a nice, human characteristic to have.
"Sorry about that," the Phantom made a sound like wind rushing through decaying buildings, which Franz took for a cough. "It was not my intention to insult you. In fact, you should feel extremely honored. Priests would consider you blessed, because, well, because you have been." The Phantom stretched his arms wide in a gesture radiating an older sibling's approval.
"You received divine mandate from the Almighty Peacemaker, the Lightgiver and defender of all life," the Phantom knelt again and with spread arms, bowed his forehead low to the ground. "My journey seems to be nearing its end, and I have you to thank..."
The Phantom stood up and dusted off his clothes, then did the unpleasant wind coughing sound.
"I'm ashamed to admit I haven't asked your name. My apologies," he extended his free hand towards Franz.
"Franz," the words flowed out of his mouth with the speed of a tired bird.
"Pleasure to be in God's service with you, Franz," the Phantom pulled his arm close, the hilt of his sword resting atop his heart like a holy seal, then bowed with practiced grace.
"You're confused, I see. Speaking plainly, what just happened was we spoke with our guardian deity. A shaper and wielder of limitless power. The almighty and divine Peacemaker!"
The Phantom's sigils glowed like a solitary flame in a dark room. His clothes rippled from the light's might. The armor reacted, moving Franz closer. Still in awe from the sight, he absentmindedly resisted, but the armor didn't listen, continuing to inch him forward. Franz looked up at the sky and remembered the radiant embrace, safe and warm as if full of bottomless compassion. The memory filled his being with hope and courage for the future.
All across his skin, the metal encasing him pierced flesh, biting through blood and bone right into his soul. There it found the fading ember of the event and sunk its cold teeth into it. Franz held onto the feelings, struggling against the darkness trying to pry the last piece of faith he had. After much strife, the immutable shadow gripped the precious little positivity he had and snatched it away. His consciousness was thrown back into reality like a discarded piece of trash. Franz was back where he started, kneeling on the ground, robbed of everything and powerless to do anything about it.
"The agony you feel right now is how the armor's purpose was corrupted. With a small twist on the Litghgiver's work, the instrument of peace was turned into a weapon of despair. Before I received the armor, it was a simple tool, which took in the grace of God that resides in all living things and amplified the user's abilities. All the Darkweaver had to do was stop the armor's inhibition, making it so that all the grace you managed to stoke inside yourself was never enough. It kept on draining more and more until you were gone." The Phantom's makeshift mask quaked with the anger in his voice.
Franz didn't understand half of what he heard. All he knew was that something wrong was done to him, something irrevocable and malicious. The emptiness inside Franz was so vast that even tears did not come to comfort him. Looking up, he saw the Phantom standing over him. A gloved hand patted his head. The gentle gesture conveyed camaraderie, which no words could ever express. The Phantom had experienced the exact same things as Franz and was the only living being that could understand with painful familiarity.
"You get used to it," the Phantom said, his voice colored by crushing understanding.
Removing his hand, he walked back to his initial position and sat back down.
"If you don't want to be devoured, you have to pour your whole heart into believing in God's power, so the armor doesn't eat your flesh," the Phantom paused for a moment, his mask shifting as if the coming words would leave a bad taste in his dead mouth, "just your hope."
Franz blinked a few times against the prospect of endless suffering.
"How long would I have to that for?" he asked, even though the terrible answer lurked inside his tired mind.
"Until you die," the Phantom replied as he plunged the sword into the ground in front of him, grabbing its hilt with both hands. "Now try and get some sleep. I'll feed the armor for now so that you can recover enough to hold out the rest of the way."
Franz set his back against the tree and looked at the flame. His mind reeled from the events of the last day. The shadowy trees around them appeared to almost bend down towards him, aiming to make him sleep a final, endless dream. He fell asleep, moments after thinking he couldn't possibly rest in such a dire situation.
A wink of rest later, the Phantom called out. "Get up. Dawn is here, and you've rested enough. From now on, I will take the lead. Your job is to not fall asleep while that thing drags you."
Franz blinked his eyes and opened his mouth to ask a question, but the armor cut him off by standing up on its own. The Phantom was exuding the power he called grace, and the armor followed with the eagerness of a street dog about to receive scraps. Franz tried to pull away or move on his own, but the armor did not budge. The Phantom took a step, and so did it. The complete loss of autonomy ticked off Franz much more than he expected. He tried to do as instructed last night and remember his encounter with the light. His body relaxed and grew a little bit lighter. The power he was able to generate was nowhere near what he had managed last night, and so the armor did not react, did not relent, and, most odd of all, did not feed. Franz suspected the Phantom knew he wouldn't be able to generate enough grace and be travel-ready, so that's why he created this grace leash to string him along. Gritting his teeth and swallowing the barbed words he was about to speak, Franz let himself be pulled forward.
The trees soon thinned, and they stepped out of the forest, finding themselves at the foot of a mountain. The same mountain they saw in the vision last night. The Phantom began climbing, hauling Franz up.
"Why were we sent here?" Franz asked as the incline became steeper.
"I was always headed to the cracked mountain," the Phantom replied in with a flat, distracted tone.
