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.

I’m Sorry

“Theo! Put it down!”

The gargantuan being of flesh and stitching turned to face me with his placid face, but I knew that he was disappointed in my command. Simple as my request was, it was rather hard for him to comply, being that the thing I told him to put down was currently impaled on the end of the longsword grafted onto his right arm. I swore as I placed a foot onto his chest and yanked the body of the buck off of the blade, angry that I’d gotten blood on my cloak for the third time this week. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say there was a feeling of guilt to those bright, electrical blue eyes.

“Phyra, he’s just being Theo,” the calm voice behind me chastised, “Let him have some fun.”

Giving up on the futile attempt to simply wipe the blood off of me, I rolled my eyes over to my companion, Tallara. Though people called me weird with my gray skin and discolored eyes, I had nothing on the blue-skinned creature that I called my friend. I only knew two things about her past; she came from somewhere else out there in the depths of space, and she liked guns. She really liked guns. Still, there was a soft-hearted side to her that treated her dog King and our construct Theo like children. She made a good moderator, so as much as we got on each other’s nerves I was glad to have her around.

“He’s leaving a trail with as many things as he’s killed, and the last thing we need is a trail for the soldiers in Lanerscost to follow!”

Tallara crossed her arms and raised a brow at me, “That coming from Ms. Swish-Swish-Stab?”

“I’m behaving!” I shouted. Tallara just laughed and leaned down to pet King. She claimed that I was a person to take action rather than talk it through, but even I was proud of myself for keeping quiet as we moved throughout the countryside to avoid any patrols on the main road. All it took was Theo stabbing one wrong person (trying to defend King from being killed by some deranged poachers) and suddenly we’re wanted by the duke of the capital city and forced into a life of hiding. That wasn’t going to stop my goal of becoming the greatest treasure hunter in the world. I’d made that promise to my foster father Samwise, and I wasn’t going to just let that dream die.

Which brings us to here, a dark elf such as myself, an alien being raised by dwarves to my left, and a giant construct made up of multiple bodies to my right…and the pit below us that was nestled within a crater in the ground.

“Is that what we’re looking for?” Tallara asked as he carefully peered over the edge into the dark, dislodging a few loose pebbles that went tumbling below. No echoes from their impacts could be heard.

“Yep!” I exclaimed with excitement as I began to rummage through my satchel for my rope. Tallara kept her gaze fixated on the gaping wound in the surface of the land, obviously lost in thought as to what she’d do. I knew she wasn’t a fan of the dark. Unlike me, she couldn’t naturally attune to low levels of light within mere seconds, and she didn’t hide the fact that she was jealous of that. Despite that fact, she had an eagle eye that helped her shoot a target wherever she pointed the muzzle of her rifle, so I thought it was a fair trade. At least the sunlight wasn’t unforgiving to her, and that was another reason I wanted to hurry up and get down there.

I pulled the rope out and smiled innocently at Theo, who made a sound similar to a sigh. It was hard to tell through his stitched mouth. Sometimes I think he regrets that we created him through that bizarre ritual a few months back, but he was very handy when it came to physical strength. I had to admit that even I was a little surprised to see him take a step back from the cavern in the ground once I began to attach the rope to his waist. As the others backed away in terror, I stood on the edge of the black mouth of the cavern, eager to see what lay hidden in the abyss.

“Phyra, this is stupid.”

I shot Tallara the nastiest glare I could muster. She knew better than anyone else that there was no talking me out of something once I had my mind set. I just smiled at her from beneath my hood.

“Haven’t you seen me survive things like this before? I’ll be fine!” I

Tallara didn’t buy my cheery nature, but surrendered the argument anyway. She knew better, after all. I felt a little bad for scaring my friend, but I wanted to see what was down there. The rope was fastened to my waist, and the harness was trustworthy enough for my standards. Since our good pal Theo the mute flesh golem was the anchor, I felt safe in knowing I wouldn’t fall to my death. The hot and painful feeling of the sun on my  sensitive skin seemed to push me forward towards my goal as I could only imagine the treasures below, and I smiled at the thought of it all being for me now. These two behind me would let the fear take them, but I gladly shoved it aside at the prospect of glory as I jumped into the shadows below. The rope hit the tension point close to the bottom, and I saw the glint of yellow reflected in the sunlight from above, almost as if it was beckoning me forward. My mind was too fixated on the idea of treasures to immediately note that the glint was that of a giant eye, staring into my being with the same intent that I possessed, and suddenly the others didn’t seem like such cowards as the great green beast was illuminated before me.

