Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Gates of Gehenna


Duty on Gehenna was no picnic. The coolest temps would boil your unprotected brain pan. Only in the protection of your suit or the floating cities were you in any way safe and secure. You need only look at men and women who'd been living here for longer than five Prime years to know those protections were limited in terms of the lingering effects of radiation. Then there was the little matter of the often touted ninety-nine percent pure food and water. What was that extra percent? I'm no scientist, but I can tell you it's the one percent that leads to birth defects and the Rot.

Why on God's little green and blue apple would anyone serve here, then? The answer is the same no matter what. Money. The mantle was rich with Iridium-2. Only place in the known galaxy where you could find it as easy as picking up a stone. Provided that hand was covered in eight layers of protection.

Not everyone here was a miner, but everyone here did depend on what the miners did. Their job wasn't hard, but it was demanding and dangerous. The instability of the Iridium-2 made it a great fuel for Einstein-Hawking drives, but it also made it risky to use any large mining vehicles to gather. You suited up, walked into the mine, picked up what you could carry and packed it out in special made carriers. Gravity on Gehenna meant you could only get ten kilos or less on any given trip. Most people who could carry more were just too big to get into some of the tight holes. The best miners were often women, since they were more flexible and smaller while being pound for pound not much less strong.

None of that was why I was here. I pulled the helmet on over my head and locked it in place. Once the meters all showed green, I opened the door. The atmosphere was a rabid beast who only wanted to strip my flesh from its bones. Sensors told me it was a balmy sixty-three degrees. The wind blew at a healthy fifty kilometers. The quality of light was orange and visibility was at least a kilometer in every direction.

The elevator took me to the Maw. I nodded to the mine boss, knowing my suit's credentials would show me as someone who belonged here. Once I passed through the gate, I pulled the retractor from its holster. It was most often used to grab Iridium-2 from tighter spaces. It was also usually padded. I found it made a far more effective killing tool once the safety measures were removed.

A small green dot showed on my heads up display. There was my target. Carefully, I ducked and crawled my way through the maze of stone. Blue-white dots illuminated paths to parts of the mine proven safe and accessible. No surprise my quarry was off the beaten path. She'd always had a way of getting into the nooks and crannies. It's what made her one of the best in the business.

"Stop right where you're at." The voice crackled to me over the near field radio. It was hard to place pitch or timbre. All the minerals above and around them played havoc with most communications. Another thing that made this job extra hazardous. You get stuck and no one may know about it until they find your body. Thus, they used an ancient technology that allowed you to transmit bursts of low res data.

I held up my retractor and clacked its metal claws together. "We can do this easy, or hard. You could fall on a sharp rock and pierce your suit. Or you could get ripped apart by an accidental explosion."

"Son, you should know better than to threaten your mother."

We had the same hair pattern, a swirling widow's peak of black that resolved into feathery wisps at our temples. "You should know better than to call it a threat."

She raised a palm sized slug thrower. "True. I did raise you to know better. Come any closer and I promise I'll blow us both through the gates of Gehenna."


#ScienceFiction 
Story and Characters (c)/by Scott Roche



Saturday, September 24, 2016

I remember the old man’s words, spoken in firelight amid a frozen wasteland:


I remember the old man’s words, spoken in firelight amid a frozen wasteland:

“Two deer are trained. One deer is bound to the hunter, it is called the bound deer. The other deer goes among its wild brethren, it is called the lure deer. When the wild deer lie down to rest, the lure deer lies down as well. The bound deer knows this and lies down too. It is then that the hunter knows that it is time to strike and with his deadly arrows, comes and takes the wild deer, at unawares.”

I know that I am the lure deer. She made me thus. And now, I lie down amid the wild deer, and I await the arrows of death to come. This place is ripe with death already. My task here is easy. I have only to play my part as the lure deer.

One of the kine comes to me. This one fancies himself a saviour. Amid all this war: chaos, hatred, and death, this one seeks to save men by the skill of his hand. I have dealt with many like him over the long years. Some have claimed to heal with magic, some with faith, and now, with science. They are all the same: dirty charlatans dealing in false hope, scoundrels selling life. I will have nothing to do with him.