"I've heard people call it that, but I don't know why. Do you have any idea?" Franz latched to the idea of conversation so desperately that it was embarrassing.
The Phantom said nothing for a few moments. Franz's head plopped on the edge of the breastplate, the thought of more hours spent in silence dejected him beyond measure.
"It is called that because the summit, which means the very top, is like a giant hole from which liquid rock spills out from time to time."
Franz was thankful that the explanation was simple enough so even he could understand it. Smiling, he realized that he was much closer to the Phantom. The path up wasn't hard enough to warrant such closeness. His eyes grew wide as the armor leaped for the Phantom, who deftly moved out of the way, drawing his sword.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Franz tried to shake his hands in front of him to emphasize his sincerity, but the armor stood crouched and ready for another pounce. "I'm not doing this!"
"I know," the Phantom's ethereal voice boomed, and he lunged forward.
The armor moved to block the blow with the gauntlets. After the blade struck, the Phantom moved to the side and using the heel of his foot spun around Franz to strike from the side. The armor used one hand to block a decapitating blow. The Phantom jumped back and leveled the sword to Franz's head.
"I'll try to make it up to the summit without killing you," he said as his clothes began to shine, the light from his sigils permeating the cloth, turning it gold. "If I do not succeed, you have my deepest apologies."
The Phantom attacked again and then dashed back. The armor followed, its metal rubbed Franz's skin like grinding teeth. More strikes followed from the Phantom, this time strong enough for the armor to pause and use the grace it had absorbed to regenerate. The air began to get thinner, and Franz had a hard time breathing. The Phantom's glow increased again, and the following slash broke the armor's breastplate. As the light dimmed, Franz saw the Phantom had become somehow smaller. The armor was beside itself with delight. It made Franz kneel down like a wild animal, then attacked again. This time it kept in close proximity to the Phantom, feeding off grace even when not striking. The Phantom's slashes became weaker, and Franz started to see things in his head. Pictures of a past life, memories of a devout man. A man named Leon.
The man had trained to be a holy warrior. The priests had taught him how to harness the grace of God from within himself and channel it in service of those weaker and unable to defend themselves. Leon donned the armor, and his battles against the champion of darkness began. Wherever the black void spread, Leon was there to push it back. With every victory, his grace became stronger. Soon, he was a person who could tip the scales in a godly battle. That was something the dark god could not allow, and so a plan was set in motion. A plan that would see the champion of the dark god sacrifice himself. His malice and death, the final ingredients needed for the armor of hope to be altered. An artifact created by the Peacemaker was not something that could be influenced easily and even then not by much, but the Darkweaver never worked in broad strokes. Thus, the armor's base quality was altered so it would render the Peacemaker's champion useless. With both champions removed from the board, the game could begin again.
Franz saw all of this, and at the same time, he always saw the approaching summit. The further up they went, the harder it was for Franz to breathe. Each breath of his was now yanked out of his chest. As the air grew thinner, the Phantom's strikes continued to rain down. Another flash of memories filled his mind.
Leon had returned a bigger hero than before. He had defeated evil! Parades and banquets followed, and as the grace inside him grew smaller, the armor began to feed on everyone who had been close. Leon did not notice this until he tried to take the thing off the following day. Trying to remove a piece of it made it cling to his skin tighter. Leon pulled with all his might, separating the top layer of his skin in the attempt. The armor responded by biting down on Leon's soul and depleting his grace. He panicked and locked himself in his chambers. In the following weeks, he experimented with how he fed the armor. Some days he used grace, some days, he used his flesh. Grace was best as it could be generated again, and even though its loss was heartbreaking, his flesh wasn't something he could grow back. The experiments concluded, and Leon went out to meet his friends and family. As he spoke to them, he felt the armor begin to pull grace from every available source, so Leon kept his visits brief. He only wanted to see them one last time before he set out to do what he had to. Cracked mountain was what they called the volcano, and that was where he was going to head. Leaving a note not to be followed, he relinquished all of his connections and ventured into the wilderness.
Franz's forearms rose in front of his face, and he felt a hit push his whole body back. The fight had taken them almost all the way to the summit. Leon, the Phantom, had been depleted. His clothes flapped with the hollow sound of fabric hitting bone instead of brilliant muscles bestowed from God. Leon's battle strategy had changed to nimble movements again. He jumped in the air and slammed the sword on top of Franz's head. The armor's helmet took the blow, but Franz was thrown backward in time again.
