A lot of good stories start with a nice and detailed description of what someone sees when they first wake up, so I’ll try that with how my morning started. I woke up to blood. A lot of blood. That and two young women standing over me with their arms crossed and shaking their heads in shame. Apparently not knowing how you got into a barn yard and ate most of the livestock didn’t matter when the group’s savings went into paying the owner back for damages. It also didn’t help that it happened a lot more often than it should. I never asked to be a shapeshifter, especially one who had little control over what I called the other half of me. I also never asked for its opinion, but I got it anyway all of the time. My name is Henry, and contrary to what I said in the beginning, this is not a good story. This is the story of how I threw my chance at happiness away.
Tallara was glaring at me over her shoulder as we walked. I could only shrug in response. I didn’t know what I’d done this time.
“Are you listening?” she asked sternly. Good, I hadn’t done anything except ignore her, so the usual in my book.
“No? The question you should ask is if I ever listen?”
She rolled her eyes and went back to focusing on the road ahead. Tallara was a very determined woman. She claimed to be some kind of alien being not from this world. She found it hard to believe that not many people were surprised by her blue skin, but considering that people came in all kinds of colors and shapes in this world it shouldn’t have been too tough to understand. I’d once met a guy with illuminated veins that traveled up the length of his left arm and threatened to spread and shorten his life, but that’s another story. Even her antennae weren’t that exotic, but her white hair was strange to me. Don’t most old people have hair like that? She was only in her thirties.
“You two stop fighting,” Phyra said dully from the front, “and besides, Henry’s going to do what he wants. We’ve never stopped him before.”
Phyra. Now there was an oddball, but she wasn’t that bad at all, really. The Under Elves of her kind weren’t usually seen mingling with society, but she’d gotten some practice as a former thief from a guild on the surface after she was abandoned by her kind. For someone who was supposed to specialize in silence, she voiced her opinions a lot. She had her cloak pulled tightly around her today, covering her bluish-purple skin and white hair. She couldn’t stand the sunlight, and since the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly, its rays brushing over everything it could touch, she was miserable. I always wondered what it was about her kind that hated the sun. Living underground, sure, but did her skin attribute to it in a way as well? It had me wondering if I could test the theory at some point, but she was quick with a blade when she needed to be. There was no experimenting on her. Between the two, I was always being watched by four very strict eyes that didn’t want me to drag them into trouble too. Too bad for them. It wasn’t my choice to go along. They had to be the nice ones and take me with them after I’d been kicked out of my hometown in the frozen tundras of the north, but that was an even longer story. I’m kind of full of those, if you haven’t gotten the point by now. The short version would be it involved a lot of murders and a very persuasive, sentient amulet. Granted, I was only responsible for three of those deaths, and those were intentional. On that note, I reached out and tugged on Phyra’s long hair through a tear in her cloak. That drew a very irritated look, but I didn’t care. It was fun to mess with the one who could kill me in my sleep without the other knowing. I always wondered who would win; creature of the night or creature inside of me?
“How much further?” I asked her.
“Henry, we don’t want to be out here either, but it’s the only lead we have on the Lethesar Four.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I still wasn’t happy they dragged me into this mess. Some long-dead asshole necromancer had a group of other assholes trying to bring about his rebirth, and these two were fixated on stopping him. I’d nearly died in our last encounter with one of them. The bastard had turned an entire fortified city into zombies, and we found ourselves trapped atop the roof of a castle fighting off the waves of the undead. It didn’t help that the jackass claimed to be related to me. My family was dead to me as far as I was concerned. I never met my mother, and my father was the asshole who made me what I am.
“The message said Dimshore was in dire need of help.”
“Yet Lanerscost only sent the three of us,” I whined, “Can the next place that needs help not be a week’s journey out?”
“Henry, you’re being a child,” Phyra jested.
