April 2

Breathe

So I started this story while hospitalised for 3 weeks post routine surgery. More tellingly, it was after a bad trip caused by pain relief medication whose side effects caused vivid hallucinations of death coming for me. Nice. Another in the ward experienced waking in a morgue saturated in his own blood. Yikes. Well we both stopped taking those pills but I knew I should not miss the opportunity to write it down. Sprang from this came John, a hero or a villain, whose deeds were too short for a novel, yet too long for a novella. Written at an unhappy time and in poor health I find it’s not a story I like to revisit so instead I leave it raw and unpolished. Perhaps John himself deserved better, but then again given the choice I suspect he too would rather have not revisited the past for sometimes memories are just too painful…

 

 

Breathe

 

Epilogue

Even as John stood over the dying wizard, watching remorselessly as he bled out, the magician looked through glassy eyes to smile back at him in death. The wizard’s mouth opened slowly and he whispered softly, too softly for the sound to carry to John’s ears. No matter, thought John. No incantation can harm me. It’s how I kill … how I killed them all.

“Bless …” croaked Eldritch, coughing blood as he tried to gather his last words.

John raised his sword to shove it through his heart.

“… you.”

John stopped mid-strike. Bless me? He barked a laugh, an emotion he had no longer thought himself capable of. It was an unpleasant bark that cut through the night-time rain and thunder to echo around the Canyons of Ascension. This was said to be a holy place, though he cared little for it. The very Gods had died here and risen to the heavens, each bright star a reproachful eye unto the world they had left behind. A tale to some, but John knew better for the secrets of death he was beholden to, its knowledge now his. It’s how I kill, he thought again. 

The conjurer smiled once more before trying to speak further. Curious and amused, John knelt in the blood beside him to hear his final words and stare into his eyes, to revel at the light draining from them, and to steal his final thoughts at his passing … when suddenly the old man gripped John’s arms to yank his head from the ground, to meet him face to face, to gasp his last.

“Love,” he said clearly, with an equanimity that belied his immediate fate. 

At once John fell backwards, the sword dropping from his grip as a thousand images flooded his senses in an incomprehensible rush. Too vast to discern one from another, they blinded him, they sang to him, they shouted and they screamed at him. His head roared in agony, his temples throbbed ready to split open as his mind filled to breaking point with memories of lives cut short by his own hand. Then they were gone, leaving a dreadful void that was sated only by a raw painful emotion that dug deep into his soul.

He could feel the despair and emptiness of every life he had taken, and behind those emotions – hidden from sight as if by a veil of shifting mist – he could almost glimpse the umbrageous force that had watched with murderous intent, that had orchestrated his actions, using him to kill against his will. His head continued to swim as snatches of memory came in patches: memories of the man he once was, of imprisonment and torture at the Tips of Blackness, memories of his will being snapped and re-forged as a tool for the black magic that now swept this land … and memories of evil. An evil so great his stomach heaved at its vileness.

He sat back up, horrified and dazed. Clutching for breath, scrambling on hands and knees, slipping through blood to the wizard. Why? Why had he killed? Who or what was he? But even if the wizard knew the answers, he had taken them with him to the grave, for his dull eyes now looked to the heavens, at the very Gods themselves, the smile still frozen upon his dead lips.

Dark Faerie Tale

“Mum, that’s silly – bears don’t talk or eat porridge.”

“I know, my little strawberry. It’s just a fable to get little girls to sleep by dreaming about nice things like – well, like talking bears. Look, see – your younger sister started snoring before I even mentioned the porridge!”

“I know a better story, for bigger girls. Maybe if I tell you I’ll feel sleepy then.”

Cynthia chuckled. Jocelyn was always pointing out she was bigger, taller and older than her sister Roselyn, even though there was just a year between them.

“Go on, then, my little angel.”

“Well when the Gods still walked among us …”

Cynthia tensed. The girl was only seven! She was far too young to be scared by tales of the War of the Gods, of murder, damnation and dark evil. Hell and Death personified had once lived on Earth, even if it were so long ago, it had. Such things were seldom mentioned by adults who feared its Return. Some even whispered the soul was damned. That the Judgements of Heaven and Hell no longer applied now the God of Heaven was dead and all were doomed to be dragged into Hell’s lake of eternal fire.

It was well John was late from the field tonight, otherwise he would been storytelling instead, and he never spoke of the War of the Gods – that was the way most people coped with the prospect of damnation. She would have to tell him about this though. Maybe. 

She let Jocelyn continue. Hopefully it was just innocent playground talk, a fantasy sprung from an overheard adults’ curse.

“I know it’s ‘tabyboo’” – Cynthia forced a smile at her attempt at a big word – “but James told me.”

“James?” Cynthia all but squawked. “But he’s only five!” God of Stars, how could he know? Then she relaxed – no, a five-year-old could no more know or understand these concepts, any more than a milking cow could! Even some adults turned insane at the truth, too terrified to confront it.

“The Gods hated us. Well, most of them. They were first, and they fought until they were all dead stars, and we won. Ne-crost-sist.” 

Cynthia paled: that was a name not to be spoken – well, close enough. Too many “t”s, for a start.

“He was pushed into the end of the world,” Jocelyn continued, where it rains for ever – even upside down, I think – I think that’s what James said.”

A chill went down Cynthia’s spine, the slow crawl of an unseen insect, on a naked body paralysed by fear in the dead of night. It was too close for comfort. The Gods had at first lived side by side, aiding humans, curing ills, bringing a plentiful time of paradise. Then came war, a conflict of unimaginable chaos. One by one all the Gods that sheltered man – and those that despised them – died until only one God remained, the embodiment of all evil. He was now trapped, sealed away, but alive. There would be no hope if he got free, the world would again become a living Hell. 

She wanted to tell Jocelyn to stop, but she couldn’t: the words froze in her throat.

“He waits, Mum, in a lake of fire, on an island swallowed by unsleeping storms. Waiting like a pee-nix, as Death and Hell. He can touch us – if we are not careful we get taken, or marked, or given, something. Anyway, that’s silly and boring. I’m tired. Goodnight, Mum.” Jocelyn yawned just once and then rolled over to compete with her sister’s snores. Such abrupt innocence.

The rest of the night stretched slowly for Cynthia, between occasional whimpers and strokes of Jocelyn’s beautiful red hair. The cold light of dawn found her kneeling between her daughters’ beds, deep in prayer to dead Gods who could not hear, for protection they could no longer give.

Pre-death … 10

John stiffly dismounted his stallion and looked upon the magnificent palace, no more than a day’s ride away. Its spires crested the low-hung clouds to bathe in the cool evening sun, gleaming like polished monoliths of pure white stone to awe fools with its splendour. He was going to pay his respects to the wizard that lived within those walls. And kill him. Old habits die hard after all, he mused humourlessly.

He futilely stamped his left foot, trying to get some feeling back into his numb leg as though he could wake it from slumber, but in truth it was beyond saving, ravaged as it was by wounds old and new, a mess of blood, bone and disease. He tried to flex the fingers on his left hand but they remained clumped into a useless tight ball, so instead he stretched his sword arm out in front of him. That still worked. Good. It had better: he was going to need it to rip the heart out of Falvco. 

Falvco the Magnificent would be the fifth evil conjurer in … in how long, he could no longer think to spill his secrets and guts. What were the names of the others? He could not recall, and he dared not consider what that meant. I need to get into that palace, before the pain grows once more. My end is surely near – at least, I hope it is.

The palace gate sat open and inviting, daring even for the curious traveller. But he wasn’t going to ride to the gate; he had other means of making an entrance. Inhaling deeply, he held his breath and counted to three before closing his eyes. I hate this part.

And died.

Death, always greedy to take but never as willing to let go, took him. Few had seen the Tips of Blackness and lived. Sometimes he wondered if he really had. Part of him would never leave the realm of the dead, of Hell. What would succumb to death this time? A hand, an arm, his sight? Or his even his mind? Please, not that! An elongated death was a terrifying price to pay for powers he had never asked for but would now use as mercilessly as when— as when I was under his spell

If he still had faith in the Gods of Stars he would have muttered a silent prayer. To pray one breath would be enough, for it was all that was ever given and it would be all he now had left; but he no longer held sacrosanct those who had abandoned him to this macabre shadow of humanity, so he did not. The breath’s slow departure from his decompressing lungs, the captured death rattle of those slain by his hand heard, as a soul departed the living, would cloy his mind, filling it with wretched visions of death. It was as though this ghoulish realm – so affronted by his visitations, intolerant of his pretence at being alive yet dead and dead yet alive, in a place where only death should dwell – fought to claim his soul. Whatever its true nature, it was the price he paid to animate his body, to free flesh from pain and to ward himself from both physical and magical harm. 

