Canned Burger

When you don’t have a lot of time, but still need to eat something in order to fulfill your obligations to the people paying for the roof over your head, there’s no shame in reaching for something canned. Sure, it’s not very good for you, and doesn’t taste like anything you could get from a nearby eatery or, ideally, make yourself. Sometimes, though, you need to resort to something canned to get by.

Today’s a day like that for this blog, here. I’m trying to plow through some work and find very little time to even post snark on my favorite forums, let alone put up anything significant in this space. So I’ve dipped into my former writing resources and came across something interesting.

Age of Conan wants me back. And if I weren’t pretty much done with MMORPGs, I might consider it. I love a good dark fantasy driven by story, after all, but Age of Conan’s gameplay and atmosphere just aren’t engaging enough to keep me invested in the story. All of the things that Dragon Age does right, Age of Conan does wrong, and you have to deal with the Internet dipshits on top of that.

However, I was excited once about it, and even wrote a back-story for my character, an Aquilonian conqueror. It turned out to be pretty epic. I’ll break it into three parts to get more use out of it. Here’s part one. Enjoy.

“Come at me again, boy!”

The Aquilonian general Astonidas grinned as his son flexed his fingers and obeyed, kicking sand out from under him as he launched across the open space towards his father. The general’s arms came down hard on his son’s shoulders, pushing him into the sand. The young man pushed with his hips and legs, dislodging Astonidas on the slippery sand. Laughing, the massive warrior grabbed his son’s wrist and pulled, adding a bit of a twist, stopping just short of dislocating joints or snapping bones – but only just.

“You’re learning!” Astonidas roared with pride. “Barely a month ago, this same move would have had you mewling like a whipped kitten!”

“Our boy has been wrestling for the entire morning,” came the strong but lilting sound of the boy’s mother. While his father still saw him as little more than a boy, Cassandra knew he was quickly becoming a man, and was well developed in both body in mind after seventeen short years. A Cimmerian by birth, she had only agreed to become Astonidas’ bride when he’d bested her in single combat.

Even now, Cassandra wore a blade by her side. She carried another, and tossed it to her son. “Take up the sword, Lykandros. Tell me of its origins then show me its future.”

Lykandros, lean and well-muscled despite his youth, picked up the short blade and tested it in his practiced, calloused hands.

“This is a sword of Acheron,” he told his mother. “A sword of my ancestors. A sword of an empire that fell long ago, but is within my family, our blood and our bones.”

He looked up and parried the swing his mother aimed at his neck. Astonidas smiled and settled back to watch the swordplay. He looked out across his Argosian estate. On the hill overlooking the modest house, his parents were buried. His father, a soldier before him, had taken a Stygian mistress after his birth-mother had died. Word had reached him that his half-brother had established a barony in Kush. When Lykandros was born, Astonidas’ parents had stayed in Argos. The Stygian mystic had taught her grandson about magic and the gods, while her husband has schooled him on history and tactics.

“Never forget that any brute can fight with his fists,” Cassandra was saying, as her son parried and riposted her blows. “It is men who fight with their brains, and their hearts. There is no sword keener or more deadly than a well-tempered soul.”

A rider came up the dirt path towards the estate, bringing Astonidas out of his reverie. The sound of clashing steel also came to a halt, and Lykandros stood by his father to watch the newcomer’s approach. Eventually they made out the standard; the man was one of Astonidas’ scouts. He rode up to the family and quickly dismounted.

“General Astonidas, I come bearing word from your brother.” He handed the broad-shouldered general a scroll. Astonidas opened the scroll and frowned.

“Is something wrong?” Cassandra asked, holding her son’s sword against the flat of her blade.

“Zazael is coming,” the general replied, rolling up the scroll and tucking it in his belt. Lykandros frowned. He didn’t like his uncle. His soul had a darkness to it, a seething gaping void where his mother and father carried their conviction and love. His mother had also halted in the combat, lowering her blade. Lykandros handed her the Acheron steel and headed towards the manor. His father fell into step beside him.

“What’s wrong, son?” Astonidas asked. Lykandros shook his head.

“Something worries me about Uncle,” he told his father. “All the tales we have from Stygia and Kush talk of his lust for power, and the dishonorable ways he defeated his enemies… with poison and assassins.” Lykandros spat on the ground. Astonidas smiled and clapped the young man on the shoulder.