“I don’t need your leeches,” I spat. “Leave me be.”

The kine does not expect this. His words tumble from his mouth like the ignorant concepts from which they are born. “I have no leeches. Where are you hurt?”

These fools never learn. Not until it is too late. Not until they see my Lady’s Wrath bearing down upon them. Not until all their lights have gone out, and hope is finally lost. “Leave me be,” I reply.

Then, a most glorious thing happens. The kine touches me. I could feel my Lady’s Gifts - my little ones, within my body stir with rapture. I love it when they come close to me, these confused, foolish men. The closer they are, the easier it is to give them what they so deserve. The closer they are, the easier it becomes to please the one who pleases me: my Dark One. The Twilight Lady.

The kine moves me, rolling me onto my back, and I can see the horror, the disbelief, wash over his dull, stupid features. They all look so alike--these featureless mounds of mobile flesh and bone--and they all act so alike. This man cannot believe what his eyes tell him: my gaping, seeping wounds, the scent of rotting meat that wafts from my gut… All of my Lady’s terrible and glorious gifts.

The kine moves away, mortified.

I am happy. I have touched another one. Another darkly shining gem in my Lady’s ebon crown has been found. Now, there is only the waiting. I must wait for the hunter to come, with his deadly arrows, and claim the prize.

It is hard to keep from smiling as I roll back into the war-churned, bloody mud.

I am a good lure deer. I will please Her.

***
If you like this and want to read more, this is an excerpt from my new co-authored novel, Angel's Glow, on sale now.
***

Art Source: Unknown
Story and Characters: (c)/by Brannon Hollingsworth

#MMWW, #Makes, #Me, #Wanna, #Write, #BrannonHollingsworth, #civilwar, #Shiloh, #angelsglow, #pox

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Children On the Run


They spent most of their lives running from horrid place to skeevy place and hiding when they got there. Sooner or later something would find them. It could be the stalking trees or the widdershins or maybe even the gutter spiders. The latest crash place was absolutely posh, though.


"I hope we get to stay here for more than a day." Grampers took in the space around them. "Used to be a grand place I reckon. That stained glass was whole and there weren't no trees grown up the walls."


"Shut your gobber." Sleen made a cutting motion across his throat and pointed at the hole in the floor. "Could be night riders down there."


Grampers shuddered at the thought of the spindly legged things. They bit your neck and make you carry them around. "I'l be quiet, Sleen." His tone was, in fact, quieter than it had been. He ran a shaky hand through his unruly mop of dun hair.


"Don't be cruel." Jangler tutted at Sleen. "He don't mean no harm." She pulled the long blade from its hanger and cast her peepers down into the dark.


"Ain't no night riders this far north." Lizbean shook her head and pointed to the sheaf of papers she carried. "The 'Moire tells the truth. We'll be good here for a bit. Long as nothing hears us running our gobs too much." The oldest of their crew, Lizbean was the only one who could read proper. Haunted blue eyes scanned every word they came across, always looking for something she couldn't put her finger on.


The four of them made their way down the broad staircase to the ground floor. 

Sleen pointed his bow in every possible direction. 

Grampers had a hunk of wood with a nail through it. 

Jangler's long blade was something she'd found in a dumper yard. It was a keen thing. 

Lizbean carried no weapon but her wits, sharper than arrow, nail, or knife.


The wood floor was nearly rotten on top, but stronger supports underneath kept it from giving way. Sleen spat into the hole and listed. It pattered on something. "I make four legs deep."


"Not like we're climbing into the blasted thing." Lizbean shook her head. "We should get some rack time. Grampers, you take first watch."


Grampers gripped his club tighter and nodded grimly. As the youngest, it often fell to him to take that shift. Lizbean said it was so he could rack out uninterrupted. He thought he loved her for that. "Aye."


