A Journey’s Sudden End: Part Two

It’s been four months since the battle with Sam in Dimshore. In that time, a lot has changed. Lethe’s religious cults have surfaced in settlements across the lands and recruited more to their numbers, some by force, and others through desperation. Everyone fears the beginning of the Second Great Calamity, and rightfully so close considering the very being that created the first event was at the helm. Still, one question persists through the impending doom creeping upon the land; where are the heroes that had fought against the villainous masses throughout the past year? Hell, even I wanted answers to that, but for now I was forced to take up arms in their absence. A lot of us were.

I stood in the ruins of Gravesend, the place where this all began a year ago, or so I’m told. Not far to the north was the Tomb of the Necromancer, the very place where Lethe’s body had been sealed a thousand years before. I’ve never actually been here before, but heard a lot of tales from my two previous partners. Apparently they were tied to this place too. Maybe I’m an idiot for still holding onto hope that they’ll be here now, but it’s the only thing pushing me forward.

“You okay?”

I snapped back to reality and looked over at one of my allies. His name was too difficult to pronounce, so we called him “Hope.” A half-human, half-devilish lineage being, his red skin and short horns may have intimidated some, but he was a good guy. He hailed from Ardglass, a city on the eastern continent of Iavros, and home to an academy that trained warriors of magic and might. A top student among the academy, he worked with Phyra and Tallara in their trials in Minoldur against the Lethesar Four. He was kind of flamboyant at times, but who was I to judge? I’m the monster. He was just a guy who keep justice in his convictions, and swords to anyone who stood against that. His name was fitting for a time like this.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied nonchalantly, readying my staff and marching forward through the ruined village.

“Henry, you need to keep your head in this. We all need a leader.”

I scoffed. “Who the hell elected my ass the leader of this band of misfits?”

Hope walked beside me, torso shifted so he was facing me and arms crossed. “You did when you gathered us.”

“I gathered you all because Phyra and Tallara spoke highly of you in their adventures, and anyone willing to put up with them and their circumstances had to be tough. That, or stupid.”

Hope shook his head and walked straight, muttering underneath his breath every now and again. I wasn’t lying. Those were the reasons I had selected this group to aid me in going against Sam and Lethe. Hope was the one with his head on right. Next was Samwise Shadelz, the master thief who mentored Phyra and served as her foster father. He wasn’t a fan of me, and treated me like a bad influence, but I couldn’t deny his tenacity. That, and his desire to find his adopted daughter made it easy to convince him to come along. Even now he still wore his old, faded green cloak over his heavily armed clothing. He hadn’t shaved in months, and his green eyes were jaded by desperation. Though we didn’t get along, I was actually happy he was here. Behind him was the towering hulk of a half-giant, Vatham Rocksmasher. His gray skin and blue tribal tattoos were only two of his odd features. The guy was a machine, undaunted by even the mightiest foe, and loyal only to Samwise as his bodyguard. I had to admit that even I wanted to see the extent of his strength versus my other half, but Vatham had survived far worse near-death experiences. Even now his axe over his shoulder was stained with the blood of those creatures dumb enough to get in out way. Life must be easy when everything is kill and wait to kill again.

Hanging off to the right was the draconic humanoid, Sirath. There was another oddity. The black-scaled being was still donning his pirate garbs, a flintlock pistol hanging from his belt on one side and a cutlass on the other. I always assumed that Sirath was a delusional bastard, but he’d proven himself helpful time and time again in the past. His flying ship and the crew were dependable, but were now busy helping Lanerscost fend off the unrelenting hordes of undead striving to topple the walls of the capital. I wouldn’t have minded using the ship to smash through the temple, especially if that killed Sam and Lethe instantly. Next to Sirath at waist-height was Kroznir Cragguard, the pint-sized inventor and heat-packing member of the group. Kroznir came from a lineage of royalty, and that lineage was so old it served as the name for the entire race. Cragguards are small and stout, but their ingenious minds kept them ahead of the game as far as war goes. His home city of Minoldur was currently battling against eldritch horrors that had been buried underneath the mountain they’d built their city into the side of. Nice foresight for such smart people. I’m not racist. Kroznir looked as ready as ever, and had finally started to regrow his orange beard after it had burned off during a bout with a clockwork dragon the Brain Trust had constructed ran amok. Kroznir may be the brother of a king, but he was a king in my eyes; king of heavy armaments. There was no telling what weapons he had beneath that old duster. He’d pulled his goggles down over his eyes to keep the dust of the dead lands out, but it still collected in his unkept hair. Tallara’s disappearance took its toll on him too, and being the person that took care of her when she came to this world out of the blue, she meant a lot to him. These guys were brave enough to stand with Phyra and Tallara when they fought against Lethe’s forces before, and I was thankful they were here now. Those two left a legacy in their deeds, and we’d take that torch right to Lethe and burn his corpse from the face of the planet.

“Right into his eye socket,” I uttered.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Hope asked.

“Nothing.” I put my nose to the wind. No Phyra or Tallara. Only burnt cinders and dead vegetation. There was something else to the air, but I had nothing to put it to. If I had to name it, it would be evil. This entire area was tainted with necromancy, and the spiraling black clouds that had expanded miles out over the past few months were practically pulsating with power. I took a moment to slow down and let the others pass so I could focus on the magical aura that pervaded the area. All dark, but it didn’t feel like Sam’s presence.

“Henry, not scared, are you?” Kroznir called back in his thick accent that emphasized the ‘r’ in every word. I picked up the pace and caught up with the group.

“No, I was trying to figure out what kind of magic is at play here.”

“And?”

“Let me put it to you his way,” I explained, “my other half is getting excited.”

Sirath stepped closer as we walked, and spoke in what I referred to as his stupid pirate accent. “Is that a bad thing?”

“If the other me is excited, it’s always a bad thing.”

His scaly tail came up and wrapped around his waist. I didn’t know pirates got nervous on land. From what I’d heard he’d fought against a giant whale-like beast that spewed fire from its mouth, so what the hell could scare him?

“Not much further now, I think,” Samwise spoke from the front. Being the leader of a band of thieves, he had enough of a network to know the land better than the rest of us, so I took his word for it.

“I don’t smell them,” I replied.

“I wasn’t going to ask for fear of that,” he said with a sigh.

I had another thought. Phyra really cared for her foster father, and our enemy had a very specific goal in mind. “Samwise, a word?”

Everyone else looked to the old thief. He stopped in his tracks and slowly turned around. “Yes?”

