The Hanged Man is a tavern like any other tavern on Erden. Scruffy. Smoke filled. Bordering on the smelly. Certainly very dangerous for anyone who has naively assumed it is safe to visit unarmed. Unusually, the tavern is quiet for a Saturday night; three known cut throats have already settled down for an uncharacteristic game of Snap. A gaggle of reptilian Shadwallows, fresh from a BloodHunt and anxious for more of the same, sit muttering in a dark corner over their beer. The mood of these blood-thirsty creatures swings from nervous to fearful, their eyes darting anxiously towards the figure drinking at the bar, her back to them.
Even the regulars, such as Old Man One Hand, are subdued. And if you were stupid enough to ask just why the tavern is not in the middle of its usual Saturday night scrimmage, you would not find one person who would blame Rourke of the Radlands, currently standing at the bar and glowering at a nervous landlord, for the silence.
Standing at over six foot, Rourke peered over her own tankard at the trembling barman, her beer glass empty. “More, and make it snappy,” she barked, slamming the vessel onto the wooden bar while pushing a swathe of unruly bright red hair back away from her face. Then she fingered the handle of the ancient sword at her side, her eyes never leaving the barman’s face. “I’ve had a good day today – don’t spoil it with your usual poor service!”
Hoofer, who had lived at least sixty-five years and knew full well the easiest ways to ensure he saw his sixty-sixth, hurriedly filled the glass and pushed it nervously towards his best, but most dangerous, customer. “A g-g-good day, you say…” he stammered. “J-j-just how good?”
“See this?” Rourke thrust the lapel of her Shadwallow skin jacket under the barman’s nose. “That’s uniqueek, that is.”
The unique item glinted in the poor light from the tallow candles strung across the room above them; something round, inscribed with curious symbols. If Hoofer could have read twentieth century English, he would have recognised it instantly; but in this wasted world, this dying Earth run ragged by man-made and natural disaster, he could but marvel at Rourke’s find, wondering at the power of the ancient runes, carved three hundred years hence. Created at a time, it was said, when man lived in glass towers and sprawling cities; when he could fly with wings made of steel, and see visions in his own home with the aid of a glass box.
I AM 3
It’s beautiful,” Hoofer muttered, marvelling at the badge.
“The Magicians will barter their souls for this,” the she-warrior grinned.
“The magicians use dark powers,” came an urgent voice from Rourke’s side. “They will destroy us all!”
Rourke turned slowly, trying to locate the source of such a miserable prediction in the dingy half-light of the tavern. Then she looked down and snorted at Gandarf, the dwarven house thief. The bearded oaf was dressed in ancient, stinking animal skins draped over his impossibly fat frame; he wore odd boots and an assortment of pouches hung ’round his waist. There was a large and bulging sack lying on the floor at his feet, tied to his belt for safety from light fingered regulars. Gandarf hadn’t even looked up when he made his announcement. He just continued drinking his ale, staring at his mouldy boots like a man who had seen his own death and was resigned to its happening.
“Dark powers? The magicians are nothing but men like ourselves!” laughed Rourke.
At this, even Gandarf looked at Rourke, then up and down her muscled frame. It was clear to him that where Rourke came from, men were made very differently. “Karvak the Mad has killed two men at a distance in the last three nights!î he snapped. ìHe almost felled me with his power! Tell me that is not some arcane magic, warrior. Tell me it does not strike you with fear!”
Rourke lifted up her ale and poured it over Gandarf’s head, laughing even more. “That’s what I think of Karvak’s ‘arcane magic’ and your stories,” she said. “Hoofer! Another drink – and one for the dwarf, too!”
“Don’t mock me!” shouted Gandarf, stamping his foot, clearly furious and obviously not worried at all worried by the possible consequences of insulting Rourke, even when she was in one of her good moods. He was alone in this sudden display of courage. The Shadwallows moved even further into the shadows in their corner, mindful of the last time someone had challenged the she-warrior and the subsequent loss of their seven nest brothers in the resulting scrimmage. The cut throats quietly put down their cards, finished their drinks and stole out into the night. “That magician has real power,” Gandarf spoke again. “The power to strike a man dead at forty paces with just one look. He has consulted the ancients – plundered terrible secrets from the graves of the Great Ones and found a magic wand. His power is unimaginable and terrible to behold!”
“Tell me your story, dwarf,” said Rourke, suddenly interested, handing Gandarf the drink she’d ordered. “There could be some value to it.”