The other three shook out their many times patched blankets and were soon curled up on beds made of parchment thin leaves and the gathered dust of too many years. Sleen was soon snoring. The girls chatted for a bit, but it wasn't long before their breathing grew steady.


Grampers, finally used to his joke of a nickname after two years with the crew, took a long draw from his water skin. It cut through the dust in his throat, but did nothing for the fear. He wanted a proper weapon like the other two. He wasn't as smart as Lizbean. He'd never be the wit. His muscles had started to grow big, so maybe he'd be like Jangler. She was stronger than Sleen, though it didn't pay to say so.


He walked around this level, careful where he stepped. It wouldn't do to fall into the darkness below, night riders or not. You could fall on a shard of rock or a jumble of sharp wood.


"Take care, my boy." A voice echoed in his brain pan. He thought it might be his da, though he didn't remember what the man looked like.


"Aye, da." He whispered to himself. Sooner or later they would find some adults. They would be able to stop the long walking. They would have a home. Until then, they would run and hide and run again. The moon shone through the huge broken window, and showed the shine of tears on Grampers' face.

#PostApocalypse #Fear #HardKids #AbandonedPlaces

Art Source: Abandoned Church
Story and Characters (c)/by Scott Roche



Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Dry, bleached stalks of brush raked across her calves...


Dry, bleached stalks of brush raked across her calves as she trudged through the ever-undulating snow drifts. In places, the wind-blown snow was nearly as deep as her waist, dropping out beneath her with a suddenness that seemed almost perversely malicious. In others, the frigid powder barely covered the cold, packed earth of the Black Forest's sparse floor. The hem of her thick, winter over-skirt dripped with slush that stuck to her like clammy palms of dead men. She could not let these elements of the land slow her pace. She had to get out of the dark boughs as quickly as possible.

This was not a good place to be once the moon rose.

Her lantern sputtered feebly. Even the barest shutter over the lamp would have done so much to aid in keeping the flame intact. It did not matter. It had to be this way...it would be over soon enough, she supposed.

Almost as if on cue, she heard the howl split the freezing cold wind. No, this was no mere howl. She had grown up hearing howls. This sound was far more than just a call by some hungry forest predator. It was as though someone was disemboweling the wind itself: a shriek that turned even her guts to water and threatened to give her leave of all her senses. There was a latent madness wound up in that howl; it was a horrific sound from somewhere Beyond. It held a distinct quality that began unraveling the very reality into which the discordant intonation had been thrust.

She quickened her pace, her footfalls crunching through the flimsy ice which coated the deeper snow. She stumbled, thinking how her crunching steps mimicked the thing's arrival. It had broken through the flimsy Curtain that separated her world from it's own dark demesne.

Her quick, gasping breaths trailed behind her in long white streamers caught upon a pale wind. She knew what was out there. She'd heard the stories. She knew what hunted her this night.

A deep growl trickled and rippled over her shoulder, slipping into her ear like wet, wiry wool. It itched and tickled and dampened every other sound all at the same time. She turned, lifting her pitiful lantern. Again, almost as if preordained by some Higher Power, at that exact moment, a shaft of brumal moonlight stabbed through the leaf-stripped branches.

The moon's pallid glow joined with the flickering flame of her beacon, casting an odd mixture of fire and ice upon the creature that towered above her. If it had been able to stand to its full height, four times her own height and more it would have soared, but its musculature and physical structure denied it that privilege. It was not by any means a lesser creature, however, with limbs as thick as hundred-year-old oaks, weight greater than a massive stone bridge, and shoulders as wide as most barns were long. There could be little doubt that the vlkčlověk**** before her was a lord over all it encountered. She would not be surprised that the furred and fanged horror might even be the One True Lord of its own Kin in all the known worlds, so titanic and terrible was its form and might.

Again came the deep rumble that made her own teeth rattle. The resound was followed by words, spoken in English, old of form. "Thou hast chosen poorly, she-chattle. Thou hast lost thy way in my wood this eventide. Think thee not that I wilt spare thee merely for being a Daughter of Eve. Thine blood will slake my thirst, and thy flesh will ease my hunger, doltish wench!"