“You and I are humans…well, I’m close enough.”

He nodded, his expression only slightly confused. “Your point?”

“We’d be the prime targets for them. The Lethesar want to eradicate humans from the planet and enslave the rest. Maybe…”

I knew he wasn’t stupid, and he picked up on what I was suggesting quickly. “I’m not going to sit out on this.”

“Look, I’m not saying you’re not up for this, I’m trying-”

Samwise walked towards me and motioned to the others. “Go on ahead. We’ll catch up.”

No one questioned it, but Vatham stood still as the others marched on through the dead woods.

“Vatham?”

“I’m here to protect you,” Vatham stated dully.

“And I respect that, but we need a moment,” Samwise retorted. Vatham didn’t move, and it wasn’t like we were going to tell him he had to. He just stood there as stiff as a tree stump.

“Okay then.” Samwise directed his attention to me. “You’ve been different.”

“I know,” I said with a chuckle, “sometimes I have a lot more hair and muscles, and sometimes I’m like I am right now.”

“Smartass,” Samwise snarled, “I mean you’re not the selfish dick that only looked at others as things to be disassembled and examined. What’s wrong? Why are you worried about you and me? You, I understand, but why me? You know I don’t like you.”

He was blunt, but at least he was still himself at a time like this. “I…look, Phyra once told me before you and I met that if I did something that brought harm to you that she’d kill me herself.”

“You were an ass,” Samwise reminded me.

“I know. I was a dick to you and your guild, but right now I’m trying to do the right thing and-”

“Why?” he interrupted. I struggled with the words, and for some reason looked to Vatham for help. Vatham only gave me a cold stare. He didn’t give a damn about this conversation, and probably just thought we were wasting time. My eyes met Samwise’s, and I knew I couldn’t bullshit my way through him.

“You’re important to Phyra, so I’d rather you didn’t die so she doesn’t do something stupid.”

Samwise glared at me. “Why do you…wait…”

I pointed to Vatham. “Right, let’s go!” I started off for the rest of the group. I glanced back, but Samwise and Vatham weren’t coming after me. Good, maybe he’d stay there.

The others hadn’t gotten too far ahead, but far enough that by the time I reached them they had stopped themselves. The massive ziggurat was visible over the dead trees, and from the top a thick plume of black, Cloud-like gas was rising into the spiraling darkness above, serving as the source of the blackened skies. Kroznir was complaining that he couldn’t see anything, so when Vatham arrived his lifted the Cragguard up by his duster and held him up high.

“Put me down, you barbarian!”

Vatham dropped him from that height and left Kroznir complaining as the rest of us approached with caution. Weapons were drawn, and eyes were peeled. I didn’t smell anything else new in the area, but I did start to hear an annoying voice in my head that wasn’t my own, let alone the other half of me. It was a woman’s, and it took a moment to properly register.

“Can you hear me, Henry?”

“Margarine? Is that you?” I asked. The others looked bewildered at my apparent insanity. I thought they knew that already. “How is Lanerscost?”

“Duke Kamil has all forces battling the creatures coming from the ruins beneath. They’re unlike anything we’ve ever seen, but manageable. The odd part is, they’re not undead, otherwise my barrier would obliterate them on the spot.”

That was concerning. “Demons?”

“No, the magic would affect them too, though not as much. They’re not showing any signs of weakness against the army, so I can only imagine what they are.”

“I didn’t ask for a status update from there, so why are you talking to me?” I asked, trying hard not to sound irritated. Margarine was a nice woman, and I had some respect for her since she gave me a place to stay in Lanerscost. That, and she wasn’t scared of me. On the contrary, I feared the extent of her magic. We practiced different schools, but she could see anything she wanted, and her vision almost covered the planet. Then I realized the only reason she’d be contacting me.

“What do you see?” I asked, and the others took note of my stance and backed together as well.

“Creatures everywhere. They’re horrible, Henry. They’re gathering around the tomb. Please, be careful.”

I swore and motioned for the others to follow me as I snuck around the trees and stepped over the dried and dying vines and roots. “No promises.”

It didn’t take long to reach a small patch of clearing before the tomb itself. Most of the structure had been covered by vines and other foliage, but a lot of that was practically dust now and barely clinging to the ziggurat. We all stood in the tree line, except for Vatham. He just marched out towards the steps that led up the side of the structure and stopped ten feet from them, his head twisting on his neck as he examined the area.

“Vatham!” Samwise hissed, “Get back here!”

Vatham refused to heed his words, and it was no surprise to any of us that the half-giant was intercepted by an enemy for his blunt action. What shouldn’t have surprised me was what transpired next. The being seemingly materialized out of nowhere and swung a clawed hand at Vatham’s neck. The barbaric man snatched the hand before it made contact and lifted his heavy axe over his head. In a powerful swing that defied even my quick senses he cleaved the hand off at the wrist and the creature recoiled, now completely visible to us. It looked like a brown snake with black patterns across its scales…no, it didn’t have scales. Its skin was like that of burnt flesh. That’s what the black marks were. It had a man-like torso, with gangly arms that ended in hands with razor claws. Well, a hand with razor claws. The face was the worst part; toothy maws were sporadically placed all about it, with tiny, white beady eyes in the spaces between them all. The snout at the center reminded me of a bat in an odd way. Whatever the hell had created this thing was on something. Still, why couldn’t I smell it before?

“Vatham, be careful!” Samwise commanded. Vatham studied the creature as it slithered away, watching and waiting for his next action. The big guy was patient, but the monster wasn’t. It moved with a speed far exceeding anything I’d ever dealt with, and as it swiped at Vatham’s chest he stopped the claws with the hilt of his axe. Not to be deterred, it lunged its face at him and tried to sink as many teeth into his chest as it could. We could hear the maws snapping and emitting horrible noises as they dug into Vatham’s gray flesh, but the big guy didn’t seem too bothered by it. He’d grabbed the remaining hand and was in the process of twisting it into a shape that made me cringe, and my bones broke every single time I transformed! The cracking was loud, but the maws that had relinquished him and were now screaming in pain drowned that out. Something about seeing this abomination now struggling to flee from Vatham was actually more terrifying than good. It was trying to stab the stump of its other arm into him repeatedly, but his skin was too tough. Vatham lifted the monster and snatched the tail end that had come around to push him away. We all watched in awe and horror as Vatham grabbed the tail in both hands and whipped. The creature moved like a wave, and then its neck snapped, blood spurting from its many mouth. Vatham held his prize up high by the tail as it continued to drizzle blood to the dead ground at his feet, and I quickly changed my mind about the former tribal barbarian. I never wanted to go one-on-one against Vatham Rocksmasher. The smell of the singed flesh of the serpent was strong, and it only got stronger as we inspected it from a distance. A lot stronger. It made more sense when I had a clawed hand ran through my chest a few seconds later.

