The hammer struck the metal, sending sparks flying in the dark forge, the only light in the shadows. The smith did not need much else to see his work as he brought the hammer beat out its rhythm. Even at this early stage, as he warped the hot metal into his desired shape, one could recognize it as a sword. The steady clanging was perfectly methodical, each note ringing out at even measures.
As he worked, Vulture’s eyes began to glow an unnatural bluish-green. He reached into a cloth sack beside his station, pulling out the ground bones of the slain, tossing them into the fire. The flames leapt at the offering, burning with the same greenish hue. Vulture thrust the blade back into the fire, the tips of the fire lapping at the steel.
This blade had a purpose. Everything he made did.
The wind blew through the forge, carrying with it ghastly screams and somber memories. It broke around him, like water around a stone. Vulture drew from the spirits of the dead. He funneled their essence through him, melding it with his own. From him, it spilled into the metal of the sword.
From the corner of his eye, the bounty hunter thought he saw a dark figure. A familiar figure…
The mechanical motion of his arm stopped, his hammer pausing in mid-swing. Instantly, it was as if Vulture had been transported back to another time, another place.
Vulture…no, the boy he once rested against the shattered remains of a wall, the plaster and wood splintered by the gunfire. His leather gloves were damp with blood as he clutched the wound to his side. The bullets had grazed him badly. The buzzards were already circling overhead.
A stranger, cast in shadows, walked just on the edge of the horizon. The movements of this man seemed ever so slightly off. Vulture felt his already nauseous stomach grow sicker as he stared out towards the edge of infinity. He couldn’t take his eyes away.
The man did not seem to be getting any closer. Vulture watched him for a long time, summoning the strength to call out, but the stranger remained just on the horizon.
“Hey! Stranger, please! You got water? I’m bleedin’ bad…”
His voice was raspy to his ears and scratched his throat. The stranger just continued his walk, not reacting. The alien motions grew more pronounced. His proportions began to hurt Vulture’s eyes, though he could not explain why.
The sound of bikes came from the west, and Vulture found the strength to turn his head away from the stranger. A cloud of dust and smoke was drawing closer. Biker gangs. Vulture pulled himself to his feet, wincing in the pain. The stranger stopped. Vulture forced his boot forward, lurching forward towards the cloud. Salvation or death awaited him.
Either way, he would meet it on his feet.
The Vulture Blades MC had been his salvation. The bounty hunters had carried him back to their camp, likely to determine whether he would be worth anything. When he had recovered, they Vulture Blades had deemed him worthy of riding with them. Mounted upon his bike, riding with his pack, Vulture proved a vicious hunter. His near single-minded pursuit had caught quarry that would have otherwise slipped through their clutches.
He sat on the seat of his bike, sword on one side, rope on the other. That was the first blade had forged for himself and Vulture meant to wet it that day. The villagers of the Wastes had been terrorized by a gang of marauders, a veritable army of thugs and monsters. The people said their leader was a mutant, a hybrid created from the DNA of humans and the creatures that brought about the fall of the Old World.
The Vulture Blades MCs had ridden out, tearing across the Wastes in pursuit of the mutant raiders. With fire and steel, the bikers hounded their quarry. Soon enough, the mutants found themselves boxed in, the Vulture Blades closing in around them.
This was Vulture’s hunt. Under his foster father’s, Hammerhead’s, tutelage, Vulture had learned the traditions of the bikers and embraced them as his own. Their hunt had been successful so far, but Vulture had not been the leader. His father had organized the Vulture Blades. It was time for Vulture to prove himself a worthy student.
The engines revved as the Vulture Blades MCs raced across the sun-scorched Wastes towards the caves the mutants called home. All the trails had pointed to this being the lair of the beast himself, the monster who called himself the boss of these mutants. The motorcyclists rode down the hills, their swords raised, guns readied as they began what was the final assault. Vulture rode at the front, his newly forged sword ready to be used for its intended purpose.
The mutants spilled out from the caves, hissing and howling, throwing whatever they could at the bikers. Rocks, stones, fiery bottles of alcohol and oil, the barrage did not deter the Vulture Blades. Automatic gunfire greeted the marauders as the Vulture Blades closed in upon them.