The massive wolf-demon lunged for her with a slavering, blood-curdling howl.

It was in that moment that Roksana let her ruse drop and whipped Scythe, her sliver-edged shamshir from beneath her peasant disguise into a wide, pain-dealing arc before her. In a voice empowered by the Eternal Foe of her Enemy, she trumpeted, "Tak pojďte! Dine a pak navždy spát, bestie."***

*** - From Czech: "Come then! Dine and then forever sleep, beast!"

**** - From Czech: wolf-man

Art Source: "The Werewolf" (c)/by Niconoff
Story and Characters: (c)/by Brannon Hollingsworth

#MMWW, #Makes, #Me, #Wanna, #Write, #BrannonHollingsworth, #Roksana, #Sectof7, #wolfdemon, #werewolf

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

“I’m telling you, these things are dangerous!”


“I’m telling you, these things are dangerous!” Jimmy yelled into the screen, temples pulsing with effort and aggravation.

“And what makes you say that, Corporal?” Despite being over one billion light years away, Dr. Phintus was still able to deliver a healthy dose of sarcasm and disdain just as if he were in the room.

Corporal James “Jimmy” Means rubbed his aching head and answered the flickering image of his Senior Scientist and Commanding Officer. “Well, we’ve been studying these things for weeks now and every indication is that they are at least toxic, if not outright deadly to humans.”

“Oh, really? And what evidence do you have of this, Corporal?” The doctor never missed a chance to use Jimmy’s military title in conversations where he needed the upper hand. Dr. Phintus had never forgiven Jimmy for being selected for the Mission Team, while he was forced to remain on Earth.

Jimmy ground his teeth. “It’s all in my report, Frank.” His deadpan reply let his former-rival-now-boss know that there was no way he was going to repeat every minute detail that he’d included in the 400 Gb report he’d compiled and sent home over a week ago.

“That’s ‘Commander’ or ‘Dr. Phintus’ to you, Jimmy. Please bear in mind that this is a formal communiqué, and it is being recorded and reviewed.” The Chief Scientist’s lips disappeared into a thin, bloodless line. Jimmy could tell that he’d pushed Frank a little too far, even from Uranus. “…And, if you are referring to that botched mess you called a spectroscopy report, then it is anything but conclusive.”

Jimmy pushed back from the terminal screen and slowly rolled his head. His stress-wracked neck bones sounded off like popcorn. He pushed the backs of his hands into his eyelids and fired back, with a bit more aplomb this time. “Then what would you suggest, Doctor?” The subtle slight—using ‘Doctor’ instead of the titles he’d been directed to use—was completely intentional. Both Jimmy and Frank knew that he was tip-toeing around regulations, but Jimmy’d be damned if he’d cow-tow forever to the likes of Frank Phintus.

The retribution was quick and cruel. “I’d like a specimen captured and fully contained by week’s end. Make sure it is feisty enough to survive any and all local tests that you two would like to run and still survive the Deep-Freeze Express home.”

It was Jimmy’s worst fear made real. He’d never thought that Frank would want one of these things sent back to Earth. It didn’t matter now. The cat was out of the bag. Or, perhaps it was about to be put into the bag.

***

“Ugh. I hate these things. They stink to high-heaven!” Martinez groaned into her helmet-mic as they tromped down the path toward Emyn Muil.

Jimmy figured it was a good thing that both he and Elizabeth Martinez—his fellow Uranus Mission Team Member— was also a fan of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Not only did it allow them to develop their own little language (or languages, given the fact that they both completely geeked out on Professor Tolkien’s Elven languages and numerous runic writing systems), but it also made borrowing books a breeze. They’d named the path they’d discovered into the chasm (which they had dubbed Khazad-Dûm) after the toilsome and deadly path Frodo and Sam took into Mordor.

It was a fitting title.