“Henry!” Hope cried out, his sword out in a flash and swinging at something behind me. The claws were withdrawn, and I hit my knees as blood pooled out in front of me. The pain was unbelievable, yet inviting. I shuddered as the twisted thoughts that plagued my nightmares surfaced, and begged me to be released. I dropped my staff and covered the gaping wound with my arms, not sure if I was sneering at the pain or grinning at the thought of the transformation coming. I started to welcome it, but the pain in my chest intensified. The wound was festering already. Poison?

“Henry, get away!”

I raised my head to see something that resembled a hunched humanoid with a snakelike face lacking all features, minus eye sockets with sparks of red light burning within. It had rotting, mummified flesh along the torso and head with insects crawling in and out of festering wounds. The limbs were comprised of writhing worms with too many ends for feet and hands. On its back were wings of fleshy hands, stretched and spindly. I couldn’t create that in my makeshift workshop back home if I wanted to, and I really didn’t. Through the pain and bewilderment, I wondered if the thing actually had arms underneath the worm appendages that were coming right for me. I was nearly deafened as gunshot after gunshot rang out, and flesh and insects were blown out of the back of the creature. Kroznir stepped between us and holstered his empty revolvers. I grimaced as I tried to stand.

“I can’t get away with a fucking hole in my chest, you ass!”

Kroznir whipped out another gun from beneath his duster. “Then cover your ears.”

“I can’t do that either! Bleeding out here!”

The gun looked like a rifle, but the part you load with bullets (the receiver? I don’t know guns like the guy who builds them) was kind of big for one of those. How the hell did he even conceal that under there? I didn’t get to think on that long before he pointed it at the monster and fired. The concussive blast actually hurt my head, like a sudden, vast pressure change. An arc of blue light erupted from the end of the gun and tore the head of the horror into shreds before slamming into the stone of the tomb and blowing a section into chunks. If I wasn’t on the verge of dying I’d have admired that power a lot more. An odd-looking piece of metal was ejected from the gun as Kroznir messed with it, and then he stuck another bit of the same metal inside, only it glowed blue.

“Any chance you’ll recover from that?” he asked me over his shoulder. Had he asked that to any other man, he’d be deranged. I was an odd exception, thanks to the curse that was my other half. I wasn’t sure how much the poison would affect it, but my healing factor would take care of the wound eventually. I knew changing would speed up the process, but I hadn’t voluntarily transformed since Dimshore. Tallara’s words stuck to me, so I kept my other half caged most of the time.

“I’ll manage. Don’t let the snake ones cut you.”

“I’d like to see them try,” he said, shouldering the rifle and aiming off to the left. I was practically blinded by the flash of blue as he fired at whatever the hell was over there. My senses started to come back, and I saw the bottom-half of another one of the rotting humanoids slump to the ground. Kroznir was a crazy bastard to make such a personal weapon. Samwise appeared in my field of vision in the background, backing away from one of the serpent things and flashing daggers to stop strikes from the creature. He was fast for a guy in is fifties. Leaping over the creature, he stepped on its head and came down on its back, driving the daggers into its shoulders and working them down its back as the tail came up and smacked him to the ground. My staff was still on the ground, and Kroznir was busy lining up another target somewhere in the woods. Samwise was a dead man.

The snake’s head snapped back as the contents of its skull rained down upon the dirt. The shot had come from my right, and I looked over to see Sirath standing in dramatic fashion with his smoking pistol. It was odd to see a long, dragon-like face like his smiling.

“I’m still better, you damned thief!” he boasted. Samwise gathered his daggers and quickly got to his feet, pointing a finger at his old foe.

“I had him!”

“You had your back to the ground and your life flashing in your eyes!” Sirath jabbed. I was sure the two would fight each other before the abominable creatures that were ambushing us.

“Guys, not now!” Hope yelled behind me. I looked back to see him clutching the hilt of his sword in his right hand, the blade impaled through the head of one of the burnt serpents. His other was preparing what I recognized as a fire spell. Adding insult to injury was a nice touch. I admired his skill, even as he held the thing in place with his sword while he torched it alive. I glanced down at my chest. It wasn’t healing. I was probably going to pass out pretty soon.

“Hold on!”

A hand landed on my right shoulder and emitted a bright glow. My chest was warm, but not burning like it had been. Hope was doing his best to heal me, but it wasn’t his strong suit.

“You’re wasting your magic, Hope,” I uttered, my vision hazy.

“I’m not wasting an ally,” he argued back. You couldn’t win with the guy, so I just shut my mouth and let him do his work.

“Oh, hell no.”

His hand left my shoulder, and I glanced over to see him lop a rotting fuck’s head off with his sword. He then tossed the blade into the air, where it began to spin and fly around, seeking out targets. I needed to study more.

“That’ll buy us some time,” he said as he went back to casting his meager healing spell, “so hurry up and get yourself together.”

I wanted to hit him for that joke, but I didn’t have the energy. Apparently I’d lost a lot more blood than I thought, because my robes were soaked.

“Henry, I have a question.”

“Not a good time, Hope.”

“No, it’s a good time. Listen to me dammit.”

I was honestly trying to grasp everything going on around me with great difficulty. I heard Vatham roaring somewhere to my right, and plenty of gunshots to my left. Sirath and Samwise were arguing while fighting, and Hope wanted to have a serious conversation. I think I had it all right. “What?”

“You gave up your curse twice, right?”

How did he know that? “No, I accepted it twice. It was taken from me twice as well. What of it?”

“If I could get rid of my devilish lineage, I’d want it back, because it’s a part of me. It led to a rough life growing up and a lot of judgement, but it’s me. Is it the same for you?”

I was more surprised that he didn’t give me shit for taking it back to begin with. “Yeah. I couldn’t get used to the silence of just me. I missed the thrill of being a beast, and the power it gave me when I was weak. I’ve had it since I was just a child.”

Hope took his hand away, and stepped in front of me, twirling his finger in a playful motion as I heard the dying cries of beings somewhere behind me in the woods. He spoke as he worked death into his enemies. “Then why deny what you are? It’s okay to embrace it if you fought so hard to accept it. I know what I am. What about you?”

