Krarg the Barbarian vs. the Afterlife
Princess Gloriana had died, and that just would not do.
Krarg the Barbarian had been given the beautiful and delicate Gloriana's hand in marriage. Her father, King Cedric the Prudent, had promised her betrothal to anyone who could destroy the great dragon, and had written a royal decree stating so. At least, that's what Cedric's advisors claimed that paper with all the squiggles said. Krarg had never bothered to learn to read. Reading was for those Krarg used to beat up as a child. Some of them may have grown up to be King Cedric's advisors, actually. One of them certainly seemed nervous being in close proximity to Krarg. Or it may have been because Krarg punched him in the shoulder whenever the advisor spoke in words too long for Krarg to comprehend.
Or maybe the advisor was just intimidated by the legends surrounding Krarg. Krarg, after all, was the barbarian who single-handedly slaughtered the Six Armies of the Seldor Kingdom, only breaking two fingers and losing a toe in the process. He had wrestled a gryphon who had tried to eat the deer Krarg was planning to eat, and won. He had burned down the Great Library of Wartoong, in part to prevent the evil wizard Malthor from stealing arcane texts hidden in the shelves, but mostly because he thought people who could read were full of themselves.
Some would say that Cedric the Prudent did not quite live up to his title the day he agreed to let Krarg marry his daughter. Not that anyone would say that to his face, of course. That, appropriately enough, would not have been prudent. Setting aside that he was king, Cedric also really, really wanted the dragon gone. It was burning his farms. It was eating his knights. Worst of all, the young people of his kingdom cheered for the dragon. The dragon! Why was it so appealing to the youth when the king wasn't? It didn't lead armies, it didn't teach the kingdom about virtue, it couldn't even read!
So Krarg climbed the peaks of Mount Danger, crawled through the Tunnels of Misery, and entered the Cavern of Nothing (that wasn't the actual name. No one had ever made it back to give it an official name. The names of the mountain and tunnels should have been sufficient warning). And there, sitting on a pile of chewed-up armor, was the dragon.
The battle was fierce. Krarg hacked and slashed and punched and kicked. The dragon bit and roared and slashed and breathed fire. And in the end, the dragon was dead, Krarg had survived nearly unscathed--save for another missing toe, a severed finger, and some singed hair--the land was saved, and the princess was his to marry.
But then Gloriana went and contracted Hideous Wasting Disease and quite inconveniently died.
Although the funeral was as resplendent an occasion as such a tragic circumstance could be, Krarg could still not look at Gloriana. Part of it was he couldn't bear to think of his betrothed as dead. The other, well, it was called Hideous Wasting Disease for a reason.
King Cedric the Prudent was beside himself with grief. His only daughter, his precious jewel, was gone, her light snuffed out far too soon. It was because of this--and only this, his advisors hoped--that he agreed to Krarg's proposition.
"I'll get her back," Krarg said.
"I beg your pardon?" the king asked.
"I'll get Gloriana back. I'll find the magic keys and I'll climb the 10 million steps up Mount Splendor to the gateway of the Great Next. I'll unlock the gateway with the magic keys, I'll fight the golden guardians, and I'll bring her back to the land of the living."
For the second time in recent memory, his majesty's advisors wondered if they weren't a bit too hasty naming him King Cedric the Prudent.
"Do it," he said. "Whatever you need, whatever it takes. I'll empty the royal treasury if it helps you save my daughter."
Yes, they were quite sure of it now.
"I won't need anything, sire," Krarg said. "I have my axe and my wits. How could I need more?"
One of the advisors almost laughed when Krarg said he had wits, then realized the barbarian was serious. He wondered how close he had just come to dying.
"Do it," King Cedric said. "And if you succeed, not only will you have my daughter's hand in marriage, but you shall have the throne as well!"
The king's advisors looked at one another. They wondered if any other kings were in need of learned men.
Krarg set out the next morning, naked except for his barbarian loincloth. He had his axe strapped to his back, his faithful horse, Swift, underneath him, and absolutely no idea where to go first.
The magic keys to the gateway of the Great Next were officially nothing more than rumors. Whether or not they were even magic was unverified. Luckily for Krarg, he had adventured enough to know that wizards knew a lot about magical items, and one wizard owed him a favor. He kicked his horse into high speed and raced off toward the rather plainly-named Craggy Peak.