I sighed and looked to the sky. “Ah, my childhood. I didn’t have much of one. Sadly, the clearest memory I have is of my father performing procedures on me, and then him leaving. He said he was going to buy tobacco from the place next to the inn, and…and.” I mockingly sobbed, which only angered the two more.
“Henry, stop lying,” Tallara spat.
“Your past is more convoluted than the history of this land together,” Phyra added.
“We have an alien as a friend,” I pointed out.
“And her story makes more sense than yours.”
She wasn’t entirely wrong. It was hard to call anything memories of the past when a third of it was just full of either blank spots or images of bodies. The obvious murder scenes didn’t bother me. The emptiness got to me. That was how I’d stumbled into a barn earlier and woke up with a full belly and sore limbs. The transformations always took a toll, and nothing short of devouring everything in the way seemed to stave the pain off.
“Do you have the map?” Tallara asked her friend. Phyra reached into her sack and pulled out a rolled parchment. The two examined it together as they walked, muttering to one another while I gazed out over the open field to our left. It was a beautiful afternoon, that was for sure. The mountain range to the west gave a nice backdrop to the rolling plains before it, all full of strange, massive animals the likes of which I’d had never seen in the north. I’m a basket-case, sure, but even I can see the little things in life sometimes. It was the same when I looked forward and placed my staff over my shoulders, arms draped over it as I walked. The two women in front of me were the best thing that had come into my life. I’d always believed that friends were an impossibility with my condition, but they put up with me, and had even put their lives on the line for me on several occasions. I couldn’t say the same, yet they still brought me along.
“We’re a long way from Ultria,” Tallara complained.
“I like that,” I replied honestly, “I’m wanted in at least two holds there.”
Tallara looked back at me in scorn. “Maybe if you didn’t pick fights with everyone.”
“Hey, the Duke of Lanerscost is a nineteen year-old wuss ruling over the capital of a country who needs someone to shape him into a man. He needs an adversary.”
“Adversaries don’t constantly hide vague threats in every sentence they say to someone and count the increasing number of guards each time they visit,” Phrya chided, “a bully does.”
“It’s those guards and you two that make him soft. He can’t keep relying on others to keep him safe. He’s a leader, yet he’s comfortable sitting behind walls of bodies while bad things transpire.”
“You were one of those bad things,” Tallara reminded me. She wasn’t wrong, but to be fair I only went on that rampage because that devilish being promised me he’d help me control my other half. How was I supposed to know it was a monkey’s palm deal that would actually make me more monstrous at the time? Okay, maybe it was more obvious than I gave it credit for…
“You’ve got a knack for making things harder than they should be,” Tallara pressed on. I swear she loved to argue with me.
“Look, if this is about how I got into your house while you were gone, the locks and seals over the windows were too complicated, so I had to teleport inside. Maybe I messed up a bit and took a tree with me, but I didn’t mess up the security.”
Phyra giggled. “The tree went through her room.”
“It’s not funny, Phyra!”
“It’s kind of funny,” I said, trying as hard as I could not to laugh less Tallara whip out a six-shooter and leave me for the wolves. Then again, I got along with wolves…
“You still have to pay me back for the repairs,” Tallara griped.
“I told you I could fix it myself, but no, you don’t trust my magic even though I’ve put things back together before.”
Tallara shot me a look of disgust. “You put together body parts into flesh golems and attached metal to them to make war machines.”
“Hey, Theo got a good stab on me when I was done. I call that a success.”
Phyra suddenly grew solemn. Theo was an odd flesh golem, in that he actually had some cognitive thought. He had the mental capacity of a three year-old, but he was her friend. She took that loss hard, like it was her fault. I actually refrained from joking about that often, as I didn’t like to see her sad. It wasn’t natural on her face. Murderous intent, sure, but sorrow was unbecoming of her.
“The sun will be down soon,” she said quietly.
“Which takes me back to the question. How far?”
“Henry, be quiet,” Tallara pleaded.
“When I’m quiet all I hear is the other me, and he tells me to kill things.”