I got to my feet, hole in my chest now just a dent of missing flesh that would heal up on its own eventually. “I’m a crazy wizard who is self-taught, and everything I know is putting things together in ways they shouldn’t be. I’m not great at combat, and when I fall, I fall hard.”

Hope swished the blade past my head and stuck it in the forehead of a rotter. The bland slipped out with ease and came back to his hand, where he grimaced at the blood before swinging it clean. “What about the other you that you refused to get rid of?”

I grabbed my staff from the ground and readied a fireball on the tip before launching it past Vatham and striking a rotter in the chest. It went up in flames, and Vatham glared at me for taking his kill. “Well, then I’m a fucking monster who knows only kill, feed, and kill some more on a bad day. On a good one then it’s kill until I’ve decided I’ve had my fill.”

“I think we need the other you right now,” Hope admitted, raising a hand that radiated with freezing air before an ice spike was ejected from it that flew over my left shoulder. I heard a sickening impact behind me and a thud, and realized Hope was sweating profusely. I didn’t have time to be hurt or careful.

“Don’t make me regret this,” I spat. The painful, infuriating thoughts were scooped up into the forefront of my mind, where I focused on them and nothing else. The change started to come at full force, and soon I was overtaken by cracking bones and splitting skin as my body took on a shape far beyond humanity. I could only smile as my senses and nerves were overwhelmed by the process. The pain registered in every single nerve, and I could smell and hear everything happening around me. An explosion from Sirath’s gunpowder bomb bombarded my eardrums, and my fingernails became claws. Vatham grunted as his axe met squishy flesh, and my muscles expanded as they devoured excess chemicals in my body. Samwise’s daggers clanged against what had to be the blade-like claws of one of the burnt serpents, and my teeth ached as they sharpened and swelled. Kroznir’s modified pistol that fed more gunpowder and projectiles with every shot belched a series of death notes that cracked the air apart with their speed, and my eyes strained in their sockets to see the world in a new way. Hope shattered the space in front of us with a thunderous shockwave that ripped two of the totters apart, and my ankles and feet cracked into new anatomical shapes. I was a monster anew, and howled my excitement into the air. The creatures took that as a challenge, and began to swarm in my direction. I kept Phyra in my mind as I rushed the first one to the ground, trying my best to smile with my beastly jowls.

“Give them hell, Henry!” Hope shouted.

My fangs tore into the rotting atrocity’s throat and ripped out everything they could. It was still churning on the ground as I swung a hand out and tore four claws through a serpent’s horrible face, trailing a black ichor behind them. Vatham jumped into the fray and began to hack his way towards me while Sirath chucked satchels of gunpowder and scrap metal with lit fuses. Some were a little close for comfort, but I’d just scare him up a tree after I dealt with the real threats. I lost count of the bodies we were leaving, but they were definitely stacking up underneath my feet. Samwise tripped over one on his way to stab one of the snake things, and Sirath stumbled over him as he took a few steps back to lob another bomb. Just like that, they were back to arguing in the middle of a battle. I seized them both by the backs of their clothing and heaved them up in front of me. Speaking was hard when everything was a guttural growl, so I settled for roaring in each of their faces. That shut them up before I dropped them on their asses and went back to tearing into the horde of monsters. Hope was nearby, hellfire erupting from points on the ground he willed them from. The guy’s control over his devilish powers was incredible. That left Kroznir. I found him nearly submerged amongst a group of the rotting corpses with wing-hand-things. If it wasn’t for the gunshots and angry, foreign accent cursing everything around him I probably would’ve stepped on him myself. He was on the verge of being mauled by a newcomer to the enemy ranks when I ripped my way to him. This thing was huge, even compared to Vatham and myself. It was some kind of giant crab, made of what looked like congealed blood. Underneath that was some kind of skeletal structure, but odd bits protruded from the body at random points, giving it a spiky defense. The face would’ve been scary, if I wasn’t worse. It was that of a bloated infant’s exasperated demeanor, with skin stretched over the teeth. The mandibles of the thing were nothing but bone that was free of the substance coating the rest of it, and Kroznir had been seized by one. I watched, unsure of what to do as Kroznir was brought towards the thing’s baby face, one hand free and emptying a revolver into the solid bone to no avail. Vatham had carved a path towards him and was trying to put an axe in the claw of the creature, only to get slapped aside by the other appendage. His entire body was sent tumbling and rolling through a crowd of monsters where he disappeared. There went our strong arm. He’d be back in a moment, angrier and deadlier. Until then, Kroznir was my issue. I readied for a long jump and nearly snapped my ligaments from the force of the leap. With the force of my jump I threw my legs forward and kicked the mutated face as hard as I could, and was rewarded with a shriek that caused Kroznir to swear aloud nearby. My claws dug into the flesh, and I went to work swiping at the eyes. The other mandible came at me full force, and I kicked off of the face before it impacted, impaling boney protrusions into itself. Kroznir was released, where he plummeted straight into my waiting arm. The guy was fucking heavy.

“Too many guns,” I snarled, beastly sounds emanating from me.

“Too much bad breath,” Kroznir replied, holding his nose with one hand and wiping the air with the other. I flung him over my shoulder where he grabbed onto my mane and started to work on reloading his gun. Samwise danced a deadly movement through the beings and came to a stop before me, blades and cloaked bathed in the ichor. An explosion not far behind tossed gore everywhere, and when the smoke cleared Sirath emerged, hunched and fatigued. We could all hear Vatham roaring in the distance, and I could even make out limbs flying with every strike. From the other side of the ziggurat emerged another massive, horrible crustacean. Kroznir opened fire right next to my ear, and probably uttered sorry somewhere between my back and the ground I threw him on. We were in over our heads. I tried clawing and biting my way out, only to have poison injected by the serpents and weapons stuck into me by the flying ones. I wasn’t healing faster than I was taking damage, and the poison from before only served to bring me down faster. It’s an odd sensation to feel your organs struggling to not stop, but mine were losing that fight. Hope’s sword spun through the air and took down a few of the monsters, but more just kept showing up. Some came from the ground, and others just appeared. The massive crab abomination was joined by another that erupted from the ground and tossed countless other creatures aside along with Vatham and Kroznir. Hope went airborne, but was nimbler on his feet and landed on it. Unfortunately, he landed on the boney mandible and was forced on the defense immediately. One of the legs of the other came up before coming down with the force of a steam-powered piston on me. For a second I had it and managed to squat the weight up, but the poison was winning that fight. The next thing I knew, I was knocked backwards by the shockwave and pounced on by the flying idiots. I didn’t have the strength to fight back, so they managed three good hits on me. I mean strong hits, with heavy clubs of some kind. Shit, they hurt like hell. Samwise sent arrows whistling overhead, taking some of the bastards down with silent headshots. That worked for all of five seconds for him, because the majority perceived him as a threat now. I snagged the tail of one serpent and wrenched it back, but it tried so hard to claw away. Poor bastard. I felt a little bad as I shoved three claws into its neck from behind and tore upward. Only a little.