Eldritch the Magnanimous had been clever in bypassing such powerful magic, not striking out in anger but reaching out with compassion at the very moment of his certain death to break the curse upon him, freeing him from evil subservience. Little good it did him. Perhaps I envy his death.

Then the memories came forth unbidden, just as they always did when entry to Hell was sought. They played like a happy faraway dream, just out of reach, warm and fuzzy, before a scene formed from the amorphous darkness to gain definition and colour, filling with emotion and sound. For a moment it consumed him, every care and concern forgotten in an instant as it became his reality. His young children, Jocelyn with the long red sun-kissed hair and Roselyn with her blonde ponytails, running, laughing. The scene changed and now he could see his wife Cynthia dancing, hear her singing to a tune he recognised as faintly brazen; he watched, spellbound by her seductive lithe movements, each step bringing her closer, the anticipation driving him to near ecstasy before finally her warm lips pressed upon his with the tingle of their first kiss.

It’s not real. For a moment he almost gave in, wanting to be forever consumed by the visions’ intoxicating lies, but he tore himself away. The images faded to shadow, then darkness, and he felt a terrible loss for his wife. She was gone, somehow he knew that, even if he could not recollect how. His daughters too, Jocelyn and Roselyn, all dead by the malice that scourged this land. He felt hollow, as though something deep inside him had been cut out, taken, and only the lingering sensation of incompleteness remained. 

What would happen if I submitted? Would I stay dead? Would I find peace? Do they truly wait for me, and yet I chase them away? No. Death will bring no peace. Tears ran down his cheeks as he fell to his knees in sorrow. In death all we have is their memories – what will happen when even that is taken from me? Please spare my mind!

Steeling himself he opened his eyes and stood before Hell …

Memory Fragment … 09

It was another time, another life. Was it really his own?

“I cannot tell you how I came by it. It is no birthright. It cannot be taught. It can only be given.”

John – yes, it was he – had listened to those words, dismayed. Lane, his younger brother, loved by all who knew him. Funny, mischievous, always the first to see humour and raise a smile even at the darkest of moments. A man at peace with a life that enriched all it touched.

Until he was Marked. 

One night he had disappeared like a ghost in fog, returning a week later, but only to make his goodbyes. Marked, changed, not himself. Lane could now conjurer fire. John had seen a demonstration of his powers and felt a disquiet as a shadow crept over his brother’s face, as it contorted into a sneer, an alien expression on his brother’s soft features. Lane was cursed. But he was still his brother … wasn’t he?

Magic had not always been a part of the Kingdoms of a Thousand Stars, of course. Not since the time of their Gods, at least, but those deities were now long dead. Stories about magic had been nothing more than fairy tales to entertain the young until a dozen or so years ago when magic had started to spread, slowly at first, like a disease changing people’s nature, releasing those it infected from all bonds of friendship and family – for what reasons or to what design, those who knew never shared. Rumour had it that death always followed closely behind.

“But Lane, we are flesh and blood! Please – why can you not tell me? What happened to you? How did you come by these powers? Where will you go?”

Lane stared back with dead eyes and John felt afraid. A notion grew that this man before him was a stranger, dressed in his brother’s clothes, wearing his flesh, but not him. Lane had scared John’s wife Cynthia and their daughters; Jocelyn in particular was terrified. Perhaps in their purity of youth, unencumbered by cold logic, where fairy tales and monsters were still very real to a formative mind, his daughters had simply failed to recognise the man as their uncle. Shunned. Was what he saw in Lane’s eyes the reason for that? Was he now seeing the same thing his children saw? Did every father, brother or son who was “Given” or “Marked” powers return and feel this, this – wrong?

“I shall join the others in the capital and become advisor to the king.” His voice sounded flat, a poor imitation of Lane’s true voice.

“Advise the king but we tend sheep and grow crops!” John had said in exasperation.

“Take this and think not unkindly of me. Keep it safe.” Lane undid a leather cord from around his neck, from which a stone pendant hung, of a carved bird in flight framed by a sunburst. He gave it to John. “Farewell, John.” 

A moment passed between them, a surge of awareness too powerful to explain. It passed as quickly as it had come … and with that Lane had turned round and left their lives for ever.

Pre-death … 08

Steeling himself, he opened his eyes and stood before Hell …

The sky had already turned dark, the cool air now stank of sulphurous. Each breath would burn, but he held the air fast in his lungs. The sun was tinged with red as though filled with blood. He waited for the rest of the landscape to change; for some reason it never did unless you bore witness to its destruction, which was surely some dark joke. Then it came. The Haunts of the Earth, as it was known by few, but too many. Long sinuous shadows stretched unnaturally from the trees, like pools of black ink fleeing the madness of death. The verdant forest immediately aged before his eyes: trees blackened, branches withered, green leaves fell and turned brown before being caught upon a stale wind that washed over the decaying terrain. His horse rotted before his eyes, its bones crashing to the floor and exploding into clouds of ancient dust. Before long the landscape was a bleak, empty picture of ubiquitous death. Nothing living stirred, save himself. If I can still claim to be alive.

The tower remained intact, but it no longer shimmered in splendid innocence. Its appearance now took guise as a crumbling black ruin, a monstrosity rising up from the ground like a boil, ready to be lanced, ready to burst open with evil. The gate was drawn, the portcullis hung suspended like teeth ready to bite, and the moat was a rent in the Earth. 

Time to spring to action, he thought mirthlessly, advancing slowly, dragging his dead left foot across the mulch and detritus. The dead have come to play.

Slowly death’s stirrings began to seep into his mind, a curse for using unholy gifts. Unwanted thoughts prickled against his sanity and he fought aside images of rats feasting on rotted corpses, tearing apart pallid skin to feed on the juiciest morsels of maggot-infested flesh. Concentrate!

He walked towards the gate, grimly determined, and focused his mind solely on it. He first imagined standing beside the gate, running his fingers down the grooves in the wood and over its knots. The picture was almost clear in his mind when rancid images of death replaced them. He tried to push away its horror but he could now smell the malodour reaching his nostrils, he could feel the scratching of rat’s feet as his lungs started to fill up with water. Water? Concentrate! 

He tried again, but this time pictured the stone wall in his mind, close up, cold and rough to the touch, tall, black and crooked, like an angry giant had shoved the towers precariously askew, making the stones fall from their stresses. The image snapped into place, and in the blink of his third eye he was standing beneath the gate as if distance was just a concept that was as easily straddled and ridden like a horse. For here in the land of the dead, where time was a single point of infinity, where each second of eternity had already been played out to the end of all worlds, he knew death’s intimate secrets, and he could traverse this domain by thought alone before releasing the final vestige of a departed soul’s last breath to wake as if from a dream sent by Heaven but finished as a nightmare from Hell. Everyone who had come to pass and all those that would be were trapped in this single moment of antiquity, in death’s grip, by John himself. He almost laughed, but he was still sane enough not to. Only just let my sanity hold!

Death’s ruminations suddenly shattered his mental calm and the landscape filled with corpses as far as the eye could see. Their lifeless rotting bodies carpeted the land in heaps, and to his utter horror they began to topple and spill, rolling over each other like waves in a roiling sea of death, as if chased by storms, heading directly towards him. But I can’t leave yet! I’m not fully replenished!

Instantly, huge black squalling clouds of feathers and wings descended from the sky to feast upon the mass of dead, arriving with such force that they knocked John sprawling on to his hands and knees which then slowly began to push down under his weight, parting through sticky wet guts and ichor that oozed between his fingers. Panicked, he thrashed, desperately trying to untangle himself, to break their hold before they claimed him, burying him amongst the dead before the wave hit, but bony hands reached up, clawing, grabbing limbs as small wriggling nightmarish things scuttled around him. Then a dreadful invisible force drew his eye into the storm of ravens ahead, at a single body that rode the waves of death, bouncing and rocking towards him, getting ever closer. The body reached him atop a wall of gibbering insanity, to be spat forth from the ocean of dead, landing face down before being engulfed by fat beetles, fast-crawling slithering insects with too many legs, and slick black hungry birds that pecked with wild frenzy.

