Strife, the one they call the Black Knight or the Man-Who-Can-Kill-Anything, clings to the rocks. With one hand he scoops up his shadow and uses it to form a pick—for this is his power, to command the bilious shadows that surround him into any shape he wishes.
He uses his shadow to drag himself up the towering spire of rock, the eyrie of the Terrible Feathered Thing. Below him the Midlands spread out in all directions. The midlands are mostly desert, marked here and there by the vague twinkling of lights.
Blocked from his view by the eyrie itself, yet commanding fully one quarter of the horizon, is the steep row of faded purple mountains; beyond them the churning tumult of the Cataclysm, forever raging; eternal.
Nobody knows for sure when the Cataclysm happened, only that it did. The Dictator, in his hubris, broke the world—broke all worlds—but ultimately could not control that which he had wrought.
Reality conflated, compressed, folded in on itself for a period of time that might have been one second or a billion years. And then, the cosmic detritus of everything was vomited back up, thrusting back into existence as a lance of solid energy, recreating all around it in a misshapen reconstruction of what-had-been.
Such was the Everyworld birthed, a solar system carved out of space-time that contained all the multitudes of all the things that had ever existed. And out of those multitudes was born Strife, the Man-Who-Can-Kill-Anything, he of the living shadow; a living shadow now ascending to the top of an eyrie to kill a beast corrupted by the taint of man’s ultimate creation: the Swarm.
In truth, Strife himself bore the taint. The shadows that he carried with him grew thicker with each kill. And so his power grew in direct proportion to his guilt. Such was the burden of Strife.
With one forceful exhalation, he hoisted himself up and into the opening of the eyrie, a cave open to the sky except for a few jutting pillars of stone. It was obvious that the Terrible Feathered Thing had no natural enemies, or else it would have sought out a more secure place to roost.
Yet Strife was the natural enemy of everything.
The attacks had begun sometime in the past six months. Travellers on the long road that stretched from the Cross-Hatched Union of Dubloun to the standing city of Atreiska had gone missing. Cars, wagons and trucks were found piled up along the road. Any supplies the travellers had carried with them had been left, but there was no trace any bodies, human or horse or otherwise. Those few who had survived spoke of a looming shadow in the sky—the Terrible Feathered Thing—who was snatching travellers from the road and returning to its eyrie to consume them.
And here, atop the jumbled spire of boulders arranged upon the horizon like some phallic harbinger of doom, Strife witnessed the remains of those who had been taken. Hundreds of skeletons, bones picked clean and broken. So many bones that they crunched underfoot as he walked. Hands, arms, legs, skulls—so many skulls. Rib cages and hips and twisted spines.
A lesser man would have been cowed by the sight. But Strife was no mere man. Strife was the Great Adversary of Love, the darkness-in-the-darkness… and he had a job to do.
The shadow in his hand still resembled a climbing pick, but now its shape altered to form a hatchet, a battle-axe, a sword, a sawed-off shotgun. With his free hand he gathered the shadows around himself and settled against a dark corner of the cave where he blended with the rocks.
When the Terrible Feathered Thing returned, he would kill it. Of this, he had no doubt. Strife was not afraid of dying, for it had happened to him many times. In fact, death was his natural state and he would not have been here at all had it not been for the Dictator and his Cataclysm.
But he was here, possessed with a sentience of his own. And in defiance of the shadows that swathed him, Strife, the Great Adversary, would keep on fighting.
In the distance, drawing closer, a shadow loomed in the sky…