“Then explain to him why that’s wrong,” Tallara argued.
“Tried that once. Didn’t help the body count.” I reflected on that group of bandits outside of my hometown of Menardi. “I really hope I killed them quickly. Their asshole archer shouldn’t have shot me to begin with, but I was trying to be nice.”
“It should be around the hill here,” Phyra commented, looking up from the map as they came around the bend. Sure enough, there was a village…what was left of it anyway.
“Well, shit,” was all I could think to say as looked at the scene. Some structures still stood, but they’d been badly damaged by something. Houses had entire walls torn out and roofs collapsed, and what looked like a church had a carriage impaled through the front door. Some of the ash piles of what were probably other buildings were still smoldering. Tallara approached a horse that had been eviscerated and knelt down.
“Oh my god…”
Phyra entered the nearest house, and I decided to stand where I was. I couldn’t be in trouble if I didn’t do anything. “I’m starting to see why the message was urgent.”
“Henry, check the church,” Tallara ordered, drawing her gun and approaching the front of what had to be a store judging from the goods strewed about out front.
“I don’t get along well with religion,” I said with a sigh, taking my staff and marching forward, “if it sets fire it was probably one of the gods angry with my presence.”
Something was off. All of this destruction, and no bodies in the streets? Then again, they could have hulled up in the buildings, so maybe I was just too curious. The door was out of the question since it was obstructed, so I just made an orb of pure force energy with my staff and blew a hole in the wall next to it. I hadn’t even stepped one foot inside when I could hear Phyra’s voice.
“Henry! What happened?!”
I sighed and turned back to her. “Tallara told me to check it! I assumed that meant get inside!”
Even from a distance I could tell she was defeated with a response, so she just stomped back into the house. I couldn’t do anything right. Whatever. I crept inside to find the place littered with debris from broken pews and shattered windows. Oddly enough, no bodies. Now I was curious. I couldn’t even smell blood. That was a unique benefit from my other half.
“Henry?” Tallara’s voice called out from my makeshift entrance.
“Look, you wanted me to check the place out. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“That’s not it,” she said, stepping into the chapel and taking in the mess, “I didn’t see anything in the store.”
“No bodies? No blood?” She shook her head. Maybe I was right to be curious. “I’m not a fan of mysteries…”
“Henry, this isn’t a game! People are missing!”
“Yeah, I can tell,” I uttered, catching the scents of many that still resided here among the seats. There must’ve been a lot of devotion to the deity in this town. I scoffed at the symbol over the altar. No god cares to interfere and save even their most loyal.
“Anything?” Tallara asked.
“You’re no help,” she said in anger, storming off to check another room. Philosophical thoughts on the useless gods aside, I decided to check on Phyra’s findings. I stepped out into the town barely lit by the setting sun. I loved the night, but even I didn’t want to be here with no light. Someone grabbed my shoulder, and I spun around with fire wrapping around the end of my staff as it was pointed into Phyra’s face. She didn’t even flinch.
“I thought you could smell things sneaking up on you?” she asked innocently. I lowered the staff and sighed.
“I never take into account you.”
She beamed, but whatever was bothering her quickly erased that. “I didn’t find anyone in the house.”
“Seems like something I would do.”
Phyra cocked an eye. “Taking the bodies with you to turn into monsters?”
She understood me well. “Yeah, but they didn’t take bodies. Whatever happened here, no one was hurt. Not even a drop of blood…unless they cleaned well before they left.”
Phyra looked to the ruined buildings. “This couldn’t have happened too long ago.”
“Embers are still warm?” Phyra nodded. I didn’t come here to play detective, so this was just plain annoying.
“Guys?!” Tallara shouted from the church, “I found something!”
Phyra was already a blur. The rogue was faster than my senses. I always needed a reminder of how they’d beaten me when I was transformed and tearing through Lanerscost.