“If you value your life, you’ll leave this town and flee the magician’s power,” whispered the dwarf, settling into his story, his words slow and ponderous, taunting his audience as the craned forward to listen to him.
“It started with Old Pekuliar. He tried to rob Karvak’s house, you see and although me and the rest of the Guild told him it was wrong’ – (Rourke coughed loudly in her beer at this, pondering how much of a story that cast Landan’s Thieves Guild as honest men could be true), “he wouldn’t be told.
“Well, just as he was coming out of the third storey window of the magician’s house there was a crash of thunder across the sky and lightning hit him. He dropped like a stone, blasted by the wand’s power – dead as a turtle! And there wasn’t a mark on his body… except for the smashed bones, and the blood gushing from where his head had split open when he hit the ground, of course.”
“What’s a turtle?” asked the youngest Shadwallow of its older nest mate from the corner of the room. “Be quiet,” hissed the other. “Do you want to annoy her? Haven’t you seen her jacket? Can’t you work out how many of our kind it must have taken to make it?”
“Be quiet! I’m listening to the story!”
“It was raining when Fragstaff went over Karvak’s wall,” Gandarf continued. “He was bold, he was – went through the back door without a second thought! Then he came back through it, staggering like a mad thing. He sort of… crumpled to the floor, a stupid look on his face -”
“Just like Fragstaff to have a stupid look on his face in death,” murmured Rourke. “He was born an idiot and died one, too!”
“I haven’t told you what happened to his partners, yet.”
“Shenvar and Leaper. Shenvar was stealing the magician’s horse. Karvak pointed his wand at him and Snap! His head was gone, just like that.”
“I don’t believe in magic,” hissed Rourke. But her face told a different story now, paling slightly as a chill ran down her body…
“Leaper made a run for it of course, but the magician came after him,” Gandarf continued. ‘He never stood a chance against that sort of power. I’m told they found him cut in two, bleeding to death and screaming to be put out of his misery!” “Fairy stories!” snorted Rourke, downing her second beer.
“This isn’t a story!” snapped Gandarf, his high-pitched tone insistent and tinged with more than a little fear. “People are always trying to steal from the magician. I – a friend of mine tried it last night…”
The “friend’ had been more cautious than his predecessors. He watched the house for a day and a night, studying the pattern to the magician’s movements. Up at dawn, exercising in his yard, ancient bones cracking at the command of some unseen person that was speaking in tongues from the back door – no doubt some ancient ritual designed to focus the magician’s formidable powers.
Mid-morning: the friend saw Karvak at an upstairs window, consuming some dark steaming fluid from an ancient device, an elixir of some kind.
Midday – and the magician held up two square pieces of mouldy bread to the sun from his rooftop, and shouted the well-known enchantment to ward off hunger “Elevenses!” then consumed them in greedy gulps.
Mid-afternoon: and another strange voice whispered from the eaves of the magician’s lair, an excited, happy voice of unknown language, speaking in words Gandarf – the friend, he meant to say – could not understand.
It was late in the evening when all the lights in Karvak’s house went out and Gandarf made his move. A makeshift ladder made of precious oakwood leaned against the side of the house, and he was in through a second storey window, one small candle to light the thief’s way in the building. Strange shapes of ancient things, meaningless to the dwarf were scattered around the room – some that looked like suits of armour, filled with wires and bulbs of glass, but too heavy to move. Ancient paper books – worth a fortune, but only to other magicians who could read them, and they would kill anyone who tried to sell them to a fellow mage. And other things…
Hastily, the friend picked up smaller objects, stuffing them into an old sack – tokens and talismans from the Radlands, clawed from blackened soil by Karvak himself or a Scavenger such as Rourke at his command. Each one would earn him a fortune…
— and then one of them squeaked.
It was a cry Gandarf had never heard before, a plaintive wail like a child pulled from its mother at feeding. He stopped still, hoping against hope that he had not been heard. But to his dismay, the room suddenly filled with light from above, blinding him for an instant. And in that instant the magician was at the inner door of the room, his powerful wand pointing directly at Gandarf’s heart.
“I don’t think I was expecting you,” hissed Karvak. Gandarf didn’t waste a second. he dived out through the window, sack in tow, tumbling in mid-air so as to land on the roof of the back yard stable. Thunder cracked behind him, but he lived! The gods had spared him!
“I barely escaped with my life,” muttered Gandarf in the pub, raising his glass to his mouth, looking fearful as he remembered events.