“I like your spirit, boy. And I agree that those are not the building blocks of a stable land. But remember that Zazael is family. Your grandmother would be most grieved at his actions. He at least had the respect to wait until after she died to undertake his campaign. He’ll want to celebrate, perhaps to gloat, but I expect you to be cordial.”

“Yes, Father.”

The manor prepared for their guests, and as the sun was setting an small but ornate caravan was admitted through the gates. The lead horse indeed bore the tall, slender frame of Zazael, the dark-skinned baron from Kush. His entourage included diminutive servants and scantily-clad serving girls. Lykandros was unimpressed – as attractive as the Stygian women were, his attention was on the shrouded servants, until his uncle touched his shoulder.

“Are you not happy to see me, nephew?”

“I am glad your journey was a safe one,” Lykandros replied diplomatically. Astonidas, resplendent in his military garb, moved to stand between the two of them and shook his half-brother’s hand. Cassandra took her son’s arm, gently drawing him closer to her.

“You brought so few!” Astonidas laughed. “Have you no fear of neither Stygia nor Aquilonia?”

“I chose my route with care, brother,” Zazael smiled. “I didn’t want our reunion to be ruined.”

Astonidas and Zazael continued their conversation, discussing the relations between Aquilonia, Stygia and Kush. More than once, Lykandros caught his uncle looking at Cassandra with an interest that went beyond mere familial relations. Cassandra was in fantastic shape, mostly because she refused to sit idle while parenting. Her Cimmerian take on dealing with life actually meshed well with Astonidas’ lifelong relationship with the battlefield. Still, childbirth had caused her hips to widen and her breasts to grow, making her even more attractive to the eyes of men who gazed upon her.

Of course, as he sat at the dinner table with his mother and father, Lykandros knew his father would have very strong words with any man who approached Cassandra in a way she didn’t like – after she was done breaking their arms.

“You say you’re not popular in Stygia?” she asked Zazael as the meal was served. He nodded his smooth, shaved head, regarding her with his cool dark eyes.

“That’s right. Despite the fact I’ve subjugated the people of my lands and caused them to swear oaths of loyalty, I’ve been told that any portion of Kush is still an enemy of the state.” He sipped his wine. “But have no fear. I am well protected in my home.”

“And when you’re away from it?” Astonidas couldn’t help but smile as he sipped his own wine. Cassandra gave her husband a wry smirk and Lykandros watched Zazael carefully. The Stygian baron had yet to give the young man any reason to trust him. And there was something about the wine…

“Believe me, brother, I am much safer in your home than you are.”

Zazael’s words, oozing with menace and triumph, nearly caused Lykandros to leap from his chair. But his father’s strong grip on his wrist kept him seated. “What do you mean, Zazael?” the general demanded, his words as hard as Acheronite steel.

“Do you like the wine?” the wily baron asked in reply. “It’s of my own make. In all the lands you will not find its equal. Diluted within the sweet juices of grapes are the slightest hints of venom, but they will not affect your bodies, only your minds.”

Lykandros struggled to stand again, but this time it was his own mind that kept him down. He felt dizzy, and sleepy. All he wanted was to wrap his hands around his vile uncle’s neck, but he couldn’t muster the strength to lift a finger. Zazael continued, rising from his chair as his men swept into the room, killing Astonidas’ guards.

“Your wife, I take for myself. Your son, I will keep like a pet until I tire of him. Your lands I will salt and your house I will burn. Our father loved you most of all. Night after night I have prayed to Set for revenge. And now, it is mine.”

Astonidas turned towards his son. Lykandros struggled to maintain conscious. He had to save his father. He had to save his home. But all he could do was watch as his father’s own waning consciousness focused on the light blue eyes of the teenager he’d never see grow into the fullness of manhood.

“Son…” he managed through the haze of venom and alcohol, “Remember me.”

Zazael’s shotel came down on his half-brother’s neck with the sickening sound of metal crushing bone. Lykandros saw past his father’s falling head, to see his mother already unconscious. He too was falling, and already darkness was consuming his mind. He reached down, deep, into his own soul, and burned his father’s eyes and the feel of an Acheron blade in his hand into the deepest parts of himself. His father’s standard waved in the darkness that stood poised to consume him. Slowly, that standard became his own. He stood, in the center of himself, and watched the darkness come, refusing to roll over and be lost, summoning up every iota of strength he could muster, just to hold on to who he had come to be in his seventeen years of life. Beyond the darkness, above it, he saw a pair of burning eyes, watching him with distant and aloof approval.

They were his father’s eyes. They were the eyes of Crom.