Vulture’s sword lopped the head off of the closest mutant as he barreled into a mass of them on his bike, pointing between them as he sped up, the force knocking those nearby away and sending them flying. The sleek shape of his bike made it easy to maneuver around the lumbering hulking bodies of the marauders.
They weren’t here for the chaff, however. Hammerhead had always told Vulture it was better to bring in one live mark than ten dead ones. The pay was better. Vulture watched with a greedy eye for the boss of these thugs. The mutant leader stood near the mouth of the cave, his three arms swinging as he grabbed on the biker’s rides, ripping the wheels from the axel. Vulture had found his prey.
The bounty hunter grabbed the rope from his side. He had woven it himself, from steel fibers, carefully braided for the most strength. Even the monster would have trouble snapping this wire. Vulture rode towards the mutant leader, tossing the hook of the rope around the mutant’s arms like a lasso. Firing his engines, he pushed the bike as fast it would go, using the momentum to try to drag the boss behind him. He’d seen Hammerhead do it many times; he had even done it himself on smaller targets.
Vulture could hear the engine straining as the mutant refused to go easily. The quick speed began to decelerate. Vulture could feel his bike grow unsteady beneath him as the mutant grabbed the ropes around him and tugged back. Vulture took a tumble off the bike. It looked like this one would need to be finished with steel.
He dropped the rope, slashing across with his sword, the metal biting into the mutant’s unarmored chest and drawing out the blackest blood Vulture had ever seen. The mutant leader didn’t seem fazed even a little as he towered over Vulture, bringing all three arms down in fists that shook the ground. Vulture barely had time to roll away and the small quakes knocked him off his feet. He struggled to stand back up, thrusting his sword out to parry as he saw another fist coming his way.
The mutant leader caught the blade in his scaly, hardened fist. The blade cut, black blood dripping down it slowly as the marauder’s grip tightened around the forged metal. With horror, Vulture watched as the monster sundered his blade, the metal snapping from the sheer strength of the mutant. He had not known his prey was this strong.
Vulture heard the shouts of his men. They were trying to aid him, but as the mutants held their ground, they formed a wall around their leader. Vulture scrambled back, clutching his broken blade, using it as best he could. It was no use.
The mutant lifted Vulture up in the air, squeezing him in his large, powerful hands. Vulture could hear his ribs snap, followed shortly by several of his vertebrae as the pain shot through him. His screams were almost silent as he forced what air out of his lungs. Satisfied with his work, the mutant let Vulture drop uselessly to the ground, looking for his next target.
In the carnage of the fight, Vulture lay there, paralyzed. Blood was spilling out internally. It was growing harder and harder to breath. As Vulture tried to shout for help, he could see the Stranger approaching. The man walked through the battlefield, seeming to move almost like water around the rampaging mutants and the bikers trying to hold their own. None seemed to touch him directly.
Vulture stared up, reaching weakly with his arm. “Help…me…”
The stranger stared down, the sun behind him. Vulture couldn’t make out many of his features, but his eyes. His eyes stared down at Vulture, inhuman, darker than the night sky. Vulture could feel them drawing him in, like a hungry maw. It was as if entire universes could fit inside the stranger’s gaze.
“How badly do you want to live?”
“I can’t…stop hunting. I want to live…only if I can hunt.”
“Then close your eyes.” The stranger said, reaching out and drawing Vulture’s eyelids shut. A thousand whispers echoed inside Vulture’s head, before there was only silence and darkness.
Vulture had awoken to the sound of a hammer ringing in his head, striking an anvil with a steady beat. The stranger had done something to Vulture. His heart no longer beat. His mouth did not taste. His lungs did not breath. His skin did not feel. Vulture had wandered, pushing himself forward on foot, back to the Vulture Blades’ camps, as he always had before.
This time, it had been different. He saw his foster-father working in the open forge. Vulture approached. Rather than offer thanks one of their own had returned, the Vulture Blades looked at him without recognition. The alarm was sounded. A hunt was called.