The great wizard Moloff lived on Craggy Peak, in a laboratory disguised as a rock abutment. He liked two things: doing magic and being left alone. He was only just now getting back to doing magic. The bones in his hands had finally knit back together after his last run-in with Krarg.
"Eye of a ghost fox, breath of a gryphon, the tail of a field mouse, and. . ." Moloff said, just before his door was kicked in.
"Moloff!" Krarg shouted. "I have come for the keys!"
Moloff swore. He wasn't aware that he had dropped a second field mouse tail into his bubbling cauldron until the entire brew exploded.
"Ah ha!" Krarg shouted, violent glee shining in his eyes. "I knew you didn't learn your lesson the first time! Still think you can attack Krarg and live?"
Moloff was one of those "hope for the best, plan for the worst" people, doubly so since his last encounter with Krarg. At the sound of the barbarian's voice, runes etched across his laboratory lit up, sending panes of magical energy around Moloff and sealing him in a protective bubble.
Whether he was blinded by the cauldron smoke or his own battle frenzy, or he just didn't know what the runes had done, Krarg charged the wizard, his axe held high. With a delighted cry in anticipation of coming combat, he brought the axe down square on the magical barrier. It bounced off and flung Krarg backward.
"What in the Great Next was that?" Krarg said as he stood up. He swung the axe again.
Bo-o-o-ong! The shield reverberated as the axe hit the barrier. This time the flat of the weapon smacked Krarg in the head.
"Enough of your trickery, wizaaaaaaaard!" Krarg shouted, pointlessly swinging his axe at the barrier again and again. Finally, Krarg stopped. Sticking the head of the axe in the floor, he leaned against the handle, panting.
"Are you quite through?" Moloff asked.
"You. . . haven't. . . defeated. . . me. . . yet!" Krarg said.
"We both know that's not true," Moloff replied. "Now what on Terrania are you doing back here?"
"I. . . seek. . . the three. . . magic keys," Krarg said. "The ones. . . that open the. . . gate. . . atop. . . Mount Splendor."
"Keys? Mount Splendor? You fool! Are you trying to enter the Great Next?"
"Need to. . . rescue. . . the late. . . Princess. . . Gloriana."
"Poor girl," Moloff said, but didn't clarify if that was in reference to her death or her planned rescue. "What made you think I would know how to open the gate?"
"You're a wizard," Krarg said, looking at Moloff as if the wizard were stupid. "Wizards collect magical things."
Moloff's brow furrowed. "You idiot! I told you the last time, I don't collect magical artifacts! My magic doesn't extend past spells and potions!"
"But. . . but you're a wizard."
"There are as many different branches of wizardry as there are stars in the sky," Moloff said. "Which, since I'm presuming you can't count that high, is more than seven."
"Do you know who has them, then?" Krarg asked.
"No!" Moloff shouted. "What, do you think all wizards know each other?"
"Soooooo, last time, when you wouldn't tell me where the Silver Chalice of Silmaria was, and I broke your hands as a warning and told you I was doing you a favor letting you live. . ."
Moloff smoldered. "You did do me a favor. You gave me the chance to do this. Ravioso!"
Krarg assumed the box in the corner of the laboratory was some sort of treasure chest, where up until a few moments ago he thought wizards stored the magical artifacts they collected. So when a giant monster burst out of the box, Krarg was understandably taken aback.
The beast had the head of a bear, the body of a lizard, the wings of a bat, the quills of a cactusman, the claws of a gryphon, and the tail of some spiky thing Krarg had never seen before. It also, incongruously, had silky auburn hair and dazzling green eyes. It towered over Krarg, roaring the roar of a creature hungry for meat and combat, not caring in which order it got them.
"How did you fit in that little boaaaaah!" Krarg started to ask before being swatted aside. His right shoulder smacked into Moloff's cauldron, sending what remained of the foul-smelling brew splashing across the floor of the laboratory.
"Right," he said. "Magic."