Leon went into secluded areas and began to work on a way to free himself from the armor. Before leaving, he had taken ancient text in which he hoped to find the answer. Reading through them, he found explanations on holy sigils that could be used as storage for grace. Mastering the sigils, he began to use them on his body, but as he did, the armor took its chance to feast from his flesh. The race to see who would prevail began, and Leon came out the winner at the highest price imaginable. His body had been stripped down to its bones on which the shining sigils rested. Leon finally managed to shed the armor and observed the pile of armor on the ground, lifeless and still at long last. The triumph was short-lived as piece by piece, in a slow and laborious manner, the armor reformed itself in the shape of a person. Leon's skinless face could no longer express the horror with which he watched an abomination that needed no one to operate it stumble towards him, drawn by the grace in his sigils. He quickly grabbed his sword and fought the armored phantom. Each time he struck, the armor fed on the grace that leaked out as he moved his body. Leon quickly realized that he would whittle away if he continued fighting like this. He needed a change of strategy. After some trial and error, he settled on using small bursts of grace to move in the needed direction, the same applying to his attacks. Only using the bare minimum, allowed Leon to turn the flow in his favor. The small change in fighting technique took him more than a hundred years to master. Hundred years which took him from forest, to ruin, to long-forgotten graveyards. The slow trickle of grace led the armor after Leon, and soon he was able to battle it to exhaustion. With its power depleted, the armor would crumble to the ground and stay like that for a long time. While in that state, it would feed on any manner of living thing, be it passing animals or even the growing grass and nearby trees. When it was ready again, it would rise again, but so would Leon. And like that, they moved across the centuries in the direction of a scorched black mountaintop.
Sharp pain brought Franz back to the fight. They were now at the summit, black smoke drifting around them. Something trickled down his stomach. Looking down, he saw Leon's blade embedded in his flesh. The confusion of two overlapping realities was too much for Franz. He did feel the pain but was powerless against it. He was powerless to do anything really, so he decided to give up. His resignation was so strong that the armor was confused for a moment. Leon pulled the blade and severed one of Franz's legs. Falling down, Franz witnessed another slash go through the other leg. Each time the blade cut through him, a warmth passed through the wound. Looking down, he saw the heat meant his wounds were seared closed. Leon dropped the sword and raised his hand up. An iridescent bolt of grace shimmered into existence then slammed down into Franz's shoulder, pinning him down. Leon's whole arm went limp as the sigils there disappeared. He raised his other hand, and another bolt appeared. This one he slammed into Franz's other shoulder. The armor thrashed on the ground and tried to get free, the crystallized grace keeping it pinned in place. Both gleaming arm sigils were now gone.
"This is as far as I go, Franz," Leon said, his voice sounded as if he spoke from the heavens themselves. "You have to complete the journey by yourself." Kneeling down, Leon straddled the armor, leaned in, and put his forehead against Franz's.
"Always remember," Leon's undead voice was like the distant rumble of a rockfall, "that only those with good hearts can use the grace of God. Those who do good are never unsightly."
The words died down, and Leon disappeared. The bones he inhabited fell on top of Franz like a pile of sticks. The armor continued to thrash, launching Leon's remains all around. Franz tried and succeeded in lifting his arms as the armor was too busy trying to eat the bolts inserted into it. Leon had left the bolts there for another purpose, and Franz knew just what that was. He gripped the light in both hands, and the grace liquefied, then moved along his arms to his shoulders. Rejoicing, the armor started to subsume the feast. With his arms under his control, Franz grabbed the rocky ground and dragged himself slowly towards a nearby ravine that spewed heat and black smoke. Each pull brought more heat and less air to breathe. Eyes and throat in agony, Franz dragged himself closer, determination not to be powerless growing. The precipice glowed red, the heat it gave off made Franz pass out several times, but finally, he was there. The place where his life would end, black and hot like the embers of a burning home. Franz had no more breaths to take, so he drew himself on the ground one final time, falling over the edge into the waiting, red maw.
The heat burned away his lips and nose then boiled his eyes. There was no pain anymore, only a fast-approaching resolution. His body lurched to a stop just as his mind began to dim. The gentle embrace from last night seized him. His eyes had healed, and he opened them to see a cone of power falling from the sky cradle him in midair. The heat and noxious air were gone, and so was the armor. Franz looked back and saw a creature with gaunt features inhabiting the armor. It had no lips, nose, or mouth. Franz realized the pitiful creature had been him moments ago. He had died in the armor, but the Peacemaker had transferred his mind into this body. Moving his arms around, Franz saw muscles where there had been none and legs. He now had legs! Moving his brand new hands over his healthy legs filled his heart to never imagined heights. The Peacemaker's power receded, and Franz landed down with a gentle sway. Quickly getting away from the deadly fumes, he gathered all the bones of Leon he could carry and ran to the edge of the summit. Taking a few breaths of somewhat clean air, he went back and got the rest of Leon. With the remains of the holy warrior and his sword, Franz began his trek to the Empire's capital.
After reaching his destination, Franz apprenticed for a blacksmith and then studied the art of metallurgy. He never spoke to the clerics about his encounter with Leon or what had happened. Ingratiating himself with the Holy Church, he dutifully worked to get their recognition, and once that was achieved, he requested the chance to create a monument. A monument to the ultimate champion of God. Franz called his recent fascination with Leon divine inspiration, hoping his white lie wouldn't prompt swift retribution from the Peacemaker. No bolts of lightning came, and Franz finished his work successfully, placing it on a small, lush hill at the outskirts of the city. There it stands to this day, a gray pedestal on which a lion sits, beneath its feet a masterful "replica" of Leon's sword and the words:
"The lionheart of the empire."
Each year on the day of the battle that decided the fate of the world, the monument always enjoys a bright day in the sun. Rays of light fall on the hero's sword and make it shine with the fervor of champions past.