A crowd had gathered before the stage. Bjorn looked down on them with scorn. Only truly sick creatures would view executions as entertainment.
Like everything inside the Black Shard, the structure of the executioner’s stage was built out of obsidian moon rock like a short pillar rising from the stone. Atop the stage stood Bjorn, clad in his ceremonial plated armor, tall and grim with his headsman’s axe at his side. His rhino horn jutted crudely out from the tattered black hood, and the corruption in his eyes burned red from the hood’s eyeholes. The varied animals below looked upon him with a mixture of fear and respect.
Let them watch, then, Bjorn thought with a snort. Let them understand what happens to corrupted beasts that turn wild.
Three victims stood on their knees at the side of the stage, muzzled and tied with their paws and wings behind their backs. Bjorn hoped they would run—it would give him an excuse to charge. But by now everyone knew that death by axe was cleaner than death by horn.
Dark clouds and blood-red lightning scorched the sky above. Even the skies seemed corrupted here, amongst the obsidian spires and twisted magic of the Black Shard. The judge, a white-furred chimpanzee clad in dark robes, sent the first victim forth.
Trembling, the rail-thin cheetah at the front of the line of victims rose to his feet. He was wearing nothing but a loincloth, and his fur had numerous missing patches where he’d been beaten and cut. His eyes burned red, like all corrupted beasts, but it was a dull flame compared to Bjorn’s.
“Johan the Deserter,” the judge announced. There was no more formality than that when it came to executions in the Scorched Lands. No final words, no pomp and circumstance. Just a name, a crime, and an axe.
Johan flicked his red eyes at Bjorn and down again. His head was on a swivel, as though looking for a place to run.
Yes, run, Bjorn thought. Always wondered if I could outrun a cheetah.
Wisely, Johan didn’t flee. Instead, he marched slowly toward the burnt stump that acted as the headsman’s block.
“You can move quicker than that,” Bjorn grunted, lifting his massive axe and gripping it with both hands.
Fear flashed in the red of Johan’s eyes, and he picked up his pace only slightly before kneeling in front of the block and stretching his neck before it. If the corruption didn’t burn his tears away, Johan would have wept.
“You don’t got to do this,” Johan whimpered from behind his muzzle.
Bjorn showed him the same mercy that the Black Shard showed Bjorn’s friends and family. The axe fell swiftly.
Suddenly he was back in the forest that surrounded his village, felling an oak tree with his trusty silver axe. Everything was so green then—green and brown with blue above. Even his clothes were green instead of black, and his eyes brown instead of red. It was a better time.
“Timber!” he called, making the final chop. With a deafening snap, the tree broke apart and tilted before crashing down upon the earth.
“Careful!” cried his brother, Olin, who had jumped out of the way. “You’ll kill someone one of these days, you will!”
“Not unless they’re made of wood,” Bjorn laughed, clapping his brother on the shoulder.
The ground continued to rumble well after the tree landed, and the brothers ceased their laughter.
“Now what do you suppose…?” Bjorn began, until he recognized the rumbling pattern. It had a rhythm. Almost as though from an army’s march.
And it was getting nearer.
The roar of the crowd brought Bjorn back to the present. He grunted and wobbled his great black axe until he could wrench it out of the burnt and bloody wooden stump. Two robed acolytes dragged Johan’s body away. The firelight had gone out of the cheetah’s eyes as he stared up at Bjorn from the basket in front of the stump.
“Martin the Profiteer!” called the judge.
The next victim rose. He was a filthy rat with one long snaggletooth, his ruby eyes gleaming brightly. Unlike Johan, Martin showed no signs of fear.
“Why you takin’ orders from this lot?” Martin sneered as he kneeled. “Big fella like you—you could be rich. An’ I could help. I know some people who’d pay dearly for your… talents. Spare me, and we can start our own empire.” He looked up at Bjorn and grinned, his snaggletooth shining. “Wha’d’ye say?”
He’d heard such offers before. “Join the Void,” hissed a dark voice, an echo of a half-recalled memory. Bjorn pictured a skeletal crow in a dark robe making a last, desperate plea. “Combine your strength with ours. You could be feared. Honored. More powerful than you can imagine. Join us, and we will leave your lands alone.”
So many of his friends had succumbed to such offerings. Not Bjorn. He wasn’t as weak as they were. Much of his village still stood. The battle wasn’t over yet.
“Well?” asked Olin, who was standing beside him back then. “What do you think, brother?”
Bjorn raised his axe high and shouted, “Boo!”
The crow in his memory gasped—and so did Martin.
“Seems like I’m feared enough,” he chuckled.
“You what?” asked Martin. The memories of Olin and the skeletal crow faded away like wraiths.
Bjorn planted his foot on Martin’s ragged back, pressing him flat against the stump. He would never join the corrupted ones. He would not stain his honor.
He pulled his boot away and the axe fell again, drinking deeply of Martin’s wretched soul.
Again the crowd cheered. Such barbarians, Bjorn thought as the basket in front of the stump filled higher. He yanked his axe free and the acolytes carried Martin’s body away.
“Saga the Sympathizer!” the judge screamed next.
The final victim stood tall—a crane garbed in a tattered white robe. She had the dredges of corruption in her eyes, but compared to those of the beasts surrounding the stage, it was but a flicker.
“I’ve read about you, Bjorn,” she said, though her beak was muzzled. She had no fear in her expression as she approached the block. “We haven’t burned all the old books. You were a hero once. The last of your people to fall to corruption. Why did you stop resisting?”
She kneeled before the stump, placing the side of her face against it, her long neck stretched taut. Her eye was red, but Bjorn could see blue in there too. He hated the corruption. Red eyes made him furious with blood lust. But something about Saga’s eyes slowed his hand.
“Kill the sympathizer!” cried someone from the crowd.
“No mercy for traitors!”
Bjorn raised his axe. Killing corrupted beasts was the only part of his old life that remained.
“You can fight the corruption, Bjorn,” Saga said. “Not with an axe, but with compassion. Even after it has taken hold, you can still resist the corruption inside you. You can go back to the way you once were. But you have to be strong…”
“You have to be strong,” Bjorn said.
“I am strong,” Olin snarled. At the gates of the Witch Wall, his brother stood before him, eyes blazing red. Olin gripped his warhammer fiercely, ready to defend his dark master to the end.
“I’m sorry I let them take you, brother,” Bjorn said, readying his axe. Tears welled in his brown eyes. “But you can resist them. You can come back to me, and we’ll fight them side-by-side once again.”
Olin snorted. His horn had been hewn since Bjorn saw him last. “There is no going back, Bjorn,” he said. Then he lifted his hammer high and brought it down with deadly strength.
Bjorn barely defended the blow. He wasn’t looking at the hammer—only his brother’s burning eyes. Eyes that were once as green as the woods they used to live in. The woods that were now as black as the Shard itself. Bjorn had slain so many of his former friends that all he could see now were the red eyes of the enemy.
There was nothing else he could have done. When at last he dealt the killing blow to his own brother, Bjorn broke his own soul—and the Shard’s corruption seeped through the cracks. He knew immediately what Olin said was true. And he still knew it now.
He looked down at the crane woman with her neck stretched along the headsman’s block. In her eyes shone red mark of corruption that Bjorn saw in every minion of the Shard. The same mark that was now in his own eyes.
“There is no going back,” he whispered. And the axe came down.
The crowd cheered louder than ever.
-Written by Kyle Hubbard