Stunned, trapped, John watched the cadaver’s eyeless head turn to face him in silent agony. He could feel its putrescent flesh being picked and pulled from bone and devoured by insects and carrion. With a terrifying vicarious lucidity he felt a wordless scream escape from its fleshless gaping mouth … and then he knew. 

Gods of Stars, no! It’s me! It’s ME! NOOOO ….

Breathe. He let the rest of his breath go …

… The sun burned upon the land once more, trees wavering slightly in the peaceful cool breeze as birds nesting in the nooks of the spire walls sang their eventide songs. He gasped, trying to clear airways clogged with stale fluids, to rid his mind of the visceral memories of half-eaten lungs that could not scream and they opened to take in fresh air. 

What had been taken? There was no time to find out, to think – to hesitate was to die. He was alive once more, that was all that mattered, a day’s ride from where he had died, covered in just a few moments, unannounced, impervious to ill. Refreshed, free from pain, but not whole. Each journey takes more away, each may be my last.

Gathering his senses, he hobbled into the palace courtyard. A huge fountain sat in the middle of the courtyard, its water spewing from angelic cherubs and ugly gargoyles alike. No. Not water, that isn’t ostentatious enough, it’s wine. It was surrounded by immaculately kept lawns and well-tended patches of exotic flowers whose names he knew not – perhaps I once did when I was a gardener – in colourful arrangements that marked a winding stony pathway to the palace up ahead. The path ended at the foot of snow-white steps beneath the shadow of a tall oaken door, twice the height of a man, gilded in patterns he recognised from the map of the heavens, the alignment of stars, of the Gods. How many lives were destroyed to pay for this?

Abruptly the huge doors opened and out stepped Falvco himself, a broad-shouldered old man with a long grey beard and a pretentious pointy hat to match. Maybe he left the robe and staff inside. For a long moment they regarded each other.

Falvco took in the man before him with a single fixated stare. The ripped, torn rags he wore, the outstretched sword arm clutching a bloodstained sword, the stump on the end of his other arm, the leg bent at an angle that should not be possible, bone protruding from flesh accompanied by the waft of disease. But it was the cold, dead eyes – that could not conceal a palpable madness sprinkled with total hatred that you could almost reach out and touch if you dared – that made Falvco’s own eyes widen in pure horror and bolt back into his palace as fast as he could.

John cursed and hobbled forwards, too slow to catch the retreating wizard, but safe in the knowledge that Falvco was trapped. He knew the limits of the man’s power: while some wizards could shape-shift into a bird and fly away, or turn to stone and become indestructible, Falvco had no such gifts. The worm forced his influence over the weak minded forcing them to serve at his behest, but would find his power useless against him. All he needed was one clear image of the man, running away or not, and he would use the last of his breaths to appear in his path, a sword thrust away from piercing his heart.

John entered the doorway, stepping inside. The room was huge, its walls adorned with tapestries and paintings as tall as a man, stretching upwards into shadows. A long regal narrow red carpet, decorated with yellow stitching and tassels, lay before a wide stone staircase, the centre piece to the room, which led to the first-floor landing. It created two corridors, of which Falvco took the left, screaming for help at the top of his lungs.

Concentrate! John held his breath and began to count to three. One ... Before he could picture the scene an arrow shrieked past his ear. Stunned, he looked up as another arrow thunked firmly into his shoulder. Two Guards? I’ll kill them all! He kept his eyes open, there was no time to tarry, he must let the horrors come. With two arrows loosed to settle his aim, the bowman let off a third directly at his head: Three. Instantly the room darkened …

Again came the memories, as a stalking shadow on his mind before unleashing. They played like a happy faraway dream just out of reach, warm and fuzzy, before a scene formed from the amorphous darkness to gain definition and colour, filling with emotion and sound. For a moment it consumed him, every care and concern forgotten in an instant as the vision became his reality. His children – one with long red sun-kissed hair and the other with her blonde ponytails – running, laughing. The picture changed and now he could see his wife Cynthia dancing, hear her singing to a melody he couldn’t recall. He watched, spellbound by her seductive lithe movements, each step bringing her closer, the anticipation driving him to near ecstasy before finally her warm lips pressed upon his. 

It’s not real. With the thought came the cold truth, that his family were dead. He could no longer remember which of daughters were which, Jocelyn or Roselyn. What would happen if I submitted? Would I stay dead? Would I find peace? Tears fell down his cheeks, and with a dread that nearly took the breath from his lungs he realised he had suffered this circle of emotions before.

Please spare my mind …!

Memory Fragment … 07

“They say they gather in the major cities and petition councils. Before the day is through, one of them blasted Marked ones is all but running the town.” The old man leant over from where he was sitting and spat on the floor of the Heavens’ Stars Inn at the mention of “Marked ones”. His sputum was lost somewhere in the dirt and grime. Probably the closest this place has come to being cleaned in years, thought John wryly. “Then it’s time to leave, if you know what’s good for you.” The man drank deeply, emptying his flagon before belching loudly.

Despite the overwhelming sense of wrongness, something about his brother Lane had tugged at him. The pendant was no leave-taking offering, it was important. As Lane’s eyes, a stranger’s eyes, looked through him, he had sensed …  a desperation at his fate. And maybe a cry for help. Why had his brother bothered to return to just say goodbye if he was truly no longer his brother? That was unusual – the knowledgeable beggar sat opposite him had said as much, in between his bodily indiscretions. Few had been willing to talk, but those hard on their luck – the downtrodden, the dirty, penniless and without hope – would do anything for their next meal. So it had proved.

Lane had returned in order to give him the pendant, John was sure of it. He had never seen it before, and he was certain it had not been in his brother’s possession prior – prior to what? Before he was Marked, or Given. The piece felt unnaturally warm to the touch, and it weighed heavily around his neck for such a small trinket. He could be imagining it all. Maybe. But while Lane had sheared sheep John had found his calling as a strongman, a name that described his various jobs. He had made a lot of money as a toughman, a soldier and then a bodyguard, and then – quite unexpectedly – as a thief-catcher when a servant to his employer had been robbed of his finest jewellery. He had recovered the goods, found the thief and even returned him alive to face justice. Eventually he had settled down, marrying a beautiful woman who bore him two girls, and bought a large farmhouse in a peaceful village with his earnings, to live out life as a farmer. Maybe he just missed the thrill of danger.

Or maybe Lane had given him this item to help him? To locate its owner? To find out where he was going or what had happened to him? So John had taken a fistful of what little coin he could spare, some gold and silvers but mostly coppers, kissed his wife and children farewell and followed the road to the capital, still unsure of what exactly he was doing.

“Anyways, dangerous talk. Thirsty talk,” the old man muttered with a wink. John handed him some coppers. A disgusted look ran down the man’s face; clearly he had expected more, but he snaffled the coins all the same.

“Where do they get their powers from?” asked John.

“It is no birthright. It cannot be taught. It can only be given.”

John grunted. Those willing to talk had all said the same. He shivered each time those words were repeated, like a mantra, a curse. The dirty beggar looked out of the window, mulling something over in his mind, deciding if he would risk saying more.

“I ran the council here,” he all but whispered.

John almost fell off his bench. That would make this man a lord! This filthy, bedraggled man dressed in unwashed straps of cloth and cord socially stood – no, towered – over a simple farmer. The man’s eyes moistened, his words coming slowly, spoken at a tremble as if they were being forcibly drawn out of him.

“You can’t save your brother. They are here to seize control and serve a common master. It’s HIM, gathering acolytes, HE wants to be free. But the pendant, I have seen something like it before, an object they place great store in. I don’t know what they are for, but before I left office the wizard – Nactiss was his name, Nactiss the Majestic –” he mocked the epithet and spat once more “– who took my place, lost his, a stone bird too I think it was. He flew into a complete rage until he found it.”

The man leant across the table, speaking so quietly John almost couldn’t make out the words.

“I have sentenced men to death for murder whilst performing my civic duties and I know the difference between fear and rage. Nactiss –” he paused, “– that man was truly terrified.”