Krarg stood up, pulled his shoulder back into its socket, and shifted his axe to his left hand while he worked the soreness out of his other arm. He had just enough time to raise the axe and block the beast's claws before they tore his head off. The claws scraped against the barbarian's axe, making a rather unpleasant sound, before the beast pulled back for another strike. Krarg moved his axe back to his dominant right hand and charged. He ducked under the monster's claw as it swiped at him again. Krarg grinned, knowing the monster had just left its flank exposed for him to strike.
Too bad for Krarg, he forgot about the cactusman quills.
Krarg let out an odd, breathy squeal as he felt the spiky points enter his face and naked torso. He pulled back and saw most of the quills came with him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Moloff laughing like a cretin behind his magical barrier.
"Oh, this is rich!" Moloff said. "It was definitely worth getting my hands broken for the chance to watch this!" Then he peered at Krarg and his smile widened. "Oh my stars, are you crying?"
"Barbarians don't cry!" Krarg said.
He was definitely crying.
Krarg blindly swung his axe at the monster, his attack fueled by rage as well as humiliation. He was Krarg the Barbarian! Slaughterer of armies! Bester of dragons! Dangerously virile male! Why was he crying over a bunch of cactusman sticks?
"Because they sting, that's why!" he said to no one in particular as he continued his attack. Then he felt a familiar pushback against the blade, and his tears dried up when he realized he had sliced one of the monster's claws off.
"Damnation!" Moloff shouted, his fury drowned out by the beast's cry of rage. Krarg started to laugh, so it was his own fault he didn't notice the beast's tail until its spikes were embedded in his foot.
"Gaaaaaow!" Krarg yelled. "By Gorm, that hurt!"
Krarg sliced off the tail, then pulled his foot out from underneath. He realized it would've hurt more were that not the foot from which he had already lost two toes, but the one he had lost just then still hurt with a fury.
Krarg lost all sense of control at that point. His barbarian blood heated up, his vision turned red, and his muscles writhed and roiled under his skin. He charged the creature, releasing his berserker fury upon the creature before him.
Rather, that was his intention until the beast swatted him and sent him flying out the window of Moloff's laboratory.
Fortune favored Krarg that day, as the laboratory was only one floor tall. Still, the glass embedded in his back would certainly leave marks.
"Ah, well," Krarg said as he lay there, staring up at the rocks and abutments surrounding Moloff's laboratory. "They'll go well with my other scars. I'll tell Gloriana I received them from a fierce beast in a battle for her very essence. She will be flattered and, I hope, a little aroused."
Then the doors of the wizard's lair flew open. Moloff floated through, still safely ensconced in his protective magic bubble.
"My pet will not harm you out here," Moloff said. "But cross my threshold again, and it will consume you with a ravenous and furious hunger. And then I'll take that disgusting loincloth and have it burned in front of the council of wizards. I'm sure they'll get a good chuckle."
"Fair enough," Krarg said as he got to his feet, using his axe to steady himself. "But please, wizard, can you at least give me a hint as to where the magic keys are? If not for me, then for the lovely Gloriana?"
Moloff almost dropped his bubble, and himself, straight to the ground.
"Are you even dumber than you look?" the magician bellowed. "Is that even possible? Why on Terrania would I ever tell you where the keys are, even if I knew?"
"Is that a maybe?" Krarg asked.
Moloff quivered. His face darkened, first from rage, then from the magical forces he summoned. He raised his hands. Pulsating and shifting bursts of energy gathered around his extended fingers.
"Pulsio! Darpeto! Bogenio!" the wizard shouted. "Proto!"
Moloff extended his arms toward Krarg and Swift. The gathering energy spiraled together and shot forward from his hands. One blast enveloped the barbarian; the other, his steed. Both vanished in a burst of pulsating light. Moloff leaned forward on his knees, panting heavily.
"Steady, old boy," he said to himself as his protective barrier slowly disintegrated. "You don't want to put too much strain on your old heart. At least not until you can steal a replacement."
