Gnarling apple trees filed down the barren orchard lanes, columns and rows fitted perfectly with one another so as to never break rank. The trees had no color, save the lustful luster of the great apples dangling from the boughs. Each one seemed to stare at the trespassing party, the small white rings dotted all over these things taking the guise of eyes in the imaginations of anyone who dared stare at them. And with each apple, if they could be actually be called that, having at least a couple dozen eyes and the trees running down the horizon until reaching a chioscuro with the brooding vermillion of the setting sun, there were thousands of ravenous eyes. There were thousands of fully ajar, unmoving eyes following every shiver of movement and catching every slight whisper of breath with their paranoia. They hushed the atmosphere with a frantic stillness, quaking until they fabricated absolute stillness. Or perhaps it was the other way around.
The leader of the pack, Maximillion, jutted himself into the dearth and looked about, scanning for anything even more out of the ordinary than what was presented. “The Sinful Orchard. Oh, what madness would even bring us here?” He was clad in golden elvish breastplates; the latticed metals weaved together into an intricate earthy show of power. Underneath was a sleeveless tunic, allowing the muscles of his brazen arm to breath freely in their exhibition. Both sides had similar tattoos of dragons consuming the length of the appendage, ensnaring the hand, with only that one was green and the other purple. There was another, smaller, dragon tattoo encircling his eye, a milky orb concealing a charcoal iris. The hair on his head was outsourced to his jaw, dense forests of vigor hanging from the stone cut bones of his face, and stone it must have been for the scars still showed throughout the noble visage. On his back rested the Gershsword, an artifact found in the realm of the high elves many years ago during his early military years.
The other members of his company watched him enter the orchard, cautious on their entrance as well. Watching the rear was Anotelia, The Drake of Asgarth, bearing her massive claymore known in notoriety as “Death’s Second Hand”. This was named, of course, with homage to the legend she had dueled Death and stole his second hand. The theory is of course, ridiculous, as her father was an early clockmaker and revolutionized the second hand on the design, but the idea had not quite caught on, hence the loss of the name’s true wit. Her tired and robust expression is partially attributed to the dullness of those she spends time with at the taverns. Her emerald eyes were tarnished silver, her full lips sharpened from coldness, and her eyebrows plucked for intimidation. Guarding the sides were Anotelia’s brother, Anatelio, and Fraahck, a swamp elf bearing an uncanny resemblance to a sewer rat. His temper was as short as his nose bridge, but nonetheless he bore a serene mask to his bewildering thoughts that seized his faculties a thousand times over before breakfast would stay his trembling. His fingers beginning to quiver, he quickly seized a tonic from his pouch, a needle protruding from the mouth, and injected it, trickling in whispers into his vein.
“The plague of the bakers of Herme, the devil orchard, the most dangerous orchard in all of Hazadra: The Sinful Orchard. Lo and behold look upon such a ghastly sight, take it upon the murky abyss of your eyes to forever hold it to your mind like a branding iron, as we may never again look upon anything else. May also you brandish your steely nerves, steely more so than that of the blades we bear, forged from the strongest steel that the great steelsmiths have forged. Make your nerves steelier than such steel. Also, shallow your breath lest you awaken this beast, yet alas akin to the blue moon’s tide do not pull your breath too shallow so that you may asphyxiate in the regard of a choking stork. ALAS-“
“Shut up, Anetolio. I swear if you say one more thing I’ll seriously kill you.” Maximillion strutted past the unremarkable warrior, brought along for only his sister’s convenience, and well into the dreary sighs of the bobbing beast apples. They floated along on the hesitant winds of calamity, those that prophesize the minatory smiles hiding amongst the shadows to foreign ears, and it was a wave of the glass lakes. Fraahck quickly scampered beside Maximillion, his muck-ridden ponytail wagging behind him horridly. He held his staff, a braiding tumor of Rezleck Oak, a purplish timber native to the Eastern Toaxicitee, outstretched in anticipation of the glowering apples to wreak their havoc. The company knew all too well they boded no benevolence; that their hearts twisted with malice. The company knew all too well that they had best retrieve their bounty and proceed forth from this evil place before the place resurrected the foulness of its dormant wickedness, for what wickedness laid waiting for them.
“So,” began Fraahck, this hoarse whisper of a voice, as though the mangroves that rocked his cradle seeped into his throat and grinding against one another, “how do you propose we lure out our person. The Apple, right?”
Maximillion sighed. “What sort of name is that?”