“Escaped? You haven’t escaped yet, mortal!” came a rasping voice from the door of the tavern.
Every living thing turned as one to the doorway, drawing back at the sight of the arch magician Karvak, moonlight shilouetting him from the outside. He was an imposing figure, even for his great age; emaciated but tall, his eyes burning like coals, his long matted black hair moving slightly as it was caught by a brief gust of wind. Dressed in a voluminous cape of unknown origin, his clothes were covered with peculiar runes, his belt laden with many strange metal objects that jangled as he moved. A square metal object with a piece of broken glass pushed into the front of it hung round his neck on a thong, swinging from side to side as he slowly, deliberately, walked into the room.
Gandarf backed away, trying to hide behind Rourke, pushing his sack with him as he moved. “It’s him! Help me!” he shouted, terrified, his face sweating with fear.
“No-one will help you, dwarf!” screamed the magician. “Just as no one helps me in my quests for ancient knowledge, for power.
“Do you know how many times I journey into the Burning Desert to find the secrets I must have?” Karvak raged, shaking a wizened fist at the cowering dwarf. “Do you have any idea how much knowledge I have found there? And the price I have paid?”
“N-no…” stuttered Gandarf.
“Of course not, fool. And you never will. Because I share my secrets with no-one!”
With a flourish, the magician reached into his cape and pulled out something that gleamed dully in the tallow candlelight. He raised it and pointed the strange object at Gandarf, squeezing some part of the device in the same movement.
There was a crack of thunder and Gandarf fell backwards, his chest a mess of exposed innards. Rourke caught the dying dwarf in her arms, shocked at the suddenness of his passing.
“See…” muttered Gandarf, the life oozing from him like the blood that ran down his wrecked body, “I told you…. magic….”
With that he was gone. One more corpse in a dying world. Rourke dropped him, gently to the floor. Angered at the death, but more by the wizard’s gleeful cackling as he revelled in the success of his arcane device, the warrior stood, and reached for the sword at her side. “I would have your wand, magician,” she said angrily through gritted teeth.
“You can try and take it, scum!” shouted a jubilant, cackling Karvak, raising the wand in her direction now.
“Such magic is not for weaklings like you,” Rourke returned, drawing her sword and advancing on the wizened figure, a determined look on her face.
“You’re wrong, Rourke of the Radlands,” cracked Karvak, his hand steady as he pointed his wand at the warrior, an evil look crossing his face. ìIt is very much for me, very much indeed!” Rourke stopped, preparing to jump to one side to avoid whatever blast of power the device would fire.
There was a dull click and the magazine of the ancient Colt .45 span to its next chamber, empty and useless. Karvak looked at his “wand’ and went white.
“Oh crap,” muttered the mage under his breadth as Rourke’s sword sliced towards him. Desperately, he began digging into one of the pockets of his voluminous cape, but he knew he was too late, even as his fingers closed on one of the precious bullets he’d found with the gun.
“Your magic has deserted you, magician!” the swordswoman shouted triumphantly.
“Oh bugger, oh s*** –” squealed the mage, as his head separated from his body, his ancient secrets, his ancient powers no use against Rourke’s cold steel. His body dropped to the floor, strange objects spinning from deep pockets, grabbed by eager Shadwallow hands as they skittered across the wooden floor into the dark corners of the tavern.
After searching the mage’s body for booty – and finding plenty – Rourke kicked it out of the tavern door and returned to the bar, wiping her blade on a quickly offered towel.
“Another tankard, Hoofer,” she snapped, cautiously poking at Gandarf’s sack with her sword, wondering what the dwarf had stolen to bring the magician so angrily from his lair. There was another squeak from the sack as she prodded it, a horrifying wail of high-pitched sound.
“Demons!” screamed the barman, drawing back from the sack, quivering with cold fear. The Shadwallows broke for the door, terrified at such a possibility and anxious to get as far as possible form Rourke’s sword arm.
Rourke reached into the sack, ignoring the flurry of activity around her. Her hands closed on something soft and furry. Could it be? Cautiously, her sword still drawn, she pulled the object from the sack and grinned with pleasure.
It was small, with arms and legs only half covered in fur and one eye was missing. But for a three hundred year old cuddly teddy bear, it was unusually well preserved…
Readers’ Note: This story first appeared as a comic strip in Strip #4 for Marvel UK. The characters remain copyright © John Freeman & Liam Sharp. Rourke currently lives on in something called WarWorldz, first mooted as project in the 1990s with Alan Burrows and juice.uk