Krarg wasn't surprised to find himself at the base of Craggy Peak. It wasn't the first time he had been teleported away by someone he had nearly bested in combat, and he was certain it wouldn't be the last. The old wizard had actually done him a favor. He was going to have to climb 10 million steps to the top of Mount Splendor, and it was going to be difficult doing it with only two toes on one foot. That reminded him: he needed to treat that injury immediately. He sliced a long strip of his horse's rein from the bridle and bound his foot with it. As he did so, he pondered. The wizard may have done him one favor by getting him to the bottom of the mountain in an instant, but he was still no closer to finding the magic keys. In fact, by now he was sure Moloff had already sent word to the other members of the magical community--wizards, witches, apprentices, party conjurors, and more--that Krarg was looking for the keys. They would be on their guard. Those who had the keys would hide them. Some of them would hide themselves away. He certainly anticipated a sudden increase of party conjurors with long white beards cropping up across Terrania.
His foot bound (and with a tingling sensation in this lower extremity that he was trying to ignore), Krarg thought about what to do. He thought and thought and thought. Krarg hated thinking. Thinking was for advisors and viziers and other weaklings. Any problem he couldn't solve with his axe, he didn't want to solve.
But then he realized he had solved it. He had used his own intuition and come up with a solution to a problem that seemed unsolvable. He would indeed be able to enter the Great Next and rescue his beloved Princess Gloriana.
He didn't need the keys. He'd just kick the gates open.
Krarg stood at the foot of Mount Splendor, facing the 10 million steps--also gold, he learned--leading to the gateway separating the living world from the Great Next. He took his first step. Then another. Then another. As he ascended, he spared a glance for Swift, his faithful steed through many of his adventures. It was his horse's speed that saved him from the flowing lava bath of the Unkor underworld. It was his horse's strength that had saved them both from the quicksand of Desperation Swamp. It was his horse's endurance that had kept him above the fray during his battle with the plunderers of the Baldorian Plains. His steed had served him faithfully over the years. Krarg didn't want to leave him behind, but there was no way the animal could climb 10 million stairs.
So Krarg killed him and turned him into horse jerky.
Some might say that was barbaric, even by barbarian standards. Krarg would have disagreed. He was just being practical. He was on the most important mission of his life, and of Gloriana's afterlife, and he couldn't afford to leave any resource behind.
"Ugh, gamey," Krarg said. He spit the piece of jerky he was chewing to the side of the staircase and threw the rest of it behind him. It came to rest somewhere between the 56th and 57th stairs.
One million and one. One million and two. One million and three.
That was how many steps Krarg had climbed so far. His legs were ablaze with pain and his back was sore. His stomach rumbled. He wished he hadn't thrown away his horse.
Krarg sat down with a grunt. He looked down the flight of stairs. His ascension had been quite the ordeal. The first guardian of the staircase had been a sphinx who challenged him to a contest of riddles. After missing the first riddle, Krarg distracted the sphinx and kicked it in its hindquarters, sending it falling down the stairs. Several thousand stairs later, Krarg met a faceless old man in a robe who forced Krarg to relive all the moments that gnawed at his conscience. Fortunately, Krarg never felt guilty about anything, and he left behind a flummoxed guardian as he continued his climb unhindered.
There were more challenges, but nothing Krarg couldn't solve with his axe. He didn't know climbing to the afterlife could be so much fun.
But that was several hours ago, and even wholesale axe combat could get boring after a while.
Krarg blinked the memories of his quest from his mind, then turned and looked up at the stairs remaining ahead of him. They seemed to go on forever. How much longer was it going to take? The angle of the sun wasn't what it would be on the ground. He assumed he had been climbing for at least half a day, although it may have been longer. The sun was starting to dim.
No, it wasn't dimming. There was a cloud in front of it. No, that was incorrect, too. It was a flock of birds. Birds with human faces. Not birds. . .
"Harpies!" Krarg shouted as the flock of hideous bird-women descended. The harpies circled around Krarg, pecking at his head and arms. The barbarian swung his fists angrily, trying in vain to knock one of them out of the sky. Eventually, they settled on the staircase in front of Krarg.
"Where dost thou think thee goest, mortal?" the lead harpy asked. "Thou hast no business climbing the golden staircase to the Great Next."
"I'm on a quest to rescue the fair Princess Gloriana from the afterlife and bring her back to Terrania, where we'll be married," Krarg said.
"What arrogance!" another harpy shouted. "What hubris!"
"The Great Next is only for those whose time on this mortal world has ended," a third harpy said. "Only the most arrogant or foolhardy attempt to broach the golden gate before their time."