“Is that not the fugitive we’re after? I could have sworn that, according to the paper,” Fraahck searched his knapsack, a burlap rag of a bag, for the bounty warrant, “that his name was indeed the Apple, or I could be mistak-“
“Yes, that is the name of the character we search for.” Maximillion grasped Fraahck’s hand, grimacing as the moisture of Fraahck’s porous skin stuck to his hand. “I am just curious as to where, you know, who names these villains. It does not do us a service to be wary of a sorcerer who is named, of all things, ‘The Apple Picker’. Do you understand what I get at?”
“Don’t ask me, sire. The high elves are the adjudicators of names.”
“Of course they are. Damn high elves. In their ridiculous high chairs and ridiculous long hair. My father, his name used to be Marderiok the Cleaver, right? Feared throughout the region north of here, the Poppy Lands, a ruthless hive of nasty people and rogues and hookers and whatnot. It was bad. But his name was his reputation and his name protected him. One day, he completes a mission on behalf of the high elves. He defeats the Bastard Baker of Bales. They reward him by naming him, I kid you not Fraahck, to this day I live with this indignity, Wes the Wheat Whipper! WES THE DAMN WHEAT WHIPPER!”
Anotelia, trying to simmer the temper of her cohort, pressed her blade calmly on the precipice of Maximillion’s larynx. “Lo, rest your quarrel with spent breath, lest thou feel thy throat blood spent. Mark, thoust enemies lie hidden and if thy tongue whips about a’other complaint, I shall-“
“They called him Wes the Wheat Whipper! THE WHEAT WHIPPER!”
The restlessness settled; the striking silence of a sudden seizure grasped the company like the invisible rage of a cone snail. There was a cracking heard. The beast apples, those dreaded monstrous orbs, began making the most unnerving cracking noise as juices dripped from the bottom of them. At the far end of the grove, a figure appeared, a gaunt tree of a person. Their limbs wilted and their backside collapsed, their neck snapped upwards to reveal the toothiest of grins, red with red flesh caught in the spaces between his teeth. “Welcome to your dooms, travelers,” he shrieked. The trees came alive with nightmares, fleshy mannequins riddled with horns, all descending to the ground with an animalistic appetite. They glared onto the company, weapons brandished and courage inflated, and began moving inward. Then, from the side, more dropped. Behind the company as well, the numbers of these abominations grew.
“Ffffffffffffffuck. Well,” Maximillion drew his Gershword, Fraahck held his bo-staff to the west direction, Anotelia cleaved the earth before her as she drew her leviathan claymore, called Emasculator, and Anetolio flaunted his sword and buckler combo of no name. The creatures amassed, a collection of cancers multiplying, and descended madly, frothing blindness on legs, on the company of heroes. Steel danced in a quartet of quarter notes marked by a blood written calligraphy, the sky dotted and painted with the quick sprays of blood. The beasts collapsed around the heroes, restless and infused with the vigor of macabre that only a god of war could possess. Were they gods of war, these brave heroes on this particular day, to be sung of in ancient lore forever? Of course not. Anetolio spun in between strikes, hoisting his shield to defend his body. His turns were quick, usually smacking a couple of the beasts down. His foot struck and anchored him to the ground while his blade made mincemeat of a few enemies before turning again. A sanguine ballerina. However, his foot missed its mark, slipping from the 6th position to the 4th and he staggered back into the grasp of his enemy. Caught in the straightjacket clutch of the apple demon, the others immediately struck.
Anotelia cried out for her brother as the Emasculator created a fissure of flesh before her. She raced into the southern intersection, shrugging the gluttonous beasts of her shoulders. However, upon grasping the ingenious concept of stratagem, one of the beasts laid themselves before the grinding path of the blade, catching it halfway through its torso. Beleaguered, and her cumbersome blade caught in some either very foolish or utterly brilliant beast, Anotelia began using her fists to reach her brother. Passion propelled punches crashed into skulls and ribcages and shoulders, shattering and breaking and paralyzing and destroying. It was all no matter, as the fists would be ensnared by the fleshy mouths and her backside was pestered with walls of grabby hands, the walls of her demise closing in around her. Her face attempted to contort itself into one of fear, but she lacked the eyebrows to do so. She looked for her brother in the chaos, finding him turned into a makeshift maypole of intestine streamers and confetti cells. Tears, frigid and unloving to her face, stung her cheeks as they ran from her and the smattering of her own blood crept up her face.
Fraahck called to Maximillion, “Lord Maximillion, use the Gershword’s ability or we simply won’t make it. They’ve taken the other two.” A stray swing of his pole cracked against the ground poorly, his shoulder flayed vulnerably, and he heard a snap. He recoiled in shock, grasped the staff with his right hand, and continued fighting nonetheless. “Dammit! You must now! I broke my left shoulder!”