Blade ready, I wanted what was now mine. Whatever this monster protected was now forfeit as I cut the rope and dropped down to the being’s eye and drove the dagger deep into the pupil, and a torrent of red was my reward as a deafening howl erupted from somewhere in the black. Opting to play it safe, I released my grip on the hilt and dropped to the ground, flashing another dagger before me as I uttered the words that lit the blade up and cast a blue aura into the Stygian world around me. The injury the monster had sustained didn’t seem to deter it as a massive claw stretched out towards me. The ground was scarred behind me as my dagger sank into flesh and tore a line down the arm of the beast, bathing me in the life force of the creature. The cry of agony shook the foundations of the cavern around me as I found my way to the belly and began stabbing into the skin like lightning. A failed attempt to drop its weight on top of me left the monster prone and weakened as I emerged from the back end and broke away for the far wall. The ground shook as the being crushed the rock beneath its feet, fury evident in its haste. My nimble traits found me well as I kicked off of the wall and landed on the creature’s head to retrieve my primary weapon from its eye, only mere seconds before its head slammed into the wall and dislodged most of the rocks. The scene was unknown to me as I left the creature to be buried beneath the rubble, its shrieks of confusion and pain tearing the air of the cavern apart between us. I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, I was vicious when it came to getting what I wanted, but that was what I was known for.

I came upon the mountain of bones that resided near the opposite wall, curious as to how many others had ventured in here with the same mindset as myself. Sheathing my daggers, I began digging through the mass grave until I happened upon something that satisfied my needs. A dagger engraved with words of power was now mine…but it didn’t stop there. Soon after I found a pouch of gold coins, and after that an untarnished robe, and after that more and more things that I wanted. No…I needed them.

“Phyra!” a voice shouted from above. I ignored my friend and kept searching. There was more. There had to be.

“Phyra, come on! It’s dangerous down there!”

I didn’t care. I had all of this. All of it was mine now, and anyone who came to take it would die. This place was mine, and I had dominion over the treasures here. No one would take that from me. This was what I’d waited my whole life for.

The thud of a heavy weight hitting the ground behind me almost went unnoticed, but my senses responded in time to turn around and see the hook-shaped appendage swiping for my neck. Panic tore through me as I brought the dagger up to try and stop the blow, but I wasn’t going to be fast enough. That barbed hook was going to pierce my neck and kill me on the spot. For once, my agile nature was going to fail me, and the terror grabbed my body with a firm grip that brought my arm down from its futile effort.

I watched as the hook disappeared from my peripheral vision…and then was sucked back into my line of sight as the creature was violently ripped from its standing place. Before I could grasp what had happened a sword erupted from the creature’s chest in a spray of blood that showered me. I was too stunned to react as the sword began carving down the chest and through the pelvis on the monster, and with a shriek of agony it was tossed aside, leaving me standing mere feet from the horror that was the angry Theo. A furious wail was muffled by his stitched mouth, but I understood the intent. He was insulting me for being so blind. The thud was him dropping in to save me without a care about himself, and the splintered bones sticking out of his legs made that evident. His fury kept him standing, but I knew he didn’t feel the pain anyway. If anything, he felt the pain of almost losing a friend, and that was probably worse to a dependent being like himself. I moved to comfort him when a swipe cut through the air over his head and cleaved his left arm off at the shoulder. I was frozen. Why was this happening?

Theo turned around and faced the new threat, and I saw the beast that I had left buried in the far wall retracting its claw as it waited for a response from its new foe. Theo readied his right arm, grafted word outstretched as he braced himself for a fight against something that was finally equal to him in horror.

“THEO!!! RUN!!!” My pleas reverberated throughout the chamber, but even still they didn’t reach him. The crime against nature and the monster of the darkness collided.

Gunshots rang out from above as Tallara tried to aid Theo, but only two bullets met their mark, and the beast wasn’t showing any signs of surrendering. I had to act. Drawing my daggers out I charged into the fray, stabbing and slashing madly at the fiend as Theo worked his sword up under its jaw and into its gaping mouth. Unfortunately that only ensured Theo was stuck in place as the creature lifted its massive head and brought it back down, impaling itself with the blade but crushing Theo beneath its weight.