“Sirath!”

I glanced up as two more flying assholes beat my back, and to my surprise I noticed Sirath being carried away by two of them over the woods. They had him by his arms in an effort to keep him from harming them, but that wasn’t enough. I grinned a toothy smile as Sirath let loose with his acid breath and forced the monsters to release him…from above the trees. I didn’t see where he landed, but I heard it. That didn’t bode well. Neither did the giant crab claw made of bone that was digging through the ground in my direction. I couldn’t move my body. This was going to hurt.

Flying through the air was one thing, but doing that while your insides threatened to spill out was another entirely. The pain racked my body, and that was multiplied when I collided with a tree with roots so weak I took it down with me. The black skies overhead were hazy, and that wasn’t because they were clouds. I was losing everything. Pain subsiding, I knew I was in trouble when I tried to push myself up with my right arm and only the parts down to my elbow worked. My forearm was dangling past that. Not good. Two of the snake creatures appeared in front of me, claws at the ready. I looked at my elbow and noticed the thick bone punching through the skin. Work with what you’ve got. The first serpent got a nice stab through the snout, and the second ate jabs as I kept sticking the bone into every part of the face I could reach. With those taken care of I set off back for the battlefield. An arc tore through a crowd of monsters and practically vaporized them. That blast was stronger than the firsts, so I could only assume Kroznir was pulling out all the stops. The massive congealed crustaceans were still a huge threat, but I wasn’t about to hurt them anytime soon. My legs started to give, and soon I was greeting the dirt with my snout. So, this is how it ends. We came this far just to die at the hands of these freaks. Phyra and Tallara weren’t here to save me this time. I could feel my form shrinking down, but my bones weren’t breaking back into human form. Instead, they remained fractured and useless as my body deflated, and soon I was a dying human instead of a wounded beast.

“Sorry dad…guess I’m not the monster you made.”

A chorus of loud booms filled the air, followed by a series of explosions on the massive crab things. One toppled onto the ziggurat in a lifeless heap of bone and ooze while the other struggled to stand when a part of a leg shattered. My remaining eye glanced right to see Sirath’s flying ship approaching, cannons giving Hell to the horde below. Clouds of dirt and body parts erupted all over the place. The others might have a chance after all. Sirath’s crew repelled down ropes and joined the fighting, forcing the monsters to flee with what numbers they had up the stairs of the tomb. Cannonballs blew whole chunks of the structure apart into dust along with the retreating creatures, and eventually all was quiet again. The place was littered with bodies, limbs and insides. It smelled horrible, but I wouldn’t have to worry about that much longer. I started to close my eye, when I noticed a familiar figure standing at the foot of the stairs. Short, with a black cloak and daggers in each hand, with white hair hanging out of the hood. It couldn’t be.

“Phyra…no…you’re not.”

I was too fixated on the figure to notice the others were surrounding me. Vatham lifted my broken body in one hand and carried me to Hope, who was against a tree and struggling with a chest wound. Vatham barked orders to him, and arguing ensued, but the entire time I watched the figure ascend the steps and disappear into the tomb. A few minutes later I was being force-fed a horrible tasting concoction that forced my joints back together in the most painful way imaginable. I almost blacked out, but my curiosity kept me holding on.

“I saw her,” I croaked.

Samwise knelt down, his face bearing a new slash across his nose. “What?”

“Phyra,” I uttered, “I saw her just now.”

Samwise squeezed his eyes closed and stood up, crossing his arms and walking over to Kroznir.

“We should say something,” I heard Kroznir mutter.

“What?” I asked. “Say what?”

“I forgot about your damned hearing,” Kroznir grunted. “I think it’s best if Samwise tells you.”

I glared at the back of the thief’s head, waiting for him to turn around.

“Sirath is dead,” Vatham interrupted. We all looked at the body in his hands. I hadn’t even noticed he’d left.

“Fuck!” Samwise shouted, pulling a dagger out and launching it at a nearby tree. It buried itself to the hilt inside the trunk. I knew the two didn’t like each other, but there was an odd respect between the two. They went back a ways in their careers. Samwise stomped around, cursing at everything.

“He was at his life’s end as it was,” Kroznir said, “and he died fighting.”

“He died too soon,” Samwise spat, “before we could settle things!”

I got myself to my aching feet, mind still focused. “What did you say before, Kroznir?”

The Cragguard motioned with his fingers at Samwise, who swore again before speaking.

“Henry, you didn’t see Phyra.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” I demanded.

“She’s not here anymore,” he said, and it pained him. I didn’t understand.

“Is she…no…she can’t be.”

Kroznir took a step forward. “Tallara is gone too. She went home, back to her world. Phyra went with her.”

A lot of things didn’t make sense today, and this somehow took the cake. “What the hell do you mean? They’re missing! How the hell do you know that?!”

“Tallara found a way home through the dark magic of that woman from Diremaw,” Samwise explained, “and Phyra went with her to make sure she’d get there okay.”

I was so lost, and infuriated. “You knew this?! You didn’t tell me?!”

Samwise nodded. “They didn’t want you to know.”

“Why?! They were my friends. They…Phyra, she-”

“Not another word,” Samwise warned me. “I don’t want to hear another word. Phyra was still hurt over your betrayal.”

Fuck the restraints I had, I could feel the change coming hard. “Fuck you!”

“You weren’t there in Diremaw,” Samwise said calmly, “so you don’t know what happened. We killed that bitch, and used her weird book of otherworldly magic to undo the essential lock on Tallara that kept her on this plane of existence. She was free to go home, and even Kroznir accepted that. I knew Phyra wanted to go with her, and gave her my blessing. You didn’t deserve a say.”

“I was with them for months!” I growled. “We traveled together and fought those assholes!”

“And you were a burning fuse of a monster that was going to hurt them,” Kroznir argued, “and you did.”

“I didn’t try to!” I yelled. “I didn’t want to!”