I was close behind, but not enough so that I could see what stole their attention before coming to a stop next to the pair in the chapel. A vortex of magical energy was spiraling into shape and growing near the altar. The black and red colors were between alluring and downright disturbing.
“I didn’t do that,” I said defensively. Phyra drew her daggers while Tallara aimed her gun. Guess they didn’t care. Whatever works? I pointed my staff at the anomaly and focused.
“What is it, Henry?” Tallara asked in alarm.
“Well, I’m getting a strong teleportation vibe, but that might be gas.”
“Henry, I will shoot you,” she warned.
“It’s alteration of the physical plane. A rift, so teleportation. Something is creating mass on this side.”
Phyra tilted her head to me. “Meaning?”
“Something is about to come through.”
I wasn’t wrong, unfortunately. The vortex stopped expanding, and a humanoid figure began to take shape inside of it. I began the incantation for a firestorm to sweep the area, but then the figure stepped through with a familiar looking staff. It was long and metallic, with a golden gleam to it that all came to an odd shape at the top that I hadn’t identified the last time I saw it. The figure itself was in a long black robe that covered its hands and face. Phyra and Tallara must’ve assumed the same thing, because Phyra was in denial.
The figure raised its free hand and pulled back the hood. The bald head and absence of eyes identified the man immediately.
“Sam?” Tallara asked, disbelief evident in her tone.
“In the flesh, my failed disciples,” the man said in a very polite tone. It hit me. The smell was the same. This wasn’t a fake.
“You died!” I snarled. I wasn’t there, but I believed Phyra and Tallara. They’d captured him in the cathedral of Castle Altarwood back in Ultria, and he was brought back to Lanerscost and imprisoned. A few weeks later a group we now called the Lethesar Four broke into the prison and assassinated him in his cell.
“I did, honestly.” He began to pace back and forth along the front of the chapel. “However, it’s hard to destroy someone who had command over life and death.”
I wasn’t going to give him the benefit of a monologue. “Let’s see how exceptional to that you are.”
The firestorm erupted from my staff and engulfed the chapel in front of us. All was ablaze, and soon obscured by the flames. We made a run for the front and escaped through the hole I’d made as the church went up in the blaze. We backed away from the building, weapons still ready. That didn’t help when something struck Phyra from behind. She went down hard, and I spun to see Sam unscathed and actively conjuring up more spells next to a ravaged house.
“Shit! Tallara, get him!”
Tallara opened fire, emptying the revolver in a few seconds. They punctured Sam, and his visage shifted and dispersed.
“An image?! Fuck!”
Phyra shifted on the ground and faced me. “Henry!”
I didn’t react fast enough. The next thing I knew I was tumbling through the grass and dirt before I collided with the wall of a shack. The air was knocked out of me, but as I fought to fill my lungs I saw Tallara taking the chance to strike back. She’d discarded the revolver and had a pistol out. One concussive blast from that and Sam stumbled backwards before falling to a knee.
“Nice shot, Tallara,” I cheered, scurrying forward and snatching up my staff from the ground. Phyra was back up and had her daggers in a defensive stance. We were ready. Surely this wasn’t going to be that easy.
“You’ve all gotten better,” Sam said, his head low as he kept a hand to his chest, “but you’re still predictable.”
“We beat you before,” Phyra challenged.
“Because I saw it necessary. I gathered the souls I needed that day, and Lord Lethe will soon arise anew. I just needed the final pieces, and that’s where you two come in.”
I knew Phyra and Tallara were special in all of this, but not all of the details. Something about a failed sacrifice that tied them to this Lethe guy.
“How can you see us?” Tallara demanded. “You don’t have your special cloak this time!”
“My lord gives me sight, and power,” he replied, forcing himself on his feet and raising the staff.
“That staff was protected by the Brain Trust Seven of Minoldur,” Phyra said, taking a step closer, “how did you get it back?”