Before Vulture even knew what was happening, the hunters attacked him. He was the beast, their quarry. Vulture reacted without thinking. He slaughtered his attackers to the man, showing no mercy as his instincts and the dark spirit inside of him pushed him ever onward. He did not see his family. He saw only prey.
By the time his senses had returned, Vulture stood in the center of the camp, surrounded by the corpses of the bikers. Not even Hammerhead had been spared. Vulture stared down at the broken corpse of his foster-father. He felt…nothing.
The hunt was over. The prey had been slaughtered. Now that the fight had ended, Vulture felt empty. The stranger had changed him. He could not die, but was this living? All that Vulture had now was the hunt.
“If that is how it is going to be,” Vulture had said. “Then let my new prey be the one who caused this. I shall hunt him wherever he may hide.”
Vulture searched for the stranger for many months, learning more about his new condition. He was larger and stronger than he had been in life. As a golem, Vulture did not grow tired or fatigued. He did not need sleep or to eat.
It was only when he was actively pursuing his prey that Vulture felt anything. Fury. Restlessness. The hunt was slow. The man had almost all but disappeared, but Vulture would not stop. He would have his answers. The Wastes were home to varied populations: settlers who eked out what livings they could, roving gangs of marauders, and native tribes who practiced their own rituals to survive in the harsh wilderness.
None had seen the Stranger when Vulture asked. Though most turned and fled at the sight of the golem. Once marked, however, they could not escape his pursuit. Such as his current target, a young marauder whom Vulture had chased across the canyon.
Vulture threw the man from his bike, lifting the machine up with one hand and tossing it across the sunbaked clay. This man was a scout for a raider group. Vulture had learned that he had dealings with all manners of cults and heretics. One way or another, Vulture would get answers.
“I’m tellin’ you, I don’t know this guy you’re talking about!” The man groaned as Vulture’s heavy foot put pressure on his ribs. The golem had perfect control over his muscles, applying just the right force to hurt but not cause any lasting harm…yet.
“You will talk. Or you will die. My trail has led me to you. I do not make mistakes in my hunt.”
“I don’t know this guy! But…” Vulture felt the man inhale, his eyes going wide. His face was changing color as it became harder to breath. “I can smell it on you. You smell like the Manooby Raonis! They use something that gives off the same sort of fumes as you.”
“Who are the Manooby Raonis?
“They’re the natives in the Pits. You know, the canyons? The ones you just chased me through? They worship some strange gods, downright heretics. If anyone knows more, it would be them.”
Vulture slowly raised his boot off the man’s chest. The raider let out a breath of relief. Vulture watched his chest rise and fall as his lungs filled with air. For a moment, Vulture felt satisfaction. The emotion was fleeting and soon there was just the emptiness again.
“Thank you. You are of no further use now.”
The golem mounted his bike. He watched the raider rise to his feet. Vulture revved the engine, his motorcycle pointed at his informant. “Now run.”
“W-wait, you said you’d let me live.”
“I said you would talk, or you would die then. Now, you will run. You will have a head start. When I find you, then you will die.”
The man knew better than to beg for mercy as he took off. Vulture watched him, waiting for him to disappear, before pursuing his prey deeper into the canyons. Once more, he felt alive.
The Manooby Raonis were not difficult people to track. Vulture strode through the village, his scarf wrapped around his face, his helmet covering his head. Yet even disguised as he was, the Manooby Raonis stared at him, pausing what they were doing to watch as he passed. They came out in the streets or onto the rooves as he made his way to the center. They had built their homes out of the wrecks of large machines, beneath a mountain carved into a prayer for their gods.
Their chief stepped in front, a strong man who carried two axes on his belt, a headdress made from feathers and leather straps crowning his head. The chief made a holy symbol in greetings to Vulture, the same symbol they had carved from the mountains.
“Welcome, wanderer, to the Pits. You are welcome to hospitality, as a creation of the gods,” the Chief said, letting his hand fall. The tribe’s priests stood behind him, carrying with them burning incense, supposedly the same fumes that poured out of Vulture. He could not smell it.
“Who are the gods?”