"Maybe I'm both!" Krarg shouted.
"That's. . . I wasn't. . ." the harpy said. "Dost thee think I was complimenting thee?"
"She most assuredly was not," the first harpy said.
"Arrogant, foolhardy, brave, handsome, I'll be whatever I need to rescue fair Gloriana!"
"This is thy last warning," the lead harpy said. "Turn back and descend for Terrania whilst thou still hast the choice to do so!"
"Counter-offer," Krarg said, and drew his axe. "Yaaaaaa!"
Krarg charged and swung his weapon, slicing the head off the lead harpy. The other bird-women took to the air, screeching with fury. One dove for him, and Krarg sliced her in half. While he did that, another swooped down and grabbed a lock of his filthy brown hair in her mouth, wrenching it from his scalp. She then spit it out, gagging.
Krarg howled in pain and swung his axe again and again. Sometimes he'd hit a harpy; many times he did not. His anger only grew. These disgusting bird creatures were not going to keep him from his true love. One of them flew directly at him. He swung his axe arm and his fist simultaneously and found himself tangled around the creature's neck. Fury turned to surprise for both man and bird-woman as the harpy took off and Krarg didn't let go.
"Release me, foul barbarian mortal!" the harpy screeched. "Release me!"
"Never!" Krarg shouted. "Not until you get out of my way and let me climb to the golden gates!"
"The guardians of the Great Next shall never let a crude mortal such as thyself sully that magnificent portal!"
Locked in an impasse, the harpy kept flapping and Krarg kept holding on. The other harpies had temporarily ceased their attack, unsure of what to do and fearful of hurting one of their own. Then Krarg was struck with inspiration. It was a welcome change to being struck by the harpies. His axe arm still wrapped around the bird woman, Krarg stretched out his free hand and grabbed a second of the creatures. She was even less happy than the first. She squawked and fluttered and promised to do horrible things to Krarg's parents--or their corpses, if need be--but the barbarian held on. Using a series of chokes, headbutts, and threats, the barbarian coaxed the harpies to fly upward. The remaining flock, deciding the Great Next could handle Krarg if they wanted him to stay out that badly, abandoned their sisters and flew back to their hidden perches.
Krarg watched the staircase pass beneath him. The other guardians Krarg should have met along the way--centaurs, a chimera, gorgons, a three-headed dog, some tentacled squid-thing--all stared up in amazement and confusion. Krarg was pleased with himself. Ascending Mount Splendor via harpy was a real time-saver. The harpies weren't too thrilled, but Krarg didn't care. Gloriana was almost within reach.
In less time than he could have imagined, the peak of Mount Splendor was below him. Krarg leaped from the harpies to the ground below, then looked up at the dazzling edifice before him. He didn't notice the harpies spiral to the ground in exhaustion and crash into the rocky mountaintop, nor did he care. Just two gates of gold were all the separated him from his betrothed. Krarg limbered up, shook the knots out of his arms and legs, cracked his neck twice for good measure, and kicked at the gate just below the three matching keyholes.
Nothing happened. Well, nothing happened to the gate. On the other hand, a sharp jolt ran up Krarg's leg and into his knee.
"Ow ow ow ow ow!" Krarg shouted. He leaned against the gate, his leg throbbing. Of course he had chosen the leg with all the missing toes. He planted his axe in the ground and leaned against it so he wouldn't have to put all his weight on his bad foot. He then lifted his good foot and, with all the might granted to him and his ancestors before him, kicked at the gate a second time.
The results were much more satisfying. With a hearty 'crack!' the lock split apart and the gates swung open. Dazzlingly white light shown out from beyond. Krarg blinked his eyes, tears streaming down his cheeks. These were the quite natural tears of someone suddenly exposed to bright light, not the rumored, fake tears from his battle with the creature with the cactusman spines.
As his eyes adjusted to the brilliance, Krarg saw figures move toward him. Creatures like men made entirely of gold. They brandished swords in one hand and spears in the other. They moved with a speed Krarg had never seen in a mortal man. They were the legendary golden guardians.