“NO!!!” I started digging the daggers into every surface of the creature I could find. Its fur was so soaked in blood that I wasn’t sure where I hadn’t struck yet, but it was still fighting. Theo’s sword had broken off in the creature’s mouth, but as it stretched forward and chomped into his limp form on the ground I could hear the audible snapping of the metal as the teeth closed together. More gunshots came from above and struck the monster, but the gods weren’t on our side. Finished with the meal it had bitten off, the creature turned around on all fours to face me, one of its hind legs on top of Theo. Something snapped in me, and I rushed forward towards the giant face before me. This giant dog-like monstrosity hadn’t met the anger of a five foot tall dark elf that was ready to slice everything into shreds. No matter how fast I reacted, and no matter how many wounds I dealt it just wouldn’t go down. I darted underneath a swipe from its claws to Theo’s aid. His lower half was just gone, and dusty entrails were littering the ground where his legs should have been.
“Theo.…”

The roar behind me blew my cloak around my figure as I looked at my dying friend, unable to help him. I didn’t know anything in my knowledge of the arcane natures to fix this, and it wasn’t like I could just apply pressure to the wound. I was going to lose him.

“Phyra!” Tallara’s voice shouted from above, “Catch!”

I looked up in time to snatch something wrapped in cloth out of the air. Something on it was burning, and when I realized what it was I nearly threw it right then. Drastic, but it would work. The open mouth of sword-like teeth began to close the distance as I chucked the contraption into it. Oblivious to the danger that now resided inside of itself, the creature’s mouth snapped shut just inches from me as I leapt backwards towards Theo. Seconds later a muffled explosion rocked the monster, and as smoke bellowed from its mouth it collapsed onto the floor of the cavern, groaning in pain as its insides refused to allow it to stand again.

“Theo!”

I dropped my daggers and rushed to his side, but the charged blue light in his eyes was already fading. I could feel the tears pushing through as I moved my hands close and then retracted them, unsure of what to do. Theo’s head turned towards me, and for the first time I thought I saw his stitched mouth muster a smile before the light faded from the now empty eye sockets.

***

Tallara wouldn’t speak to me as she stared blankly into the campfire. She didn’t have to. I knew I’d messed up. Even King was sitting farther from the fire than usual, occasionally whining to break the silence. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at the fire. Theo hated fire since it was dangerous for undead things such as him, and without him here I couldn’t poke fun at him. I never could again. I wasn’t optimistic for once. I couldn’t be cheery. I couldn’t say something sarcastically to ruin the moment. All I could do was sit here with my eyes closed and try not to cry. I never cried when I lost my friends before.

“Phyra.”

Her words were so quiet that I barely recognized Tallara’s voice. I had to force myself to meet her gaze from across the fire, and in the heatwaves I could still see the anguish in them.

“Are you going to say it?” she asked.

I knew what she expected, but I couldn’t say anything, let alone those words. I’d never said them before, and didn’t know how to with actual emotion to them. I wasn’t good with sorrow, but there was no joking my way out of this.

“Well?”

The heaviest weight began to bear down on me as I started to mouth the words.

A Glint of Yellow

As the others backed away in terror, I stood on the edge of the black mouth of the cavern, eager to see what lay hidden in the abyss.

“Phyra, this is stupid.”

I looked over to my friend and companion, Tallara. She knew better than anyone else that there was no talking me out of something once I had my mind set. I just smiled at her from beneath my hood.

“Haven’t you seen me survive things like this before? I’ll be fine!”