Samwise approached, and I as I stared down at him I finally realized I had changed again. I stood two feet over the thief, who was fearless of my power. “You did, and Phyra didn’t want to talk to you again. I didn’t tell you because you need to focus on this fight, not on something you should be an idiot to think about.”

I felt a strong urge to tear his throat out, but then I thought of Phyra. This hurt all over again. They all lied to me. Phyra wasn’t even here anymore. She was never coming back. My skin beneath the hair burned as the glyphs started to emerge. Everyone stood back as I stomped past Samwise and made my way for the tomb.

“Henry, come back,” Samwise ordered.

“If they’re not here, then I’ll finish what they started,” I growled, “and you all will stay here, or die.”

I kept any happy memory of Phyra in my mind as I marched up the steps. I warned them. I warned her. I can be a monster. It’s what I’ve always been deep inside, and it hurts everyone.

A Journey’s Sudden End

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.

“Henry!”

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…

“Fair enough.”

“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.

“No.”

“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.

“You’re dead.”

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.

“Phyra?! Tallara?!”

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.

“What’s wrong?”

“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.

Cinders

Clouds of smoke filled the living room as Mason Anderson’s mind finally settled into a more stable condition. He stabbed the cigarette into the ash tray on the coffee table next to his chair and exhaled another plume that was illuminated by the rays of sunlight seeping through the blinds of the window behind him. He actually managed a smile as he stared at the dancing smoke in the air, stress now at a bearable minimum compared to the past two weeks. Carcinogenic traits aside, he was thankful for nicotine right now. Besides, he didn’t expect to live much longer anyway, which was why he wasn’t surprised by the sudden banging coming from the front door. Mason cracked his neck and stood upon stiff legs as the pounding continued, not in a hurry to greet what was likely his demise. There was no point in running, as guilt kept his feet planted on the floor at the moment. He had to direct some of it towards the source as he willed himself to approach the door while the banging grew in intensity. He could call the police, but that wouldn’t do any good. Odds were that his assailant would kick the door in at any second. The door knob shook from the intruders attempt to check it once more in the hopes that Mason would accept his fate, but then when back to beating on the wooden frame. Mason stood just feet before it and contemplated his options before finally reaching out to unlock it. Not even a second later the door was throw open with a force that sent him tumbling back onto the floor as he stared up to see the intruder’s pistol pointed at his face.

“I should have done this from the start, instead of letting those idiots try and piece it together,” the intruder spoke coldly.

“If you’re going to kill me, then kill me,” Mason said calmly as he stared at the wall to his left, “but you’re not going to fix any of this.”

“There’s nothing to fix anymore,” the intruder responded, “just things to erase.”

Mason nodded and looked back at the man, knowing full well he was about to die. Instead of seeing his life flash before him, he was specifically reliving the incident two weeks prior.

***

Please don’t be too late.

The sirens that were distant a moment ago were now upon him.

Please don’t let me be too late.

The brick wall to Mason’s left was illuminated by the red lights of the passing ambulance. It hung a left around the corner in the direction he was headed. No!

Mason hugged the wall as he turned left and chased after it, headed down the street and running past the front of the drug store on the corner. The red lights reflecting off of the pane windows were blinding him, and the siren deafening. It screamed in his ear, mimicking the sense of failure reverberating through his head, like a voice mocking his actions. All he could think of was that he might have been too late to save a life. The ambulance quickly got ahead of him, but he kept an eye on it as he continued his race. His heart skipped a beat as he saw the brake lights come on near his destination on the right. He slowed to a stop and fought to catch his breath as his fears mounted up. The ambulance slowed to a near stop, and then turned down the left street.

Mason was swept with a warm feeling of relief, but the matter at hand was still waiting for him. He could see Joel Blythe across the road, sitting on the charred front steps of the condemned house.

Mitigated at the sight of his friend, Mason sprinted across the street and stopped in the ravaged front lawn. The deep ruts from the emergency vehicles that had plagued the scene the night before were still quite visible in the ground. He took his first step on the partly green grass and walked towards the blackened front porch as the lawn faded into brown and then black. The police tape was undisturbed, still wrapped around the pillars along the porch behind Joel. Mason stood before his best friend with his hands on his knees, struggling to catch his breath as sweat poured down his face. Asthma was an unforgiving weight in his life. Joel was sitting with his arms wrapped around his legs and his chin resting on his knees, staring at the dark ground before Mason’s feet. Lungs able to hold an adequate amount of oxygen again, Mason sighed and brushed away a spot next to Joel for him to sit. The awkward silence persisted as Mason tried to think of something to say. What did you say to the man who had lost everything the night before?

Mason didn’t expect to see it on the news last night; the fire. He had just gotten home from his factory job and sat down to watch his usual Thursday night sitcoms, but the images of the familiar structure ablaze on the screen had him back on his feet and out the door within seconds. Even with all of the city casting light pollution, he could see the red sky over the scene. By the time he had arrived, the aftermath was all that remained. The smoke bellowed from the crackling frame of the house that protested the elements that had acted so viciously upon it. Then came the grim discovery. The officials said it was smoke inhalation, but there was no comfort to be found. Between the flames and the smoke, there wasn’t a quick and painless way out. Joel lost everything in that fire; his home, his wife, and himself. The cause of the fire was yet to be identified, so an investigation was being conducted. If Mason had to guess they had taken the night off to review some of the evidence, which left an empty crime scene. Now Joel just sat here on the blackened front porch of the house that once was his life. Mason didn’t know what to say. The man looked like he hadn’t showered or slept, which he attributed to his greasy black hair and smell of smoke, but he couldn’t distinguish that from the house or his person. It had only been one day, but Joel had aged years in appearance. His features were all exhausted and somber as he just sat, playing with his thumbs that were bound in thick leather gloves. Mason mentally prepared himself and opened his mouth to speak.

“Thanks for coming,” Joel muttered first.

Mason hadn’t expected Joel to start, but it broke the awkward silence that had clung to the air like a phantom’s presence. He took a deep breath and began, “Hey Joel, I thought you and your son were staying with your brother?”

Joel grunted, “Charlie is there, safe and sound. He still doesn’t know. As for me, well, I’d only be a burden.”

“Joel, that’s not true. Look, come back to my place. We’ll talk about it, or anything else. I just-”

“Cigarette?” Joel asked, brandishing a pack of his favorite brand. Mason looked at the pack in Joel’s gloved hand, bit his lip, and gave a half-hearted laugh. He had given it up since his asthma had come on with a vengeance, but who was he to turn down a kind gesture that demonstrated a sense of humanity still present within his friend?