"For Gloriana!" Krarg shouted, his axe held high. He swung at the gold man on the left, their weapons ringing out with a mighty crash as they collided. Krarg kicked at the one on the right, catching the guardian in his stomach and sending him stumbling backwards. Krarg rolled and swung again, this time catching his opponent in the stomach. Like a man's, the golden guardian's torso split open as Krarg's axe sliced through. Unlike a man's, no blood or internal organs spilled out. The guardian appeared to be gold all the way through.
Undeterred, Krarg immediately swung his axe in the other direction, slicing the guardian's leg in half at the knee. The guardian fell, not making a sound. Krarg quickly sliced through the gold man's wrists, disarming him figuratively and literally.
Krarg turned to look for the second guardian, unknowingly saving his own life in the process. A golden spear rushed past where his head had been just a moment ago. The spear was so close Krarg could feel the wind as it passed. It felt funny on his new bald patch.
Krarg shouted again and charged at the guardian. Sword and axe clashed once, twice, three times. On the fourth strike, Krarg knocked the sword loose from his opponent's hand. It clattered to the pure white ground beneath them. Krarg pressed his advantage, putting the blade of his axe against the golden guardian's throat.
"Bring me the fair Princess Gloriana and I'll spare your life," Krarg said. "Continue holding her prisoner and you will face an eternity of nothingness."
The guardian said nothing. He couldn't. His throat was solid gold and his mouth wasn't real. Krarg didn't care.
"Have it your way," Krarg said, and sliced the guardian's head off.
His opponents down, Krarg started forward, his focus only on what lay ahead. Four more golden guardians appeared. Let them. He wouldn't stop until he found his beloved.
Krarg hacked and slashed and punched and kicked. He lost a finger. He lost another toe. He got a spear in his left arm. But still he fought, never backing down, inching ever closer to Gloriana, wherever she may be. Behind him, fallen golden bodies lay scattered like the trailings of a wealthy merchant with a hole in his pocket.
"I will not be stopped!" Krarg shouted over the din of battle. "By Gorm, I will chop the entirety of the Great Next into tiny gold nuggets if I have to, but I will find Gloriana, and I will not be stopped!"
"Stop!" a woman yelled.
The golden guardians paused their combat. So did Krarg. The guardians parted like the gates of a city opening before a royal caravan. But instead of a column of wagons, horses, and guards, there stood a single, solitary figure. Krarg let his axe arm fall. He stared breathlessly at the radiant figure before him. A maiden of singular beauty and grace stood before him. Her golden hair radiant, her alabaster skin glowing so finely it was almost translucent, her garments only accentuating her perfect figure. After all this time, all the combat and questing and stairs--oh, so very many stairs--here before him was the end of his quest.
"Gloriana," Krarg said, standing upright and puffing out his chest. "Beautiful, fair Gloriana. I finally--"
"What have you done, you animal?"
That was not the reaction Krarg had expected.
"I. . . I came to rescue you from the Great Next and restore you to life," Krarg said. "Once you have returned to your mortal body, we can finally get married."
"You idiot!" she shouted. "Why on Terrania would you think I'd want to be rescued?"
"You're. . . you're dead," he said. "Death is stupid and miserable."
"Stupid and miserable?" Gloriana said. "It's called the Great Next! Look around you!"
Krarg did. For the first time since kicking in the golden gates, he took in the full scope of the afterlife. It was actually rather nice looking. The buildings were gold. The streets were pure white marble (if you ignored the spots where Krarg had bled). Birds chirped a song more beautiful than even King Cedric's finest musicians could have performed. Even the air. . . did the air smell like cinnamon? Krarg loved cinnamon. From some of the buildings Krarg noticed more people watching him. To be accurate, they were cowering and sneaking glances over their window sills.
"This. Is. Paradise," Gloriana said, drawing Krarg's attention back to her. "And you savaged it."
"So. . . so what you're saying is. . ." Krarg may have been fonder of solving problems with his fists than his mouth, but even he wasn't used to being at such a loss for words. "You. . . like it here?"
"Again, it's paradise," she said. "At least, it was until you got here."
"But we were going to get married," Krarg said. "I killed a dragon and wooed you."
"My father used me as a reward to get someone brave or stupid to kill a dragon he was jealous of," she said. "I never wanted to marry you or any of those other musclebound oafs. You never wooed me. The only one who ever truly won my heart was Algernon."