“Their defenses were beneath the Lethesar Four,” Sam answered, a wicked smile creeping across his lips, “and I have yet to fail my lord.”
“Did you hurt them?!” Tallara cried, her gun aimed right at him. Sam wagged a finger.
“I didn’t do anything. I’m sure they’re…incapacitated in some sense.”
Tallara fired again, and Sam recoiled from the impact. Still, he wouldn’t go down.
“I suppose it wouldn’t be fun if you didn’t go down fighting,” Sam said, growing excited.
“You came back to life just to die again?” I asked. “Sadist.”
“I came back to bring my promise of a new hope for the masses!” Sam announced proudly. “The humans that plague this planet are unlike the other races that have long existed here! Those in this town have been taken to his realm for the cleansing!” He pointed the staff at me. “You were not originally from here, and you killed off the greatest race in your fear of the unknown! Now, you will all pay the price through the plan orchestrated by my lord for two thousand years!”
I really hated church. Sermons counted. “Aren’t you a human, dumbass?”
Sam pointed his staff at me, and I could feel my muscles tense and lock up. “Not anymore! As all are born from dust, my body was recreated from the dust of the planet and my soul given a new vessel to will Lethe’s will!”
Phyra rushed forward and went to drive her daggers into his chest, but Sam sidestepped her attack and tripped her. Tallara had finished reloading and fired another shot, but it something illuminated in front of him and stopped the impact. I knew a barrier when I saw one. I still couldn’t move. Time for drastic measures.
“Other me, come out and play, please…”
Phyra was back up and swiping in a whirlwind of steel, but Sam was moving in the most fluid ways possible to dodge each blade. Tallara had drawn a rifle from her back and was charging forward with the bayonet aimed at the necromancer. I couldn’t let them fight him alone. Granted, I always ended up hurt somehow, but watching Phyra get dropped by a blow to the head pushed my selfish thoughts aside for a moment.
“Just die!” Tallara screamed, plunging the bayonet into Sam’s back Phyra sprung up and ran a dagger through his chest, but Sam uttered something and the duo was blown back. His staff was pointed at Phyra. I don’t know what hurt worse; my bones were cracking, bending and reforming in rapid succession, but Phyra wasn’t moving fast enough to escape whatever Sam was about to do. The ground beneath her turned into a dark ichor, but I didn’t get to see what was happening. My other half definitely showed itself as I closed the distance to Sam and wrenched his left hand off in a bloody mess. I still had control, but things tended to be more violent when I was like this. I now towered over the necromancer, the monster my father had made me. It was hard to vocalize anything other than snarls like this, but words came out in a guttural growl.
“Now for the other one.”
Sam struck me with the staff and I was forced back, my feet digging into the ground to keep me upright. Apparently he didn’t expect that, because he was already working on another spell to hit me with. Tallara fired a bullet that went clean through him, and that threw off his counter as I pounced forward and took him to the ground. I readied my claws and drove them deep into his ribs and beyond on both sides. It filled me with joy to hear him scream.
“We aren’t brothers,” I snarled, “you’re too weak!”
Something wrapped around my neck and left arm and tore me away from the necromancer. The blackened ground before had sprouted tendrils that were now struggling to hold me in the air. Phyra was on the move and attacking Sam before he could rise, but I couldn’t get out of this trap. I howled and raked at the tendrils, but for everyone I sliced through more took hold. In my struggle I saw Phyra and Tallara fighting Sam. They just couldn’t beat him, and they were doing everything they could. Tallara had ditched her rifle and was striking with a katana that kicked up gusts of wind with each swipe. Phyra was hurt. I could smell the blood. Still, she kept attacking relentlessly as Sam summoned forth spectral entities to defend himself. Not like this. I had one more thing to try, but it was way too risky. Coming from me that meant something. The last time I’d let myself be taken by the binding spells placed upon me to keep the evolution in check, Phyra and Tallara had stopped me with help. They’d be too weak after this fight, and I wasn’t sure I could come back on my own. I promised Phyra I’d have it purged from me, but I was too me to listen at the time. Still, I didn’t want to see them die. I couldn’t afford to not try. Even in my monstrous form, I forced myself to relax and focus on the incantation in my head. The glyphs shined a crimson red, spreading from my chest to my limbs. This was going to hurt like hell. I could feel my consciousness fading fast as my arms and expanded in mass. I grabbed a handful of tendrils and roared a demonic tone as I tried them from the abyss below. Others sprouted and tried to restrain me, but with an air-shattering roar they dissolved into nothingness. My power was now that of something beyond a monster. I was a god compared to the necromancer. The last thing I saw was Sam’s face snickering as he readied himself for my assault. At least I wasn’t going to be the only one enjoying this bloodshed.