Pre-death … 06

Please spare my mind! …

… daylight dried, like a withered fruit left to putrefy, its departure casting a caliginous gloom, and he knew the now familiar bloodletting red sun was at its full height in the black sky even if he could not see it from within the rotting, infernal palace. The loosed arrow darkened, bent and snapped, falling to the ground, writhing like a snake as it disintegrated. The red carpet turned grey, thinned and shrivelled bearing a stone floor that crumbled and cracked under his feet. The tapestries that lined the walls fell from their hooks, the paintings cracking and splitting as their oils bubbled and dribbled like hot tar.

No time to waste! On the balcony the archer stood, his bow turning into a black ooze and his face bloated, rapidly swelling out of shape, the eyes popping from their sockets, skin folding in on itself as bones crumpled like grain in a millstone. All round him death shrivelled and decayed everything with its touch. But not me. And those long thin oily black tendrils fled the room at the destruction death wrought. He quickly pictured himself, imagining he was the marksman looking down at himself, a trick he was unconsciously aware of and let his breath go …

The archer loosed another arrow towards the place where he had stood only a moment before, but it found nothing but air as John ran the stupefied man through from behind, and at once his breath escaped into the air. A face of agony on the wind, lit by wan spectral light. There was only time to catch it, questions would take too long, but the dying memories flittered all the same as he breathed in, their delicate images coming in a flurry …

A mother, a sister, a son, their faces smiling before screaming, as blood splattered their faces. Their piercing howls, haunting cries of betrayal as their skin turned taut, grey and lifeless, their unblinking eyes staring into nothing as they vanished from sight, but not from mind … the man had been made to kill his own family! 

Not me! John thought. I wasn’t made to, I would know, I would remember! He brutally pushed aside his guilt at killing a man, a puppet like he had been once. Just one more sin to carry to the land of the dead.

From his vantage he suddenly spotted Falvco, but before he could hold his breath, two men with spears charged at him. Enraged, he swung round, ready to face the on-rushers. He struck his sword in an upward arch against the man’s own weapon so violently that the first charger flew backwards on to his back, knocking him unconscious, and John sidestepped the attack of the other, just a dragon’s scale away from being skewered. The man on the floor didn’t stir, but the guard he had dodged turned around, snarling, and lunged forward recklessly. Kill them all! Lost within the bloodlust, he instinctively parried with a forward defensive lower body block that opened enough room for a swift but brutal stab, and his sword swiftly pierced the heart. He thrust harder, stepping forwards until the hilt touched breastbone, the fatal wound gushing warm blood. 

A loud bell sounded from somewhere deep within the palace, quickly drowned out by rallying cries of more guards, the pounding of feet and clacks of metal. There was no time to stare into the archer’s eyes. John withdrew his sword, ignoring the release of the man’s last breath despite the yearning within him to taste that finest of elixir, but he still caught a brief glance …

An unmarked grave in a barren field, cold and deep, with no one to mourn, where birds did not sing, where the sun did not shine and the wind forever howled its dirge …

The interruption gave his rage a pause, his mind cleared, a fog blown away on the wind. What have I done? Further down the landing doors flung open and out poured a wave of men – two, four, six, he counted, and they were upon him. Get it together! They attacked mindlessly with no regard for their own safety. The first swung wildly and John ducked under his reach and used his momentum to slam into the man, twisting him round and lifting him off his feet, hurling him backwards, back down the stairs. The man’s body cushioned his fall, and they picked up speed as they crashed down the steps with the other guards chasing them. They landed at the bottom in a violent thump and the man’s neck snapped instantly. His eyes misted and John saw his breath escape, reaching out to the heavens …

The silhouette of a cemetery cast by dying sunlight, choked by shadow and gloom, its nameless dead interred into freshly dug hollows, cut from the bleeding earth, their indistinct forms lowered into pools of blood, the unrippling surface reflecting the ghostly faces of the slaughtered …

… a massacre. These men were made to kill scores of people – but why? So much death. Am I the answer or the cause?

He finally had pause to pull the arrow from his shoulder and throw it to the floor. An unpleasant sensation grew and he knew it as a forewarning to pain. His visit to the underworld had not been near long enough to replenish his powers, to stay alive by banishing pain, his punishment for leaving Hell without waiting to suffer its freshly prepared nightmare. Yet something had still been taken. Could he keep this up? Concentrate! He held his breath.

The other men dashed down the staircase to confront him, save for one who hurled a throwing dagger … One … which took his left eye. In shock he felt the eye burst, its fluids wet upon his cheek, it almost hurts, he stumbled backwards, lifting his sword in clumsy defence as the men fell atop him … Two … their crashing blows almost knocked the sword from his grip. They moved in for the kill … Three … he died once more.

Again came the memories, incongruous to the unleashed fury of death. They played like a happy faraway dream, just out of reach, warm and fuzzy, before a scene formed from the amorphous darkness to gain definition and colour, filling with emotion and sound. For a moment it consumed him whole, every care and concern forgotten in an instant as the dream became his reality. Children played, a woman danced to music and they kissed, it felt good but empty, like eating yet starving, like sleeping but waking to exhaustion.

They’re dead. He had no tears left to shed. What would happen if I submitted? Could I join them? No. Not until their deaths are avenged can I have my forgiveness. That’s why Hell serves its nightmares.

The dream exploded in pain, drifting away rapidly, and already he struggled to recall the faces of his family, but in a brief moment of lucidity he remembered what Hell had thus far failed to take from him.

His burden was to stop the madness, to face and kill Death and Hell himself. He remembered the start of it – it felt so, so long ago – when Nactiss had been the first.

The world’s fate rests on my shoulders …

Memory Fragment … 05

It was a foolish plan, but it pulled all the strings together. Nactiss the Majestic, his brother’s valedictory gift – the unnaturally warm stone carved into the shape of a bird in flight – and John’s skill in thief-catching. This was how he had found an audience in the grand palace that Nactiss resided in, face to face with one of the Marked. Touched. Someone who, if pressed, would tell him, “It is no birthright. It cannot be taught. It can only be given.” Whatever that meant.

“Your master sent you to find who stole his necklace?” he enquired, each word more disbelieving than the last.

“Your pardon, my greatness”. Your greatness, well it certainly “great-ed”. He had been wise to learn the title these wizards used. He hadn’t wanted to put a foot out of place. Was Nactiss transformed, changed, corroded from within like his brother had been? Was this the same man who had woken one day unlike any other, or was something else in his place? He shivered under Nactiss’, stare but continued all the same. “But I am considered good at what I do, and my master was very eager to retrieve this item. The pay is good.”

“And the trail has led you to my palace.”

Indeed it had. The room seemed to shrink in size under the wizard’s glare. This was the man’s personal chamber, large and exactly as he had imagined a wizard’s study. Lots of oak, charts, runes and objects beyond understanding, one a globe that had mechanical arms that rotated around it. Of the stars? The Gods? Who could tell?

They sat opposite one another in high-backed cushioned chairs that he pictured kings or queens lounging in, separated by an ornate white desk, its legs carved and finely detailed to mimic dragon scales. Two guards stood to the side of him, blocking the only exit. Sparing them a glance, he inwardly frowned, not for the first time. Their eyes scared him, dull and lifeless, yet they stood sharp to attention, hands firmly clasped the weapons by their side, their backs straight and stiff, their faces alert. It felt like a contradiction. How could they appear so cold and dead yet also appear to be a coiled spring, poised ready for action?

John knew he had made a mistake. He had hoped to discover … discover what? The meaning behind it all? The conspiracy? The truth behind his brother’s change? Had he truly imagined Lane’s desperation, that split second his brother seemed to break the veneer of what he now was succumbed to? He could feel the walls closing in, the dead eyes on his back, the wizard seeing through his ruse. He was not getting out of here alive.

Suddenly a sharp pain touched his mind, like a hot needle shoved through flesh. He screamed, standing at once, thrashing through the pain to grab his sword. That wouldn’t help, but it was all he had. He felt voices whisper softly in his mind, a warm comforting voice telling him to give in and let go. His vision blurred for a split second, and then came instant cold clarity washing over him like a bucket of cold water over a drunkard.