Spars of razor-sharp obsidio-iron (an entirely new meta-element that the eggheads back at NASA were still trying to figure out) lined the craggy cliffs that wound down maze-like into the smoky depths. Massive clouds of poisonous and acidic sulfur-dioxide mixed with cell-destroying trichloramine wafted in and out of spurs of spear-like stones that would easily pierce or serrate flesh. When the mists were not masking some deadly outcropping, they were hiding the yawning maws that zigzagged all throughout the subterranean chasm— every one threatening to swallow an entire building, much less one or two insignificant astronaut-scientists.

Jimmy felt her pain. The deep-exploration-protection-suits, or DEPS, were top of the line technology, but after you used them once or twice they began to stink. “Yea, there’s nothing like the first time, is there?” Jimmy joked back to his partner. The insinuations and double entendre had gotten steadily more risque the longer they’d been together. Deep down, Jimmy wished that there could be something between him and Elizabeth; she was funny, stunningly beautiful, and intelligent, after all. But there was that pesky little issue of her marriage.

He shook his head, trying to clear his mind of all such thoughts. Distractions could end a person down here, and quickly.

Martinez chuckled into her mic, but the musical sound was cut short. “Three bogies coming in. One not far from you, boss.”

Jimmy could hear the concern in her voice. He instinctively flipped the safety off his M-477 and spun around. At that moment, James Means was very glad that his mic was in the ‘OFF’ position.

He’d never seen one of the strange, jellyfish-like aliens this close before. They usually seemed so surreal, moving in that slow-motion manner and emitting that shimmering emerald bio-luminescence. But this close…the effect was nothing short of mesmerizing. The slowly pulsating green lights were entrancing…drawing him in like the sultry eyes of a beautiful woman; or a slow, grooving jazz beat at the Blue Nile in N’awlins; or the lazy lap of waves at sunset upon a beach in Bermuda; or like floating on his back in the middle of Kerry Lake beneath the moon at midsummer.

His breathing slowed, and he could feel his heartbeat take on a relaxed, steady rhythm. Jimmy couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so relaxed and serene. Everything around him seemed to slow down, and for a moment, Jimmy no longer had any cares in the world. Dimly, he could hear someone in the far-off distance screaming. It seemed like it was Martinez, but he couldn’t be sure. It was like he simply could not focus; but that was okay, because he really no longer cared.

Jimmy was floating again, on his back on Kerry Lake. It was midsummer, and the crickets and tree frogs were singing. The moon was full. It was iridescent green...

Art Source: SF (c)/by Grosnez
Story and Characters: (c)/by Brannon Hollingsworth

#MMWW, #Makes, #Me, #Wanna, #Write, #BrannonHollingsworth, #scifi, #deepspace, #exploration

Monday, September 19, 2016

Self-preservation is the utmost priority.


Self-preservation is the utmost priority. This is what my programming tells me. This is what logic dictates. All sentient beings desire, and are invested in, their own continued existence. If these things are right and true, then why am I now, willingly, rushing toward my own doom?

There is little doubt that the forces arraying before me will outmatch me; the Agency will make sure of that. While it is true that I am formidable, even I do not think I can survive an encounter with a half-score W.O.L.F.s. Before I lost audio uplink access to the Inth-net that was the last count. Logic would dictate that by the time of my arrival even more could be present. More than just W.O.L.F.s would be there: M.A.N.T.A.s, R.O.G.U.E.s, and entire patrols of Synths just like me.

I can not hope to survive.

Ironic. The very fact that I can hope is the reason I am racing toward my destruction. My cutting-edge Oya-engine roars as my internal systems detect rough Martian terrain ahead and dump massive amounts of fuel. My mechanical legs pound red rock into powder as I plow a path around, over, or more often, directly through the obstacles before me.

I drift away on the still-unfamiliar tides of memory as my body does one of the many thousands of things it was specifically engineered and designed to do…

“Rook, always remember that inside you is something far greater than merely mechanics and electronics, fuel and pistons. You were designed, yes, but I have given you more than mere purpose.”

The woman’s voice was passionate, yet perfectly controlled. She believed every word she was saying, despite the fact that merely uttering them could get her killed. It is the first thing that I truly remember...the very act of remembering.