That was the first of two questions that Vulture carried with him. The other, of course, was who was the Stranger that had done this to him. Yet even then, Vulture knew that one would inform the other.
“They are they who live below, the powers over life and death. They brought the end of the World that Was and ushered in the Age of Metal. They are without end, never born, undying.”
“That does not answer my question.”
The chief smiled. “Does it not? You are their creation, a creature caught between life and death, belonging to neither.”
Vulture said nothing. His hand clenched into a fist by his side. He was not interested in the metaphysical, only the practical. It had already been too long since he had last laid eyes on his prey. “I seek a man. A stranger to me. One with the void in his eyes.”
“You will not find him. I know of whom you speak. Put aside this quest. You have been granted gifts akin to those my people seek,” the chief said. He extended his hand out towards Vulture. A gesture of friendship. From what little Vulture knew of the Manooby Raonis, they tended to keep to themselves. Outsiders were far from welcome. “Stay with us, wanderer, and make use of the gifts you have been given.”
The golem stared down at the hand, before turning away. He had no interest in such things. The trail had ended here.
Vulture got back on his bike. He had wasted too much time on this pursuit. The longer he took, the less likely he would ever lay eyes on the stranger again. “All I need is the hunt. I will seek the stranger in another way.”
The chief watched Vulture ride off, the fumes of the exhaust mixing with those of the incense.
How sad. Never shall he know rest, with the spirit of vengeance burning so strongly within. His hunt shall be without end. There will be no peace…
Trailing the stranger had not worked. There was one situation that Vulture knew would draw the stranger out. Near death experiences. Vulture rode across the dirt roads of the outskirts, offering himself to whatever biker groups he came upon. Some took him, others refused. He rode with some for months, others merely days. Vulture did not suffer the ravages of time. His hunt would continue as long as it needed.
Yet the stranger never arrived. None of his fellow bikers spoke of meeting anyone similar. It was not as though people were not dying. Vulture had begun to notice that in those rare moments he was not preparing for a hunt or in the thick of it, he could hear the whispers of the fallen. Only the mechanical sounds of working on his bike and weapons would silence them in camp.
He had become a well-known blacksmith among the biker gangs, forging weapons and tools for them if they could not find it in raids. Over time, the gangs sought him out, rather than turning and riding off in fear.
Such as the Born Fallen, a small motorcycle club with whom Vulture spent a season. The gang road the area in the foothills near the Temple of Sacrifice, south of the Pits. Bordering the Sand Seas, their territory often had spillover from pirates but mostly they were at war with the larger gangs in the area. The Born Fallen were vicious but proud, and they welcomed Vulture with open arms.
He sat in the front of the pack, beside the Fallen King, the leader of the gang. Vulture had spent weeks preparing the weapons for the Born Fallen warband for this. A large caravan was passing by the Temple, heading out from the Sand Sea towards the Pits. This was to be the greatest raid for the Born Fallen yet.
The motorcycles roared to life, Vulture’s improvements giving them an almost synchronized, perfect hum as their engines pumped. The Born Fallen raced down the hills towards the road below, where the large trucks burdened with goods to trade lay unsuspecting. Vulture drew his own sword as he road beside the Fallen King.
He had come up with the battle plan. The bikers at the top of the hill had been given larger guns, cannons soldered onto the front of their bikes, that rained fire down into the valley below. The rest were sporting both freshly forged blades and handguns, packed with the bullets of the Vulture Blade MCs. They would put a hole in most armor.
The bikes raced, cutting through the lines of the caravan, circling around them as they unleash their fire. Yet the merchants from the Sand Seas are not easy prey. Most are former pirates themselves. Soon, the bikers are being pursued by the sand-cars, the pirates firing back.
Vulture’s blades fly with precision as he circles around the caravan, though he is careful to leave most alive. The closer to death they were, the more likely he would draw out his true prey. The Fallen King shouted out orders, but Vulture was deaf to them. Gunfire bounced off his unfeeling skin. His bike punched through the unarmored trucks while Vulture stayed steady on its seat. He was a force that could not be stopped. His blades struck their targets as he launched them with accuracy, seeing the bodies fall around him.