"Algernon?" Krarg exclaimed. "Who's Algernon?"
"My father's chief advisor," she said. "The man you would punch in the arm whenever he used words of more than two syllables."
"That's Algernon?" Krarg said. Now he was really at a loss for words. "But. . . but he's. . . and, you know. . . not. . ."
"He's smart, charming, sensitive, and cares about me," Gloriana said. "And he's not a brainless, violent oaf who would hack up the Great Next and Gorm-only-knows whatever else you did to get here just to take back a woman he assumes is his property."
"Well, I mean, your father did promise me--"
"Agh!" Gloriana shouted, tearing at her hair.
Gloriana was going to throw herself at Krarg and let him ravish her right there. Or she was going to let him carry her through the golden gates until they were safely out of the Great Next and could maintain a sense of propriety. Or they were going to go right back to King Cedric and get married. Those were the scenarios that had played out in Krarg's head during his 10-million-stair climb. Her not being attracted to him honestly never crossed his mind. He was so manly! And so was rescuing her from the clutches of death itself! How could she not be into that?
"Excuse me," a new, nasally voice said, and Krarg started. He lifted up his axe slightly and turned to face the voice's owner. It belonged to an elderly, bespectacled man clutching a large book to his chest like a mother would clutch a newborn.
"Gah!" Krarg shouted. "Where did you come from?"
"I've been here the entire time," the man in glasses said. "How did you not notice me?"
"You're educated," Gloriana said. "The educated are beneath Krarg's notice."
"Krarg, eh?" the man said, flipping through the book. "Krarg the Barbarian? Yes, yes, that's you. I have to say, you have made quite the mess of things. You kicked in our gate, hacked up dozens of golden guardians, and scared a great many residents of the Great Next."
"It was for true love!" Krarg said indignantly.
"Shut up!" Gloriana said.
"No, wait, I want to know," Krarg said. "What does this place have that I don't?"
Gloriana stared, convinced he was joking. When she realized he was serious, she almost fell over.
"Eternal warm sunlight. I never get old. I'll never get sick again. I get to converse with the greatest minds in history. I can read all day. All the most delicious foods are available whenever we want, and no one ever goes without. Nothing smells like barbarian. We know how to fly."
"Okay, fine," Krarg said.
She continued, ignoring him. "No one ever gets their toes cut off for attacking a golden guardian. I'm not used to pay the bill for a dragon slaying. Everyone here is always nice. No one fights. Normally."
"I get it," Krarg said.
"They have a tasty treat called 'ice cream.' The birds sing whatever songs you ask. You can dive underwater and not worry about running out of air. They have a unicorn stable with free rides."
"Okay! Okay!" Krarg shouted. "I get it! Paradise is somehow better than being married to me. I'll go! Enjoy your afterlife!"
"I'm sorry, but it's not that simple," the man said as he pushed his glasses up his nose. Krarg forgot he was there again. "You did make quite a mess of things. I'm going to have to weave more than a fair bit of magic to take away the fears you've instilled in the witnesses here. I'm not sure how we're going to get your blood out of the streets, either. No one has ever bled here before."
"Sorry," Krarg said. He wasn't an apologizer, but he figured it would help.
"I'm afraid 'sorry' just won't suffice," the man said. "Not this time. Now, please."
Krarg felt cold hands grab his arms and legs. He glanced around as best he could. Somehow the golden guardians had put themselves back together.
"Unhand me, or I'll slay you again!" Krarg said.
Another guard silently pulled the axe from Krarg's hand and re-sheathed it on the barbarian's back.
"Don't think I need an axe to slay the likes of you!" the barbarian shouted.
"Please, stop your fussing," the man said. "You've already upset the people under my care."
"I'm terribly sorry for this," Gloriana said. "This is all my fault."
"Nonsense, your majesty," the man said. "You didn't invite him here. You didn't open the gates. You didn't cut up the golden guardians or get his blood on my nice, clean street. No, no, the blame lies entirely in the hands of the barbarian, and he shall have to pay the price."
The man's eyes glowed. A strange energy encircled Krarg. It ran the length of his body, from his head to his remaining toes and from arm to arm.
"What have you done to me, sorcerer?" Krarg demanded.