“Sure.”

Joel handed him the lighter and allowed him to enjoy a smoke before he continued, “I’m not leaving. This is where I belong,” Joel told him, no emotion present in his tone. Mason coughed out a cloud of smoke and wheezed before handing it back to Joel, who refused. Mason shrugged and held the cigarette between his fingers as he thought. Finally, he went to wrap his arm around his friend’s shoulder. Joel took notice, and got to his feet before Mason’s arm had even gotten close to him. Mason watched his back and shook his head before flicking the filter onto the dead grass and watching the embers die. Joel shrugged his jacket up higher on his shoulders and walked up the steps, ducking under the police tape and stopping at the scorched door as he gently pushed it open. The door fell from its hinges and hit the floor with a thud that threw ashes everywhere. The sound startled Mason, but he was more alarmed at what Joel was doing. Joel didn’t seem to care as he walked over it and entered the remains of his house. Mason stood up from his place on the porch and hesitantly followed.

“Joel, come back!” Mason hissed, “I know it’s your house, but it’s not safe! Besides, if someone calls the police on us we’re going to look really suspicious here!”

Joel ignored his plea and took in the sight, with Mason right behind him. The living room was a horrendous scene. The fire had claimed most of the furniture, and the floorboards were weak beneath them. The second floor was inaccessible due to the collapsed roof that had taken out the staircase, but Mason was hoping that Joel had no intentions of going up there anyway. Joel stopped beside the staircase where the piano his son had practiced on for years was now smashed to pieces from the dresser that had fallen through the floor in the master bedroom upstairs. He ran his hand across a piece of it as he trailed through the hallway leading into the kitchen. He stopped as he came across the wall of family portraits on his left. Reaching up, he brushed away the ashes on one picture that the flames seemed to have spared inside of the frame. Mason noticed that he wasn’t smiling as Joel gazed upon a picture of himself, his wife, and their son. He continued to wipe away the debris, revealing more of the picture before beginning to scrub at the glass furiously, gritting his teeth. Finally he raised the portrait above his head and threw it onto the floor where it smashed apart from the weakened frame. Mason hurried to him and grabbed his arm, “Joel! Please, let’s just get out of here!”

Joel looked at him with deadened eyes, “I can’t leave here. Not yet. Not while I still have matters to settle.”

“What? Don’t say that. Look, I can’t even imagine what you’re feeling right now, but it can’t be any better here.”

“This is all I have left; all I have left is this scorched structure. Even still,” he said as he looked around, “it’s a painful reminder.”

“That’s not true, you still have Charlie. He needs you too, and besides Joel, she’s in a better place.”

Joel stared at the smashed portrait at his feet and grinned, which only unnerved Mason, “Better place, huh? How is that ever supposed to be comforting to anyone? Telling someone their loved one is in a better place without them is asinine. Did I not make her happy by my side? Then again,” he chuckled as he studied the picture, “I guess not, huh?”

“What are you talking about?”

Joel shook his head, “Nothing. That flame died a long time ago, so I found a new one to replace it. Now that I think about it, it wasn’t the perfect substitute…”

“Joel, you’re not making any sense. I can help you, but you need to come with me. Let’s get away from here, away from this house.”

“I don’t want to leave. Not yet,” Joel said as he walked towards the kitchen. Mason went after him.

“Joel, wait-”

The floor beneath Mason gave in, and his right leg sank through it up to his waist. He winced as he felt something cutting into his leg, but pulled through the pain and willed himself back up onto the floor. Grabbing the broken piano, he dragged himself to his feet and examined the wound. His pants had a huge tear, and beneath that was a nasty gash that was practically leaking blood. He took a deep breath to keep from passing out and limped onward into the kitchen. The tiled floors that once were of a pure white color now bared the black scars of the pyro. The walls were either burned down to the insulation or covered with stains from the smoke, and the appliances were all disfigured from the extreme heat that had filled the structure just the night before. Mason called out for Joel, but there was no response. He leaned against a countertop for support and listened out for any sign of him. What he heard instead caused him to tense up. The sirens from before were returning. What if they’re not the same? What if the police are on their way? Someone might’ve seen us! I’m in a crime scene!

Mason limped over to the back door at the rear of the kitchen as the sirens carried throughout the house. He swore he heard footsteps stomping on the wooden floor coming from the hallway.

“Joel?!”

There was no answer. Mason panicked and dove out of the back door, landing on his right leg and then immediately falling onto his back as his injury drew a cry of pain and profanity from him. The sirens were threatening to arrive upon the scene any second. He realized that someone could’ve heard him, and if the sirens didn’t belong to the police, they’d be there soon anyway. Slowly and carefully, he rose to his feet and began to hobble back to the house as Joel appeared in the doorway. He was clutching a gas canister in his right hand.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked Mason.

Mason was more befuddled by the object in Joel’s possession, “Why do you have that?”

Joel looked down at the object in question and shrugged, “Found it in the study. Here,” he said as he tossed it to Mason, who fumbled with it before gripping it in his hands.

“Joel, what-”

“No time,” he answered as he disappeared back into the house. Mason followed after him and set the gas can down in the kitchen. He hadn’t noticed how much blood he was losing until he saw the trail across the smudged tiles. The red lights of the ambulance from before illuminated the hallway and kitchen for a brief moment before disappearing once again. Mason let out a sigh of relief, realizing they still had time.

While Mason was distracted by the sight, Joel returned with a pack of cigarettes in his hand. He lit one for himself before offering one to Mason, who knocked his hand aside and scolded him, “This isn’t the time for that crap! This place is dangerous, and the cops are going to be called on us any minute! I’m leaving my damn DNA on the floor, and you’ve got a can of gasoline in here! Why were you even carrying that?!”

“It’s not mine,” Joel said after exhaling a plume of smoke.

“Then whose is it?! Why is it here?!” Joel crossed his arms and stared at the canister. Mason waited anxiously while Joel seemed to be deep in thought about so simple a question, “Joel, what are you trying to do? Burn the rest of the house down and hope it all goes away?”

Joel turned back and smiled. He actually smiled at Mason. Mason didn’t like the look in his eyes. It wasn’t even one of sorrow or loss anymore. It was of wicked joy, “You could say that. I’m going to burn something down, and when I do, it will all go away.”

Mason was growing furious, “Joel, what the hell are you talking about?!”