Nactiss stood, mouth agape, words struggling to escape his throat. It was as if he had seen Hell itself coming for him.

“How …?” John croaked, and then with his newfound clarity he worked it out. This man, this monster, controlled people, bending their minds to his will. The guard’s vacant but alert face said it all, and Nactiss had tried and failed to subvert him. The whispers fled his mind as frantic cries and then all was silent.

Without thought John ran the wizard through, watching with satisfaction as blood splashed over that nice mechanical device. A smile spread over his lips: so they could be killed after all. He had never enjoyed killing, but this was different. 

A clatter behind him made him jump round. The guards had fallen to the floor, and were looking at the polished marble floor. One wept openly, while the other looked up at John and repeatedly thanked him, before thanking the Gods second, a dangerous heresy to most. Gods came before man – but not today.

John left the palace, which was now in uproar, the turmoil of the magician’s death causing factions to fight one another. He cared not for it, for now his determination was set, his goal crystal clear. He would kill everything – any man, any magician, any God (was there a difference any more?) – anything that stood in his way, he would free his brother and protect his family.

Above, a peal of thunder ripped through the heavens, loud enough to cover the whole Earth. It seemed the Gods did not agree with him. The stone bird had protected him. It must have, surely?

Finally the rain came, falling hard as nails before the onset of lightning that turned day to night in irregular flashes. The storm suited his mood. Invigorated, he strode out to meet it.

Pre-death … 04

The world’s fate rests on my shoulders …

… The swordsmen’s faces began to deform, crack and shrink before exploding like a rotten melon under a hammer blow. With great repulsion John watched his own eye – on the end of a dagger that still danced upon the floor where it had fallen – turn to a mushy pulp, running along the blade, that dissolved at its touch. 

My eye!

He let go of his breath, once more cheating Hell, cutting death short, sacrificing part of himself, giving in to pain, desperate to finish fighting before Falvco could hide. He appeared behind the men, screaming – a primeval, almost inhuman sound – at whatever was in his way, at death, at the living, at the memories. He no longer felt as though it was him, as though he watched as a stranger from a distance as a monster took over his body and unleashed all its rage in a frenzy.

Panicking, Falvco watched from a distance as the madman entered his home and hunkered down behind a plinth that supported a bust of his own magnificence. The man – if it truly was human –thought him trapped, but obviously didn’t know how well protected he was. At this very moment, his guards were coming to his aid, summoned by the power of his mind.

Frantically he reached out to force his will upon the man that had come to kill him, and gasped in shock as he found nothing. Again and again he tried, his throat drying and his heart racing wilder with every failed attempt. It wasn’t possible! It was like trying to subvert the will of a rock! How? Rumours of a powerful assassin killing wizards had reached his ears in recent times. Alarmed, he had gathered trained men to protect him, practised in the art of swordplay. Each of them had been paid to join his employ, but right now it was not for money they fought; they would protect him at any cost, against any odds, faithfully and obediently, their minds devoid of any self will.

An arrow suddenly lodged itself into the man’s left shoulder. Falvco briefly smiled, but then his disbelieving eyes watched in utter astonishment as the man – no, the thing – looked up, its face no longer human, but a sunken skeletal picture of death and hate. Its whole body began to smoulder and a foul smoke rose from the creature as it dissolved, transforming into a terrifying, billowing black tempest, a heaving, swirling dense fog of storms. It suddenly lashed out at the archer, as quick as a whip, screeching like the collective sound of the souls of the damned. In an instant it solidified behind the archer, taking human form once more, the mask of death gone, its sword bursting through the guard’s chest. In that moment, as the archer slumped to the floor, their eyes met. God of Stars, I’m going to die! I’m going to die! Then the creature turned away as two more guards fell upon him. Why won’t my magic work! Who sent it? 

The name came immediately.

Necrosis! 

It must be! But that meant the God of Hell wanted him dead! So there was no place for him in the Return, eh? He would see about that. He was no fool; he knew his power came from that place, where Death and Hell were held prisoner. Even if Necrosis shut him off, he knew enough to get by, and if Necrosis had sent someone to kill him, it could only be through necromancy! That thing on the balcony was Necrosis’ creation – which meant it must be dead!

Instantly the fear left Falvco and he started to sob uncontrollably in relief. The thing was dead! Dead! That explained it all: it had no mind to control, it would be an unresponsive mushy rotted mass of pulp. While he had always despised Eldritch the Magnificent – a man who put himself above others, who denied HIS power and devoted his time to study, thinking himself clever enough to understand the workings of the Gods – right now he could have kissed him. 

Wizards could only draw a fraction of the power of the Gods, a raindrop in a thunderstorm. It drove many crazy to know such enormous power but never be able to use it. That was why many, like himself, gave into Necrosis. It soothed an ache, it opened a stream of power from his lake of fire. It changed many, but Falvco would happily admit he’d always been evil.

But not Eldritch. He denied HIM, instead devoting his time in his pompous hallowed library, expecting to work out how to use power like the dead Gods had! Most of his discoveries were elaborate trash, but Eldritch had managed to discover the most basic tenet of the Gods, an unbreakable constraint: The dead must obey the living

He knew the words, the secret litany that would return that killing thing back to the grave. Falvco’s heaving sobs turned to laughter as the battle continued above. Full of arrogance, he stood up from where he had been cowering, and dusted himself down ready to bring this to an end.

He lost count how many times he died. A blurred frenzy of blood and murder. The last of the soldiers twitched his last before him. He was so tired he drank the breath like a parched man given water in a desert. He couldn’t hold on, death was calling him back, his body ached, he had to rest, take what Death could give. He held his breath and counted to three …

Will I make it back this time?

The palace transformed to Hell’s perversion and he silently waited for the memories. They come.

Again came the memories, a puzzle of emotions that no longer seemed to match what he saw. They played like a distant dream, out of reach, cold and vague, before a scene formed from the amorphous darkness to gain definition and colour, filling with confused emotion and muffled sounds. For a moment it consumed him, every care and concern forgotten in an instant as it became his reality. Children ran and a woman danced towards him, his family, yes, his daughters and his wife. Each of her steps brought her closer, until finally they kissed.

They’re dead. What would happen if I submitted? Could I join them? No. Not until their deaths are avenged can I have my forgiveness. Falvco was the last of them, then his bloodthirsty work would be complete.

Now the nightmare

The landscape filled with corpses as far as the eye could see. 

I’ve seen this before

A pile of body parts rose impossibly from the ground, as tall as a house, made from bits of the dead: arms, legs, torsos and heads in various stages of decomposition. They started to flop forwards, towards him, in a grotesque mimic of a wave. He wanted to run, to scream, but he couldn’t: he had to face this for his family, for his wife. God of Stars, I can’t remember her name! 

Standing his ground, clenching his remaining good fist, he watched the wave stop before him. A body was jettisoned face down at his feet. It looked familiar.

He needed to see the face … surely it could not be …! But then the head slowly rotated, insects bursting through its nose, eyes and mouth. 

It was him. 

Gods of Stars, no!

He let his breath go.

He was ready to kill Falvco.

Memory Fragment … 03

“I’m only telling you this because Lane is your brother.” He moistened his lips before continuing. “Listen good.”

John nodded. He would certainly do the first, and if l Droon the Merciful tricked him, he would see how good he looked with a sword sticking out his chest.

“The Gods, thousands of them, with supreme power, fought: two sides, one for humanity and the other against … all but one died. You know his name, Necrosis.” Fearfully Droon looked over his shoulder, as if the very mention of the name would make him appear. It made John feel distinctly nervous. Ignorance of mankind’s great threat had always been his shield.

“In a final act he was trapped, not in this world, but beyond, out to sea, where this world collides with Hell. Impossible storms rage, rain lashes in unnatural directions. Unnavigable by man, and our worlds impassable by HIM.” Droon’s breathing quickened. His voice grew hoarse, his face reddening, sweat trickling down his terrified face. He suddenly looked very ill. “He has found a way to escape,” he cried, unable to contain his fear. “The Cosmos still churns out godly power, but there are no Gods left to receive it – the only vessels left are us, humankind. It’s too powerful. It destroys us, even though we can only but sip from that ocean of power. We each gain different powers – there was a God with power for every aspect, from medicine and nature to fear and hope. It transforms us, kills us slowly, we are not capable to wield such enormous power. We are the echoes of that war – ghosts, empty hulks, either Given powers that were to fight for mankind, or Marked with powers that fought for HIM. HE knows where power is distributed. HE sends his Marked into entire villages to slaughter all.”