"Please remove him," the man said. The golden guardians' only acknowledgment of this command was to drag Krarg toward the gate.
"Let me go! I am Krarg the Barbarian! Slayer of the Six Armies of Seldor! Tamer of beasts! Warrior unparalleled! I'm wuuuuuuuooooooooooa!"
The guardians hurled Krarg down the stairs. He couldn't be certain, but he thought he heard Gloriana say "good riddance" before the golden gates were shut behind him.
The guardians were strong enough to throw Krarg over the first 500 or so steps. Then he hit and bounced and fell down another thousand or so. There, the squid monster he had seen on his flight up lifted him with one of its tentacles and threw him down another two thousand, where he barely had time to come to a stop before a centaur kicked him, and down he went for another several thousand.
This process continued for all 10 million steps, until he was back at the base of Mount Splendor. His body was a mangled heap. His arms were bent in ways no man's arm had ever bent. His fingers pointed in every direction. His legs were like winding rivers. His face, well, the less said about Krarg's face, the better.
Krarg groaned and tried to move. Pain radiated through his body like the light in the Great Next radiated through Gloriana's hair. He was slightly amazed he was still alive.
And then he heard a crackling and felt more pain. Through the half a good eye still remaining to him, he thought he saw his left arm stretch out and his fingers realign themselves. Then the sight got clearer as his vision got clearer. Both his eyes were whole again. Then his face seemed to stitch itself back together. Then his other arm and his legs.
Krarg sat up, not quite sure what was happening. He wiggled his toes. Then he realized he had all of his toes. The missing ones had grown back. He looked at his chest. The wounds from the cactusman spikes were gone. He ran his hands over his head. His hair had grown back. So had his fingers. In fact, there wasn't a single scar or battle wound on his entire body.
Krarg stood up. He was confused, but at the very least he was fairly sure he wasn't dead. It definitely still looked like Terrania. What was wrong with him?
Krarg's thoughts were interrupted by a screech from above and behind him. He turned just in time to see the large flock of harpies swoop down upon him. Before he could react, the first one clawed out his eyes.
"This is for my wife!" it screeched.
The second tore at his chest. The third ripped out his stomach. He wasn't sure what the fourth, fifth, and the rest did, because pain overtook his conscious thoughts and he fell into blackness.
Krarg didn't know how long he lay there, but it couldn't have been more than a few minutes. The sun was still in the same place in the sky when he opened his eyes. Then he remembered he had lost his eyes. Twice. Yet there they were, along with the rest of his body. Once again he stood up. He shook his limbs. He was intact, without a single scar or wound to blemish his perfectly-sculpted barbarian body.
Krarg unsheathed his axe. As much as he disliked science, desperate times called for desperate measures. He held the blade against his chest and fell forward. The axe split his torso up the middle. He rolled over and his body immediately stitched back up.
"I'm. . . I'm immortal," Krarg said. "I'm immortal!"
A grin spread across his face. But just as quickly as it appeared, it vanished.
"I'm. . . I'm immortal."
Finally, he got it. It was the ultimate breakup. The weakling in the glasses did the one thing he could to ensure Krarg would never see Gloriana again. And Gloriana hadn't stopped the weakling, either.
"How's that for ingratitude?" Krarg said. "What does he have that I don't?"
Frustrated, Krarg hurled his axe into the air. At that moment, King Cedric's loyal guardsmen were approaching Mount Splendor, eager to hear of Krarg's progress. The axed arced down, striking the captain of the guard in the head and killing him instantly.
The other guardsmen, perceiving Krarg's random act of anger as an attack, drew their swords and rode at the barbarian. Krarg was weaponless, but still he smiled. He had a lot of anger to work out, and immortality was going to make it fun.
Now, there are those who might wonder why Gloriana's caretaker in the Great Next would see fit to give a barbarian as violent as Krarg the gift of eternal life. Why should he receive such a reward after committing such horrible acts against both the dead and the living? Why condemn those still on Terrania to a foe they couldn't hope to slay?
Well, the living may be shackled with a savage, immortal barbarian. But sooner or later, they'd die. Krarg won't. And as Princess Gloriana so demonstrably proved, death is far preferable to any sort of life with Krarg the Barbarian.