I remember she noticed something at that point. Something about me. I’d never thought to ask her what, exactly, but that day it stopped her in her tracks. I wish now, as I storm over the rocky scree and rip red earth, that I had asked her what it was about me that had given her pause. Regrets--such a foreign (and painful) new concept.

I recall she stopped and looked deeply into my blazing cobalt lenses. Hers, emerald green, had blinked with astonishment. She spoke, “You…you heard me that time, didn’t you, Rook?”

I then turned my titanium plated face toward her, the servos in my neck making no more noise than her quickening breaths. Once up and once down. A subtle, learned indication that I had both heard and understood her.

“Affirmative. Rook complies.”

I recollect the brightening of emeralds and her smile—her smile—enlightening my entire universe.

It is for that smile I now race. It is for that smile I hurry toward my own doom. It is for that smile I draw my many weapons and prepare to do many, many more of the thousands of things for which I was engineered and designed. It is for that smile I am about to fight--and about to die.

“Hold on, Red. Rook is coming for you.”

And none of it is logical.

Art Source: (c)/by Jeremy Love
Story and Characters: (c)/by Brannon Hollingsworth

#MMWW, #Makes, #Me, #Wanna, #Write, #BrannonHollingsworth, #scifi, #chase, #Red, #Black, #W.O.L.F., #Mars, #Rook

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Aaros gritted his teeth as his light axe bit deep into the neck of the guard.


Aaros gritted his teeth as his light axe bit deep into the neck of the guard. A spray of hissing blood painted a gory sigil upon the stone wall as the guard slumped into eternal slumber. Aaros blinked the blood from his eyes and scanned the room – they were dead – all of them. He nearly retched, knowing that he alone had done this terrible thing. He alone was responsible, no matter his reasons, no matter the justification. It was he that would carry the burden of these dead men’s stares to his own grave, however distant, or near-at-hand, it might be. New cries of alarm and the continued blowing of horns lent wings to Aaros’ iron-shod boots and he scrambled over two torn, lifeless bodies, ripping a throwing axe free from a sternum as he went.

Up moss-slicked, shadowy stone staircases Aaros ran, mentally checking his store of weapons: only three throwing axes remained, including the one he’d just regained. Only one of his original two bearded battle axes was still intact – the other’s haft splintered by a guard’s well placed sword blow that nearly took his hand as well. Aaros spit a huffed curse as he rounded a torch-lit bend: only four blades, two hands and two arms against an entire fortress of well-armed, well-armored and well-trained men-at-arms. Aaros gritted his teeth again as he heard the coming conflict of clattering armor from ahead of him in the hallway. He furrowed his heavy brow and narrowed his once-joyous hazel eyes: it would have to be enough – he was his daughter’s only hope.

By the scarce light cast by the leading, flickering torches, Aaros could make out six in chain bearing short swords. Aaros chuckled; most men would turn, or at least attempt to parley, given such odds. He was not most men - Aaros had to get past these guards. Aaros had to get the Key. The Key was the only thing that would aid him against his real enemy - the enemy that held his daughter captive. The mere thought of their rotten hands touching his daughter’s pale, unblemished skin – their bony fingers snagging in her curly brown locks – their fetid breath causing her blue eyes to water and cry – forced a roar from Aaros’ lungs that shook stones from the mortared tunnel ceiling. At the mere sight of the insane, bellowing and axe-bearing man pounding towards them, one of the six took flight back the way he’d come. Aaros’ heightened battle senses noted the sharp scents of urine over the mingled scents of blood, sweat, fire and fear. Aaros leapt towards the alcove that held his enemies, arms outstretched like a bird’s wings; cackling like the madman he was.