“Why?”

“He wants to kill all Given. Where one rises, often another is close by. Maybe he fears the Gods will return. Or fears a Given with particular power, or fears that if enough of us gather we may find a way to stop him. But far more are Marked than Given, and without access to his prison – to Hell – how can that be?”

“What has Lane to do with this? He was Marked but not …?

“No, he was Given, and gave in to Necrosis. We all do, or we die in agony. But he tricked him, just long enough to give you something. I don’t know what, but he realised you were important somehow.”

The stone bird! It stopped Nactiss from controlling my mind!” John grabbed the pendant from under his leather jerkin and showed it to Droon.

Droon looked at him sadly. “No. I don’t understand what happened, but the bird grants those Marked powers from his lake of fire, more power than we can normally hold. It’s symbol that his resurrection is near, a phoenix from the flames, and a contract, binding their life to it. In the hands of a Marked it grants power beyond measure, he gave it up for you. But in anyone else’s hands it’s just a pretty lump of lava rock.”

“Then why would he risk everything for me? What does he think I can do?”

Droon did not answer.

It could only be that Lane had intended him to use his instincts as thief catcher, John thought – to track an item, to find the man behind it. To find Necrosis. But how? What was special about him, and how could he confront him? Just the thought froze him rigid with fear. Madness!

Droon read his thoughts and shook his head. In slow horror it dawned on John what this meant: they would come to his village, massacre everyone, because of Lane and because of him. It may already be too late.

Droon slipped to the floor. “You must kill me. Or I will give in, I will know everything, HE will know everything and use it against you.”

John started, not believing the words. “No,” he whispered. “I cannot.”

“Your family, wife, children? If I am Marked I would kill them, one by one. God of Stars, I don’t want to – but HE will change me, HE will see it done. What I have told you, HE must not know. You might be the one to bring final victory in this awful war. I just don’t know how.”

Could he do it? Could he kill unconscionably? What could such a thing do to a man, to kill so easily? Droon thought John a saviour, not his executioner, but it felt cold-blooded.

“Do it. Pleeeeeeeeeeaaaase,” he begged.

John made up his mind. He unsheathed his sword, closed his eyes, took a deep gulp of air and pushed hard.

Rain began to fall from the cloudless sky, wetting his flesh, soaking his clothes, but unable to wash away his sin. “Why does it always rain when one of your kind dies?” he said softly. 

The sky rumbled and turned dark. And then the heavens opened, its downpour almost deafening.

John opened his eyes and forced himself to look at the man he had murdered. But Droon looked up at him and suddenly smiled, a look of near ecstasy, as if something remarkable had happened. His eyes shone with wondrous joy.

“Don’t you see it now? It doesn’t.” 

And with that, Droon closed his eyes and died.

Pre-death … 02

He was ready to kill Falvco …

“By the sacred power of the God of Life I compel you!”

“By the sacred power of the God of Heaven I compel you!”

“Through the sacrosanct pillars of Heaven I call to you!”

  “I COMMAND THE DEAD TO DO MY BIDDING!”

Of course, I almost forgot. Falvco. John turned slowly to face Falvco, whose pompous, smug face turned ghostly white.

“I said I COMMAND YOU! Can’t you hear me?”

“I’ve heard those words before. Those Gods you named may be dead, but I am not.”

He didn’t need a breath, he dragged his aching half-dead body towards Falvco, who in utter wild-eyed terror could not move or speak, but could only watch dumbfounded as John approached and inserted his blade through his shoulder. He twisted his blade and applied downward pressure, forcing Falvco to the floor. He cut downwards, severing an artery, and Falvco screamed in agony. Time to talk.

“What do you know? How did I get these powers? Who did this to me! Tell me and I can make your death quicker than you deserve.”

“What are you?” Falvco struggled with his words as his face turned whiter with pain. Death would come soon.

John paused. He couldn’t remember anything about Falvco, about how he had known to find him, or how he was involved, only that he had to kill him. Just like when I made to. The thought made him shiver: the knowledge must have been taken, washed away on that sea of dead, perhaps. I am losing my wits. He was finding it difficult to focus, his mind kept wandering … Is my wife’s memory next? What would happen when he could no longer see her face? Would he spend eternity unable to die, trapped inside this rotting body with no memory of his beloved wife? A mindless madman wandering between the worlds of life and death, doomed to decompose in agony? Would it end, even then? Snap out of it! 

“What do you KNOW? How did I come by these foul gifts? Why?”

“It is no birthright. It cannot be taught. It can only be given. Those powers weren’t forced upon you, you took them! You killed them all!” He spat the words, his spittle flecked with blood.

“What does that mean? What can be given? Tell me!”

“It is no birthright. It cannot be—”

“Don’t talk to me in riddles, damn you! I know your kind enslaves people against their will, using them like obedient hounds to kill! Who did this to me? I’ve seen his face, but who, damn the Stars, tell me who?”

Falvco’s grim face, pained from mortal wounds, transformed to reflect profound astonishment. “You really don’t know, do you?” he all but whispered. “God of Stars, that should not be possible! What did Necrosis do to you? What are you?”

“Necrosis? I know that name.” He tried to remember where he had heard it, yes, it was familiar somehow. He tried to focus his thoughts, but the distraction of his eye, or rather what was left of it – a hot dull sensation, bordering on pain, gnawing away – let the memories slip from his grasp.

“Where do I find this man? Dead or alive, you will answer me! He killed my wife and children.”. He could no longer remember their names. “And my brother … Lane.” That was where it had started. With Lane. His mind was fragmented, he could barely string two thoughts together.

“Man? You know nothing! He’s a God, he’s Hell and Death combined, he’s, he’s …”

Falvco realised that death had found him. With that awful, stark realisation, in those seconds between life and death, where the body grew cold, and the heart slowed in rhythm as the soul readied its return to the comforting void, an abyss he had once known and now welcomed back, only now on the brink of death, did he understand. Too late. Almost. Lane! This was Lane’s brother!

“You won’t like what you see …” he said, his lips curling into a sneer. Then his body slumped, his eyes glistened and behind them, John could almost see the swirl of answers. John quickly stretched out a hand, catching Falvco’s last breath in a fist that he bought close to his lips to inhale deeply, letting it seep into his being.

“Where did these powers come from? How did my family die? Show me! SHOW ME WHAT I ASK!” he commanded. 

Outside, the cloudless sky began to rumble – perhaps in anger, perhaps by the hands of the Gods. Then without warning it rained a deluge, the force of a pent-up damn bursting open, hammering the palace, as if trying to get in. The sun retreated in fear, daylight became gloom and flashes of lightning streaked across the heavens. John ignored it all …

… There was nothing. There was no concept of an “anything”, there simply was. Contentment was a term that could be applied in retrospect, but for now this was just a word, an empty idea to an entity with no concept of being or language. Suddenly a violent force ejected it from the warm dark, from all it had ever known, and it experienced fear and hopelessness, for the first time in its existence, at events outside of its control. It birthed into a terrible blinding light and screamed at its searing effulgence, at the old world’s rejection, at the awful awareness of connectivity, of no longer being the centre of everything – but most of all, it screamed at the new world beyond the nothing. And it despised it. 

Then he was a boy, his age was but a number – perhaps three, perhaps four – yet another unknown concept. He wanted a toy the other had. So he hit the other again and again until it was his. The other wailed, so he hit it again until it stopped. Even if morality was a concept he could learn, he would never grasp it – there was always a toy to be taken. 

Then he was a man. A perfidious man, full of envy, hate and unattainable ambition. He was asleep, in that comforting darkness before falling into a dream much like any other, a jumble of sounds and images stitched together into a continuous sequence of chaos influenced by desires, uncontrollably shaped by the whims of the unconscious mind. Until it became lucid.

Then the dream sharpened, becoming bright and vivid as he gained awareness that he was dreaming. It was during this vital moment, the precious seconds between bending the dream to his will and the now conscious mind waking the body, that his dream was punctured by The Voice: a susurrating sound of inexplicable power. Only audible to those few lucid enough to understand and only decipherable to those fortunate enough to catch the most apposite of ramblings and those awake enough to willingly accept its offering. It marked with an ancient power, or was given unto, drawn deep from the well of the Cosmos. This is where all power comes from.