“And imagine I let you die and make away myself!” Maximillion sheathed his blade behind a beast’s sternum, released it, and decapitated the one beside him, a crimson blossom blasting forth.
“You are going to die if you fight without the sword’s ability!” Fraahck whipped the staff behind him onto the cranium of a beast, twirled it amongst his fingers, and snapped the adamant wood on the temple of the beast before him.
Maximillion watched the horde congregate before him, each demonic tree birthing an army of these horrendous abominations, spawning the offspring of an unworldly realm. Their soft growls became the incessant droning of death’s rattling breath, laborious as it finally reached the cold seizure of your throat. The winding blend of colors at the end of the orchard was now just an eclipse of greying flesh blotting all light, menacing with long carnivorous shadows. He glanced at his blade, an ornate emerald hilted piece of polished steel that grew convex towards the tip, and then again at his comrades around him. He made his decision and with a musical hum, the sword began to glow. “I….” the beasts were but mere feet away from him now, throwing their clammy arms to grasp him. “I only know one song!”
“Fucking damn sing it!”
He hesitated. And then he sang, with a low bluesy growl, “I feel pretty.” He swung his blade, the green glow creating a drifting rift behind it, and in one stroke 5 heads were lopped off, the blood splashed violently over his face. “Oh so pretty.” The blade slipped between his arm and torso, piercing the heart of a beast behind him. “I feel pretty,” he sliced down to the navel of one directly his right, “and witty” another head flew off, “and briiiiight,” his voice grew more excitable and the notes were certainly being hit in his raspy voice. He began to move forward, romancing the dancing blade that weaved through his fingers as it gorily ended anything in his vicinity. “And I pity any girl that isn’t me toniiiiight!” He led off the note with another decapitation, as though those ended the measure. Maximillion, the prettiest one at this monster ball, was garbed completely in the blood of his enemies, but that only intensified his glee as he entered the second verse, “I feel charming! Oh so charming. It’s alarming how charming I feeeeeel!” He grabbed the throat of one, thrust his blade into its chest, and threw it back, slipping from the blade, into the horde behind him. With a joyous spectacle of a stage production and many streamers, the beast exploded, taking swarms with it.
When he turned to, there waited the great and devilish Apple, a hideously birthed and hideously named being. At closer inspection, it became clear that he wasn’t at all human, but rather perhaps a possessed amassing of foliage and fruits, a garden golem. “And so pretty”. The golem struck down with its towering arms, but was deflected by a green energy sparkling with both electric currents and sparkles running across it. “That I can hardly believe I’m real.” The remaining apple beasts flocked from their cluster towards Maximillion now, the true threat to their master. He turned, “See that pretty girl in the mirror there. Who can that attractive girl beee!” He struck one, rolled under the Apple’s sweeping arms, struck another beast in the maw, and backflipped back into his position. “Such a pretty face!” Another decapitation! “Such a pretty dress” A double decapitation and another evasion of the Apple “Such a pretty smile! Such a pretty meeee!” The blade was overwrought with musical gaiety and vibrated violently with this green energy until it gave way and burst, thousands of metal shards mowing down swathes of the creatures and the Apple as well. He collapsed with a mighty roar.
Fraahck was beside himself with disbelief, ran up to the winded hero with a jubilee of his own disbelief, “That was bloody amazing! You really nailed it there, didn’t you? Oh wow. The blade, the blood that’s everywhere, the sing-,” he caught up to the weary man and looked at him for a moment. “That was some lovely singing.”
“Shut up. I’m just glad we can put this whole mess behind us. Check the bounty.”
“It’s prestige. All you get is prestige. There is no mention of a monetary reward.” Fraahck’s beige eyes attempted to coax Maximillion, a reddening boil steaming in his cheeks. “You are given a title, instead. Do you want to know what it,” his voice trailed off as he skimmed the unassuming parchment. He looked up again to Maximillion, so impatient he snatched it from his acquaintance’s hand.
“Axl the Apple Picker! AXL THE-“ He tore the parchment to shreds, the dandruff of royal decree littered the bloodstained earth below them. “Damn those high elves. Fraahck. How would you like to take your fate from those haughty bastards in the mountains?”
A smile crept on Fraahck’s crooked lips, revealing his putrefying teeth that gleamed with a sulfuric joy previously found only in his tonics. “I’d say you’re going to need another sword. And we’re going to need a larger company.”
The two met grins and waded through the bristling wind of a forgone massacre, breaching from the banality of their world to challenge the gods of their realms. “Fucking high elves. Here comes Axl the Apple Picker, taker of the tree of knowledge. Taker of your lives.”