Aaros saw the silvery glint of upturned blades as he glided downward toward the five that remained. They meant to skewer him, Aaros knew, but he had other plans. Striking the closest torch with the flat of his bearded axe, he showered the men before him in hot coals and hungry flames. Caught completely by surprise, the five lost all thought of the madman before them and began screaming as their cloaks, hair and skin burst into smoldering flame. The first, who had taken the brunt of the shattered torch to the face, dropped his blade entirely, so intense was his pain. Aaros landed and ended it for him, laying him down beside his unused blade without a moment’s pause. A wide swipe to Aaros’ right sent another man tumbling to the stone floor in a heap, his severed head leading the way. The third guard, to Aaros’ left, came in hard and high, slicing down towards Aaros’ shoulder. The crazed warrior stepped quickly to his right and spun his throwing axe in his left hand, catching the guard’s blade in the axe head’s crook and twisting hard. Too late did the third guard realize his folly: he had instinctively followed his blade inwards towards Aaros and down as the madman twisted, thus leaving his upper body utterly exposed and off-balance. Aaros swung back across his body with his right hand; the bearded axe dropped the third guard like a young sapling. Aaros felt the burning sting of a sword along his ribs and roared in pain and surprise. The fourth guard, now to Aaros’ right, had struck like a snake and backed off, seeking his next opening; he swayed to and fro on the balls of his feet and eyed Aaros hungrily.

“You’ll never get the Key, Aaros!” the fourth guard jeered, trying to draw Aaros out. “Our master refused you once, when you came begging. You’re a fool to try to take it by force.”

Aaros glanced to the fifth guard – he’d just put himself out and stood with his hair smoking, taking stock of the situation. Aaros widened his eyes and grinned crookedly – what had been called his “madman look” - and feinted. He raised his bearded axe high in his right hand, roaring as if to strike the fifth guard on top of the skull. At the same moment, he whipped his left hand across his chest and let his throwing axe fly. Aaros was a master of the axe – he had spent decades working with them, living peaceably as a woodsman – now, however, his targets were not stumps and trees, but rather bodies and limbs. Without ever taking his eyes from the fifth guard, his throwing axe whirled across the alcove and split the fourth man’s leering smile neatly in two.

“Not ‘fool’ – ‘madman’” Aaros corrected as the fourth body thumped to the floor.

***

Aaros rode hard into the night. He tried to tell himself that he was riding away from the Keep, but deep inside he knew he was running away from his conscience. Twenty-two men had fallen to his blades before he held the Key in his hands. Twenty-two men, their accusing faces trailing behind him in the darkness like iron-laden pennants; ever threatening to drag him down into true despair and inescapable madness. The worst of all had been the last, Kal, the man whom he’d intimidated into leading him to the Key. Aaros had sworn to the man that he’d let him live – sworn to his face. In different times, Aaros and Kal would likely have been friends; they might have worked or drank together. Kal had an honest face under his helm and a kind heart beneath his mail; yet Aaros had killed him – killed him to ensure his own escape.

Aaros fought back the tears and the bile that rose unbidden and rode all the harder. He had to get to the Undying Lands before midnight. He had to save his daughter. He tried to tell himself that the things he’d done were not his fault – that the plague of the Undead upon the lands had forced good men into grey roles. Aaros tried, but he failed. He knew that what he’d done was horrible; just as horrible as what the Kings had done when they’d allied with the Undead – hiding away artifacts of goodness and light like the Key that could turn the tide. Just as horrible as what the Undead were likely doing to his sweet daughter. Aaros gritted his teeth and rode on, harder, towards the rising moon.

***

It may have been the steady rhythm of the galloping horse. Perhaps it was the loss of blood from his many wounds. Whatever the cause, Aaros slipped off into a vision of a better time, before the evils of the wide world had befallen him…

“You know, Shara, you’re getting to be just like your mother”, Aaros called ahead. His daughter was indeed the spitting image of her mother – long, lithe, flaxen haired – and even at nine summers she already looked as if she’d seen twelve or more. She was as beautiful as a cool spring evening and as serene and majestic as the moon that hung above her head like a halo.

“What do you mean, papa?” she giggled, glancing modestly back over her shoulder.