Yet fate was fickle. As the two sides clashed, rival gangs began to spill in, smelling blood in the water as it were. Vulture could not blame them, as in many ways he was as much a scavenger as they. All it meant for him was more bodies.
His wheels crushed the bones of the Fallen, traders, and rival gangs alike as he continued to throw his blades, lost in the thrill of the hunt.
When the dust settles, no one has won. The traders salvaged what they could, while the biker gangs were forced to retreat, both sides carrying off the wounded. Vulture stood in the middle of the carnage, staring down at one face.
The Fallen King.
Vulture had considered this one his friend, or at least close to it. He was fond of the Born Fallen leader. Yet as he looked down at the body, he could feel nothing at all. It was just another corpse. Vulture began to dig graves, working tirelessly through the night. He could still hear the voices of the dead whispering in his head. They were growing louder.
Working quelled them. And so he continued to dig. Perhaps the stranger would still come.
He did not.
Nor did the stranger arrive the next time Vulture fought, wearing the colors of another gang. Nor the time after. Nor the time after that.
Vulture grew numb to it. Everyone he knew ended up a corpse and a whisper in his head. What good did it do to care? He had no need for food, nor for money, nor for companionship. The stranger was not coming, so Vulture would try something else.
Vulture became a recluse. The bikers spoke of him as a legend and as those who knew him met their end, the man became a myth. Keeping to himself, Vulture still found himself not alone. The whispers in his mind provided endless company.
They spoke to him, advising him on where to hunt next. Sometimes it was to track a notorious beast. Sometimes, they sought vengeance for crimes done against them. Those he listened to the most, however, were the voices who spoke of the Dark Ones.
It was the voice of an old road priest who Vulture had slain, spilling his blood on the sand, who guided Vulture the most. He preached of the power of the Dark Ones and told Vulture where he could find writings, stashed in secret, that would answer his questions.
The ghost had spoken the truth. Vulture had found the road priest’s mad words, written by the priest’s own hand.
“…And lo! The Dark Ones beckon. They who drift in the dark universe, they rule in horror unending, from their palaces beyond reality. They call, their whispers drawing forth those who walk the line of death. They who dwell in the black seas of infinity, in the halls that were meant not for men to voyage…
…They are worshipped as gods, but they are not such creatures. They are without end and without beginning. Reality is the dreams of these beings, and to turn ones thoughts to them is to begin the journey of madness…Those marked by death turn the eyes of the Dark Ones towards them, liminal creatures who straddle the boundaries of the flesh and spirit…
Of the Dark Ones, there is one who walks clad in the shape of Man. The Crawling Mist. The Messenger. Unlike the others, his eye is affixed to the creatures of flesh. Yet he is not mortal. It is a mask he wears, for he is infinite, a sea of stars clad within the garb of the mundane. To speak his name is to invite chaos. To stare into his face is to know madness itself…”
Vulture had studied these writings, ceaseless in his efforts. He had ‘found’ his prey. Now, he needed the name. If he could speak it, it would draw the stranger out.
Vulture found himself standing back in his forge. His mind had been drawn to the past, but his body had continued its work. The ghastly necrotic energies had infused the blade. It glowed with a pulsing blue light. It was finished. Yet another tool, crafted to perfection.
He makes a simple gesture, practiced and memorized with ease and the blade disappears from sight, banished to another plane. There it would join its brothers. Vulture doused the flames with the bucket of water by his side as the room fell into darkness. He turned towards the door.
Stepping outside, the whispers grew louder. The work had ceased and so they returned with a vengeance. Ever present. Growing louder. The clanging in his head tried to drown them out but it could not.
He would make them stop.
One by one, the blades appeared from where he had sent them, floating beside their creator. Hundreds of blades arranged themselves in the air around him. He had infused them with the whispers of the dead. Each one was tied to him, just as the whispers were. Each one would cause the ghost an echo of pain.
The blades fired in all directions, shooting out from around Vulture in a furious display. The voices scream as they were torn, pulled and stretched. They could not be removed, but he would hurt them until they quieted.
And when he found the Messenger, he would be ready.