John felt the last of Falvco’s life dribbling away, and was about to withdraw when he sensed something else. Somewhere between the border of life and death, over an unseen horizon, there was a pull, as though he was connected to another memory just within reach. He sensed a familiar presence behind it, the unseen face, the source of all evil. 

Necrosis …

Memory Fragment … 01

He was now outside a farmhouse in the dead of night. The air was cold but fresh. A light drizzle from the sea. I remember!

The home sat alone, apart from the village he had grown up in, but close to the fields he had tended as a farmer. He whirled around, recognising the structures in the dim light of the moon, not by sight but by memory. Pens, troughs, outhouses, water barrels, even equipment poked from the ground, wrapped in the blanket of the night, indistinguishable but for the details his recollections provided. I live here with my family!

Yet something didn’t feel right. This had never happened before – the breath had always unlocked the secrets of a dying mind, allowing John to spectate upon the final moments of the slain, and reveal what was demanded of it before scattering to the winds for Judgement. But this was something new. Was this something Falvco had done? Or Necrosis?

There was an edge to the silent night, like the nails on an invisible hand scratching across the polished surface of his mind. Its high pitch, somehow soundless, cut through him, a terrible cold fear that settled in the pit of his stomach.

It’s too quiet. If the livestock stir, they make no sound.

Neither do the dead.

He gasped: those were not his thoughts! His head swam and he staggered forwards, his hands reaching out towards the door for balance. Has death finally taken my sanity? He closed his eyes and wept, his breathing unsteady. What was this vision? Why would it not end? He listened fearfully for further alien words, voiced by a foreign tongue that came from within, but he heard only the pounding of his heart. He suddenly feared what was behind door. He knew what was behind the door, and nothing was going to make him open it.

Yet.

But his hand was now firmly clasped around the handle, turning, pushing. No! Wait! Stop! But he wasn’t in control – he was the stranger, the visitor – the monster within was the one who dictated. No, please! 

The door opened. 

God of Stars, help me, don’t go inside!

He stepped inside.

Falvco’s last words boomed, spoken like thunder.

“You won’t like what you see …”

Blood. There was blood on the floor, on the walls, on the furniture, smeared and splashed as though thrown crazily from a spinning, overflowing bucket. Its dark-red life essence decorated the home of his wife and children, pooled into huge puddles of sticky blood.

No! I didn’t kill them! I would remember! IT WAS NOT ME!

He stumbled forwards, like a lamb on newborn legs, unwilling but unable to stop. Shocked, horrified, afraid of what he would find next, knowing what he would find next. Mounds rose from the middle of the room, three still shapes. He collapsed to his knees, his body suddenly his own again, but it was too late to turn, to run, to flee from the nightmare, he had no strength for it.

The smell suddenly hit his nostrils, hitting the back of his throat, making him gag as he leant over the first of the shapes, the smaller of the three covered by a blanket, that he now helplessly pulled back with trembling hands, to reveal a child. John screamed and howled in grief, a sound of inhumane despair, for long painful minutes.

When the vision finally started to fade, it would find John sobbing into the remains of his wife. He clutched her stiff cold body painfully tightly to his chest, aware truly for the first time that he had probably murdered them all.

Death, Heaven and Hell

He sensed a familiar presence behind it, the unseen face, the source of all evil. Necrosis …

He was lying face down on a sandy shore, a place from a distant memory. Cliffs, seas, stars of the Heavens, that he felt he should understand, but could not grasp their meaning. A volcano rumbled in the distance, red fluids bubbling and flowing freely down its steep slopes. I’ve been here before.

A shape emerged in front of him, of a man, a dark featureless shadow. John staggered to his feet, ready. For what? He was not sure. His body ached. Where am I? Who am I?

The shape formed into a man, holding a staff, a God, to something he would recognise while there was still breath in his lungs. Necrosis

Memories flared. 

I’m here to kill him.

“‘I’ve been waiting for you,” said Necrosis.

Instinctively, in one sweeping motion, John pulled his sword from its sheath, its screech of metal scraping on metal piercing the silence. He roared a primal scream that gave voice to all the pain and rage in the world. He lunged forward with all the might and speed his broken body would allow, but his movement halted mid-stride. His feet felt stuck in clay, his legs became numb and his upper body caught in an uncompleted twist, his mangled left arm at his waist and his right sword arm outstretched, taut but frozen, the tip of the sword not so much as quivering as it pointed towards the heart of Lane.

“Amusing. You came here to kill me? Is that why you think you are here? Oh no, you are here because you served me well.”

“What magic is this? Release me! Fight me, you bastard!” Desperately John struggled against the invisible bonds that held him, but his muscles refused to respond.

Necrosis studied him with a contemptuous smile and regarding eyes. “Remarkable. No one has ever lasted as long as this without being driven to insanity by pain and sin. Curious. Perhaps it’s revenge, burning bright inside you, that endures the mind long after your death.”

“I’m not dead!” spat John. “You cursed me in some way to do your bidding!”

“You have no recollection of drowning, then? Perhaps I can assist.”

Necrosis tapped the ground lightly with his staff, yet the gentle reverberations repeated somewhere deep inside his mind like a clang of a bell. He fell into a daydream as Necrosis’ deep voice penetrated his malaise.

“Your boat capsized in the everstorm that howls at the edge of the world, plunging you into it the cold. Wave after relentless wave crashed over you, pulling you towards its deep, closer to your death. Do you remember now?”

… they began to topple and spill as if chased by storms, rolling over each other like waves in a roiling sea of death …

“Each time a wave swallowed you, you fought desperately to reach the surface, to take another gulp of precious air.”

… Panicked, he thrashed about, desperately trying to untangle himself from the dead, to break their hold before they claimed him, burying him amongst the dead before the wave hit … 

“Each time you broke the water you begged the stars, pleading with the Gods to save you! But they live no more.”

… The very Gods had died here and risen to the heavens, each bright star a reproachful eye unto the world they left behind. A tale to some, but he knew better for the secrets of death he was beholden to, its knowledge now his …

“You caught desperate gulps of air, each breath less than the last, until you could no longer hold your breath and the sea became your grave.”

… his lungs filled with water …

“Your body washed upon my shore and vermin feasted on you for days!”

… He could feel its putrescent flesh being picked and pulled from bone and devoured by insects and carrion. With a terrifying vicarious lucidity he felt a wordless scream escape from its fleshless gaping mouth and he knew it was him! Gods of Stars no! It was him! It was HIM! IT WAS … 

John screamed out as horror mingled with pain, breaking his stupor as memories floated across his mind, never settling but uncomfortably familiar at Necrosis’ suggestions. It’s not true! It can’t be! Why would he travel to the end of the world? Everyone knew it meant death.

“No! I was tortured at the Tips of Blackness.”

Necrosis laughed and tapped again with the staff, his voice taking on a musical tone, powerful yet whispered as if directly into his ear. “You died at sea in a place known as the Tips of Blackness, where long needles of jagged rock hide under the dark sea, rupturing the hulls as preternatural storms lash.”

… Death, always greedy to take but never so willing to let go, took him. Few had seen the Tips of Blackness and lived. Sometimes he wondered if he really had …

“I answered your prayers! For when all hope is lost, when life expires, when the Gods themselves are dead, who else is there to turn to but Death? To me? To Hell. I gave you powers only the dead can access!”

… He held his breath and closed his eyes … and died …

… For here in the land of the dead, where time was a single point of infinity, he knew death’s intimate secrets and he could traverse this domain by thought alone …

“You fool! You’re dead! I animate your body, that’s how you leave Hell and return to the living! To kill, for me!”

This time a flash of brilliant light woke him from the reverie.

“I control the dead, I control you! If it were not so, then stick that bit of metal you’re fond of through my heart.” Necrosis stepped closer, a sneer on his face, and stopped only as his heart pressed against John’s outstretched sword.

John willed and fought within himself before begging and pleading with his frozen body, with his mind, with the dead Gods to move, to hack Necrosis down. But he couldn’t.

Necrosis reached out and roughly snapped the stone bird pendant from his neck.