Joel laughed, “It’s funny, really; you being oblivious. I was that way too, but I figured it all out,” he said, gesturing with his right index and middle fingers to his head, holding the lit cigarette dangerously close to his messy hair, “I guess neither of us did in time, but that’s okay. I’m purging all of our mistakes.”

Mason couldn’t comprehend a single thing the man before him was saying, but something in all of those words finally struck him, “Joel, did you-”

“It doesn’t matter what I have and haven’t done,” Joel interrupted, taking another drag before examining the filter in his hands as if it held the same understanding, “What matters is that my heart burned, but now I’ve found a way to fix it.”

“Joel, you didn’t.”

He glared at Mason, “You’re right. I didn’t do anything. The two of you did; you and her. You both plunged my thoughts…no, my life into an inferno.”

Mason tensed up. How did he…

“I knew I couldn’t trust you, Mason,” he said as he crumpled the filter in his gloves and stuffed the remains into his pocket, “You ruined my life. I figured I’d return the favor.”

Before Mason could respond Joel turned again and was headed for the front door. Mason stumbled after him, but dropped to the floor after trying to apply weight to his injured leg. He eased himself up on his left and called out to him, “You’re a monster! Just take it out on me instead!”

“Is that a confession I hear?” Joel asked mockingly over his shoulder, “I didn’t need one; it wasn’t really a mystery. Besides it’s a little too late for that,” he finished coldly.

“You won’t get away with this,” Mason snarled. Joel continued to walk away without slowing, but just as he reached the door Mason cried out, “What do you think you’re doing?!”

Joel stopped and turned around, “I’m going to find a bar, maybe get drunk, and then when the police come to find me and inform me that they’ve found the arsonist dumb enough to return to the scene of the crime to try and cover up evidence, they’ll understand a man trying to drown his sorrows with vices to keep himself sane.”

“You’re not sane,” Mason uttered, “You’re going to regret this.” Joel laughed.

“With enough time and alcohol, maybe.” He shot one last sneer as he turned to the front steps and dropped the lighter onto the porch before descending onto the singed grass and leaving the scene. Mason was struggling up the hallway when the sirens began to fade in once more. He knew it wasn’t the ambulance again. The blue lights spilled through the gaping doorway as he leaned against the wall beside the piano and slid down onto the floor. Even if he would have escaped, there was proof that he’d been there. Joel had actually won, but at every cost.

“Joel,” he uttered weakly as his vision blurred. The blood loss was taking its toll, “Joel, come back. You…I’m…”

***

“-Sorry,” Mason said to the desperate man before him. Joel Blythe’s hands were shaking as he approached to kneel down and put the muzzle right to Mason’s forehead. Mason didn’t bother to fight it. In Joel’s state, he was either too fixated on the task at hand to properly defend himself if Mason tried to knock his hands up and take him down, or so fixated that any sudden movements would cause him to pull the trigger. Mason wasn’t willing to try his luck.

“How did you get out?” Joel demanded.

“It just happened this morning. Forensics finally finished processing the DNA from a cigarette they found at the scene, on the kitchen floor,” Mason explained, “They didn’t match it to you, but they know someone else was there.”

“I see,” Joel uttered, not seemingly surprised by the revelation, “and that was enough for them?”

“I’m here because my family posted bail, since it was only a trespassing charge, but odds are I’m still going down for your crime.”

“I nearly drank myself to death after seeing you two in an embrace,” Joel spat, “and you claim I committed the crime?”

“You-”

“I made sure that you both will pay for what you did to me, because I can’t put my faith in anything else to get it done,” Joel explained. Mason scowled.

“Killing me won’t make you the victor.”

Joel wheezed a laugh as he wiped his mouth with his left hand, “I’ve been losing since the day she quit loving me; the day I realized you were no longer the best friend I could trust.”

“Go ahead then, Joel,” Mason uttered in defeat, “I’m resigned to my fate. I knew there would be consequences when I did what I did…but not like this,” he shook his head, “not with her dead.”

“Resigned to your fate?” Joel demanded as he pressed the gun into Mason’s skin. Mason swallowed a knot and kept his calm demeanor as he spoke.

“My mind’s made up.”

“So is mine,” Joel hissed as he applied pressure to the trigger, “When you see her, tell her I still miss her.” Before Joel applied the few pounds needed to depress the trigger past the point of no return, the muzzle retreated from Mason’s head.

“No,” Joel said as he stood up and waved the gun around, “I’ll let you suffer before being reunited with that traitor.”

Mason was breathing rapidly, amazed that he was still alive up to this point, “And what about you? This won’t just go away, Joel.”

“You’re right,” Joel agreed, “but you will. That’s a step in the right direction, right?”

“You’re in the fucking army, Joel! They’ll have this investigated!”

“I know what I’m doing; I’ll find a way out. Of course, they’ll suspect I was here, but I won’t make the mistake from last time, so they’ll never prove I was here. I may be the prime suspect, but they’ll find no evidence other than your corpse, and a dead man can’t tell anyone what happened here,” Joel replied as he brought the muzzle back up, “You should be more concerned about yourself.”

“I’m concerned about Charlie!” Mason yelled. Joel just grinned.

“Charlie will be fine.”

“You were his hero,” Mason argued.

“You know that the hero can’t always win,” Joel stated plainly, “that’s why we’re here today. You took my heaven, Mason, and left me in hell. Maybe it won’t burn so bad once you’re gone too.”

“Joel, we went to church together! You’re a man of God!” Mason pleaded. Joel snarled and whipped Mason to the floor with the gun.

“I WAS!!! UNTIL YOU AND HER DESTROYED THAT FAITH!!! THE ONLY FAITH I NEED NOW IS IN FORCE!!!”

“Joel, don’t-”

“It’s too late for regrets, Mason. In the end, you couldn’t even bring yourself to face me; your best friend!”

Those words stung Mason’s heart. He took something from Joel, and there was no denying that, but this…this was inhumane. He never intended for things to end up like this, “Joel…”

“It’s funny,” Joel muttered underneath his breath, “I have you in the same spot twice in a week, but this time, your fate is entirely in my hands.”

“Joel,” Mason reached out and placed a hand on Joel’s pants leg, his final plea for his life, and for his old friend to find some sense in his head, “don’t.”

“Mason,” Joel uttered. Mason looked up into the eyes of his friend, but there was no sympathy in in the irises. All that existed in Joel Blythe’s eyes was hatred, “die.”

***

No evidence was found at the scene to incriminate Joel Blythe, as he was sure to correct his last mistake. He was free to go on with his life, weighed down by the malady of his crime against crime.