It was dark. I was on my side on what smelled like burnt wood, aching in every bone. It took some coaxing, but I managed to sit up and look around. I was in the church…or what was left of it. Smoldering ruins rested around me, and the floor beneath me was blackened and bloodstained. Two nights in a row. Not good. Then it hit me.
No response. I shakily got to my feet and began to wander back to the area I’d last seen them. They weren’t there, but the ground was torn up in a lot of places. Craters now existed sporadically, and I could see spots where extreme heat had scorched the ground. What the hell had happened? I stumbled about for ten minutes, my head pounding. I was starving. Blood. I could smell blood leading to a ruined house. I found my way inside to see Tallara sitting on a chair next to a smashed table. When she saw me, her brows furrowed.
“Tallara, what happened? Are you okay? Where’s Phyra.”
“She’s resting,” she said grumpily. That was cold.
“What about Sam? Where’s Sam?”
“Gone,” she said sharply. “He escaped.”
“Fuck…is Phyra okay?”
“She’s resting,” she repeated sternly. I didn’t understand.
“Is she hurt? I smell blood.”
“Henry, enough!” She stood up and approached me, the look on her face making me wonder if I was about to get slapped. I was naked from the transformation, but she was too angry to care.
“You promised her you wouldn’t do that again,” she fired off, “that you wouldn’t become that horrible thing! You’re still obsessed with power! When Sam fled through his portal you started to harass her. At first we thought it was because you had control and were worried, but you wouldn’t leave her alone and tried to attack her!”
That stung. I shouldn’t have done that, but I couldn’t risk letting them get killed. “I wasn’t trying to hurt her. I…you know how I…I’d never-”
“Henry, she tried to help you. You stayed with us because she trusted you. You broke that tonight.”
“I didn’t!” I argued. This was pointless. “Let me speak to her.”
“She obviously doesn’t want to talk to you.”
That hurt more than the time Theo nearly gutted me. ”
“She was trying to help you!” Tallara yelled. “All you had to do was accept that! Instead you stuck to your instinct! You always think you’re doing right, but you’re not! She was your friend!”
I was already beating myself up, and I didn’t need this. I walked over to a wall and snatched a knitted blanket that was hung up, dropping it over myself. My staff was resting against the wall nearby. I guess they felt I’d need it. Defeated, I tapped the floor with it and uttered the words necessary to open a gate home to Menardi. Facing my trial there for crimes would be easier than facing the fact that I’d hurt Phyra. These two were my friends, and she…it didn’t matter anymore. I approached the portal and stopped just before entering, turning back to Tallara. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the past year, and I’m sorry I’ve hurt you and your friend. I warned you a long time ago that I’m not a good person, and I guess I’ve proven that. You two made a dark life nice again, and I can’t repay that. You came to me at a rough time, and I’ll miss the good ones we made.”
Tallara kept her glare fixed on me. Not another word. I sighed. “If you ever forgive me, we still have to stop Lethe. I know you two will go it alone, but I’ll be where I can be reached if needed. Tallara…she’s…I…”
Tallara returned to her seat, and I brushed a tear away with the blanket as I stepped through the portal.