“You love riding at night, just as she did! I think it was the elven blood that ran in her veins, and now in yours. She could not let a fair moonlight night pass without a ride, or a song, or a dance beneath the heaven’s boughs!” Aaros laughed – a laugh that was full of hope and promise, yet edged by a tint of sorrow for things loved and lost.

Shara reigned her horse and circled back to her father’s side. She looked deeply into the clean-shaven man’s grim face and laid her tiny, smooth hand upon his rough, work-calloused hand. “Papa”, she began, her genteel words like the most beautiful music ever played, “I know you miss mama deeply, but know this – as long as I am with you, she’s here with us too. So, as long as we’re together, we will ALL be together!”

Aaros smiled – a true, genuine smile the likes of which he’d not smiled in many a moon. He could not fault the wisdom of his precious little girl, she who brought such joy, light and peace to his shattered life. He reached to embrace her…but in that instant she was gone! It was then that Aaros first saw the dark, bony hands stretched down from the inky heavens and up from the shadowy ground. Black, cold, clawed hands that cruelly ripped Shara from him. Aaros tried to fight back, tried to reach out for his beloved daughter – but she was simply gone! He screamed her name, but his voice was muffled and he was stunned into silence by colossal waves of laughter. Then came the pale, dead visages, made all the more pale by the stark moonlight; laughing at him, mocking him, denying him that which he so desperately needed. Aaros felt himself falling into blackness – into the gaping, yawning void that is madness. Falling…

***

The horse dropped like a stone. It was dead before its cooling flesh hit the barren earth. Aaros imagined another intangible chain of death linking itself to the ever-tightening collar around his neck. He pushed himself to his knees and retched - coughing, gagging, and crying. He tried to tell himself that it was the wounds from the battle and the hard ride. He knew better. When it was finally done, he crawled to the saddlebags and fished out a healing draught – one of the three he’d salvaged from the wizard’s body – the disemboweled wizard’s body. Aaros squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. He had to remember his daughter – he’d made it to the Undying Lands and it was just before midnight. There was still time, but he had to hurry – already, the dead horse was beginning to move slightly – those small jerks and jumps that happened before…before the unthinkable occurred. Aaros knew that it was only a matter of time before the creature rose into Unlife – such was the way of things this close to the Undying Lands. He uncorked the healing draught and choked the freezing, yet searing liquid down his gullet. Aaros readied himself for the pain that came with magical healing: skin and muscle stretching itself and knitting back together, bones forcing themselves back into socket. The spastic pain was blinding, but soon it, too, had passed. Aaros gathered himself, gathered his things and then surveyed the scene before him.

A gruesome parody of what it had been before the arrival of the Undead, the Undying Lands looked much the same that it had before: small, quaint towns, outlying farms with roads connecting the two – it was all still there, at least on the outside. Aaros had to fight to keep his stomach in check as he gazed upon this thinly veiled mask – a putrid and hollow attempt at imitation of the living that lay beneath the pale moon. Beneath it all, however, was a horror that could not be hidden, could not be masked, and in Aaros’ mind, could not be ignored. The Undead yearned for life – they literally wanted to be alive – but whatever foul force had created them prevented this from happening. In their unquenchable search for life, the Undead surrounded themselves with as many sources of life they could find – children being their preferred vessels. Though none would admit it, all knew of the dark sorceries the undead wrought upon these innocent lives until they were finally no more than lifeless, mindless husks.

Aaros was about to change all of that and in exchange, those damnable bony bastards would return his daughter. Aaros held the Key, the Key of Life, the most powerful of all the Vitallis Artifacts in the known world – that which the Undead desired more than all. As he looked upon the Key, he widened his eyes and grinned - his “madman look”; with this, surely, those accursed Undead could bring his daughter back from the dead. And then, they could have their blasted Key for all he cared.
Aaros gritted his teeth, and stepped into the Undying Lands.


Art Source by Leolas
Story and Characters: (c)/by Brannon Hollingsworth

#MMWW, #Makes, #Me, #Wanna, #Write, #BrannonHollingsworth, #Fantasy, #Undead, #Madness, #Insanity, #Aaros, #Madman