“And this is just a lava rock, it never held magical powers. It never protected you! I protected you, with the power of Death over Life!”

Necrosis smashed his boot down upon it the pendant. John heard it snap.

“And why did you visit me? Do you not remember?”

“To avenge my family!”

He roared with laughter. “You think you came here ready to face the God of Hell and Death, on a grand quest. You think a mortal can just drop into my domain and easily kill me! You came here to ask for my power, to willingly serve me. That’s why you came! You were a soulless black-hearted killer before we even met!”

He brutally pushed aside guilt at killing a man, a puppet like he had been once. Just one more sin to carry to the land of the dead.

“I never wanted these powers!” he sobbed. “You forced them on to me, and I used them for good!”

“You fool! No one can be forced to take the powers of the Gods! It has to be given willingly, and it was!”

“It is no birthright. It cannot be taught. It can only be given. Those powers weren’t forced upon you – you took them! You killed them all!”

“I, I was a farmer …”

“Farmer? What talents would a despisable farmer possess that would interest me? No. You were a killer! A simple farmer could never kill so effortlessly! Each time you killed you experienced the life flashing before the victim’s eyes, you become them for a precious few moments. As your mind rotted away, as you became confused, you identified with those you killed! I don’t know your true name, but you murdered John and his family. And you killed oh so many, thousands, over many years!”

… the sword dropped from his grip as a thousand images flooded his senses…He could feel the despair and emptiness of every life he had taken …

… It was another time, another life. Was it really his own? …

“… we tend sheep and grow crops!”

… He had made a lot of money as a toughman … a soldier … bodyguard … thief catcher …

… perhaps I once did, when I was a gardener …

“I offered you power in return for the murder of five adversaries of mine. Nactiss the Majestic, Joland the Masterful, Eldritch the Magnanimous, Falvco the Magnificent and Droon the Merciful.”

“No!!!” Those names, they were beyond his remembrance, as if their memory had been taken from him in some way, but they still held significance by the powerful emotions attached to them. Guilt, hate, revenge. He had killed them for reasons of his own, for revenge, not because he served Death!

“Lies! These are conjurer’s tricks you place on my mind! Your cursed magic steals my mind, my memories, they take something each time … each time …” He could not bring himself to admit it. “And they show me things to break my will to snap my mind, visions of death and disease!”

“Tell me, what do you see when you use your powers? When you visit death? Do you see your loved ones one last time, waiting to embrace you, forgiving your crimes? It’s what you want to see … but what do you think happens when the body withers, when the heart stops pumping and the mind, dead but for the stimulus I provide, wastes away to nothing? Each time you welcomed death and embraced its powers nothing was taken. You simply rot – that’s why you feel no pain, that’s why your limbs fail you!”

John was starting to doubt himself. It couldn’t be true, could it?

“Each time you die you suffer the Judgements. You think you have a family, you think you are fighting a noble cause, you think you are repenting and deserve Heaven. But you’re not John, you murdered him and his family, and Hell swallows you each time!”

  He clutched her stiff cold body painfully tightly to his chest, aware truly for the first time that he had probably murdered them all.

“Nothing but eternal damnation awaits you when I release your body to final Death! That’s the real reason you never submit – you know your sin!”

What would happen if I submitted? Would I stay dead? Would I find peace? … No … That’s why Hell serves its nightmares.

His mind swam with one revelation after another, he tried to focus but the pain had returned. Soon it would be unbearable, and this time he knew it would scrape away what was left of his humanity. I am John, I must hold on! It’s all lies! Please let it be so!

“You served me well, and even after Eldritch the Magnanimous– so wise, so clever, so sanctimonious – freed you, you kept killing for me! Thinking those you killed were part of your revenge, instead you continued to kill, thinking it was your own actions for revenge but they were the names I gave you! You twisted your memories and became a killer for vengeance, yet did not know how or why!

… He couldn’t remember anything about Falvco, how he knew to find him or how he was involved … the thought made him shiver …

John sobbed. Could it all be true?

Necrosis danced a twirl, clapped his hands and finished with an extravagant bow. “I thank you for your service, but now it is time for your soul to be damned in torment for ever.”

He was powerless, defeated and beaten. I deserve this. 

“I wonder if, when you die again, you will see all those you killed one final time? Flashing before your eyes? I should like to see it. Here – it will be fitting to kill you with your own sword.” He took John’s sword from his still-frozen hand and raised it above his head, a wicked snarl on his face.

All those I killed. He could not remember their names, and perhaps that was for the best  – now they could torment him no more. But he remembered the one who freed him. It had rained so hard … lightning had cracked around him as he had sobbed alone in the dark, awakened to his dark path.

Another had lived in a palace. He recalled nothing else aside from the rain, its downpour, its fresh scent – had there here been a garden? 

Lightning again.

Another, and another … so many, the faces blank, the names gone, only strong emotions remained … the man had babbled about the rain, it shouldn’t have but it always did.

Something stuck. Rain and lightning, and then ghostly words from some half-forgotten victim scrambled in his mind.

“Why does it always rain when one of your kind dies?” he said softly.

“Don’t you see it now? It doesn’t.”

“… or fears a Given with particular power.”

“Why does it always rain …” 

“… It doesn’t.”

“… Given.”

“… particular power …”

“Don’t you see …?”

The sky rumbled and for a moment Necrosis hesitated, confused by John’s smile, before dismissing him as a broken man. A single fat raindrop slipped down Necrosis’ face. He rubbed it away, then swung hard.

Lightning struck the sword. Sparks reached out to the night sky, and Necrosis screamed. His sword arm was blackened, the flesh raw and burnt. Another streak lashed from above, striking Necrosis in the chest, and once more he screamed, dropping the sword, collapsing into a ball, smoke rising from his smouldering body. John’s body was suddenly freed.

“Noooooo! You fool! It’s only me keeping you alive! You’re dead … they’re all dead! I can help you! I can get you into Heaven, but if you kill me you’ll die, you’ll see their faces and be sucked into Hell … DON’T—”

With the last of his strength John pushed his sword through Necrosis. John felt his own breath escape into the air, slow and steady as his body slowly began to die. 

Am I John? Did I come here to beg Necrosis for power, or to kill him? 

Was that vision of his home really his, or someone else’s? Had he really killed the whole time just for Necrosis, or for revenge? Did Heaven or Hell await?

He steadied himself and held the last gasp, counting, painfully, to three. He could barely hold on, but it was the only way to know for sure what he was …

The sky had already turned dark, the cool air now stank and sulphurous … The sun was tinged with red as though filled with blood … He waited for the rest of the landscape to change. It never does unless you look upon it. Then it came. The Haunts of the Earth, as it was known by few …

Only now, instead of Hell awaiting him, his wife – she IS my wife! – appeared crystal clear in front of him. He could see every detail, the clearest vision: every lock of hair, her deep blue eyes. He could feel her warmth, her perfume. He reached out to grab her, tears in his eyes as he hugged this vision of beauty tightly and she tightly embraced him back.

She gently pulled away, her eyes wet with tears, her smile a warm hearth on a cold winter’s night. His children appeared behind her. As he watched, a nagging thought slid across his mind, like a skein of doubt.

“Tell me, what do you see when you use your powers? When you visit death? Do you see your loved ones one last time, waiting to embrace you, forgiving your crimes? It’s what you want to see.”

Was this just what he wanted to see? Was this real? – now that he was finally dead, was this his reality, or just a dream that always occurred when entry was sought?

“Each time you die you suffer the Judgements. You think you have a family, you think you are fighting a noble cause, you think you are repenting and deserve Heaven. But you’re not John, you murdered him and his family, and Hell swallows you each time!”

Was the nightmare waiting just beyond the horizon, a black veil of horror to be pulled over his eyes at the last, or was his war with death over? Had the nightmare died with Necrosis?

“… If you kill me you’ll die, see their faces and be sucked into Hell!”

She stepped forward, warm lips pressed upon his … What would happen if I let myself go? Would I finally be dead?  Would I find peace? … with the tingle of their first kiss … every care and concern forgotten in an instant as it became his reality …

Was there a tide of corpses behind the kiss, waiting to snap his mind?

He let the last of his breath go …

 



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Posted April 2, 2021 by Kyle Spencer in category "Uncategorized