Tallara didn’t buy my cheery nature, but surrendered the argument anyway. She knew better, after all. I felt a little bad for scaring my friend, but I wanted to see what was down there. The rope was fastened to my waist, and the harness was trustworthy enough for my standards. Since our good pal Theo the mute flesh golem was the anchor, I felt safe in knowing I wouldn’t fall to my death. The hot and painful feeling of the sun on my sensitive skin seemed to push me forward towards my goal as I could only imagine the treasures below, and I smiled at the thought of it all being for me now. These two behind me would let the fear take them, but I gladly shoved it aside at the prospect of glory as I jumped into the shadows below. The rope hit the tension point close to the bottom, and I saw the glint of yellow reflected in the sunlight from above, almost as if it was beckoning me forward. My mind was too fixated on the idea of treasures to immediately note that the glint was that of a giant eye, staring into my being with the same intent that I possessed, and suddenly the others didn’t seem like such cowards as the great green beast was illuminated before me. Blade ready, I wanted what was now mine. Whatever this monster protected was now forfeit as I cut the rope and dropped down to the being’s eye and drove the dagger deep into the pupil, and a torrent of red was my reward as a deafening howl erupted from somewhere in the black. Opting to play it safe, I released my grip on the hilt and dropped to the ground, flashing another dagger before me as I uttered the words that light the blade up and cast a blue aura into the Stygian world around me. The injury the monster had sustained didn’t seem to deter it as a massive claw stretched out towards me. The ground was scarred behind me as my dagger sank into flesh and tore a line down the arm of the beast, bathing me in the life force of the creature. The cry of agony shook the foundations of the cavern around me as I found my way to the belly and began stabbing into the skin like lightning. A failed attempt to drop its weight on top of me left the monster prone and weakened as I emerged from the back end and broke away for the far wall. The ground shook as the being crushed the rock beneath its feet, fury evident in its haste. My nimble traits found me well as I kicked off of the wall and landed on the creature’s head to retrieve my primary weapon from its eye, only mere seconds before its head slammed into the wall and dislodged most of the rocks. The scene was unknown to me as I left the creature to be buried beneath the rubble, its shrieks of confusion and pain tearing the air of the cavern apart between us. I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, I was vicious when it came to getting what I wanted, but that was what I was known for.

I came upon the mountain of bones that resided near the opposite wall, curious as to how many others had ventured in here with the same mindset as myself. Sheathing my daggers, I began digging through the mass grave until I happened upon something that satisfied my needs. A dagger engraved with words of power was now mine…but it didn’t stop there. Soon after I found a pouch of gold coins, and after that an untarnished robe, and after that more and more things that I wanted. No…I needed them.

“Phyra!” a voice shouted from above. I ignored my friend and kept searching. There was more. There had to be.

“Phyra, come on! It’s dangerous down there!”

I didn’t care. I had all of this. All of it was mine now, and anyone who came to take it would die. This place was mine now, and I had dominion over the treasures here. No one would take that from me.

The thud of a heavy weight hitting the ground behind me almost went unnoticed.

The Heart Collector

I added the section titles after neglecting to do so previously. This was the first short story I ever wrote, from some years back. I figured that since similar scenarios have me on the same mindset again, I’d finally share it. May no one ever be broken again.


The Unprecedented Request

Dr. Toughlove was a man of science, revered and feared for his works with the human body. His experiments were more often than not deemed inhumane and dangerous, but such labels never deterred him from achieving his goals. His unorthodox methods attracted patients from all over the lands who traveled to see him in the hopes that he might have a solution to their problems, no matter how extreme.

Some were satisfied with the results, yet all were unnerved by the doctor’s lack of boundaries. He had no restraints, and worked to make the impossible, possible by any means.

The man who showed up at his doorstep one fall afternoon was not a surprise, but his request was what stupefied the doctor. The man explained that after many repeated trials producing failed results of love, he feared that his heart had been damaged beyond the means of self-repair. The doctor laughed, having dealt with issues both irrational and embarrassing, but the idea of a truly broken heart was surely nothing literal. After examining the man, he was dumbfounded; the man was living with his most vital organ torn asunder! There was a faint, irregular beating within his chest from the struggling fragments, but such an abnormality was impossible!

There was much to do. The incision was made, and the pieces plucked from the cavity. The doctor studied the broken heap that was the source of life in all mankind. This patient on his operating table was an interesting specimen with an intriguing case; one that would require an in-depth study. The doctor began to reassemble the device, like one would piece together a broken clock. When he realized that the organ would not hold up, he began to improvise. Going around his spacious home, he gathered what he could to fortify the machine; duct tape, thread and needle, adhesive bandages, and even an acetylene torch from the garage. Donning a welding mask and thick leather gloves in exchange for sterilized equipment and latex, the doctor’s lab was illuminated by the sparks of fury as he reconstructed the machine.

When the man awoke, he felt whole once more. He thanked the doctor, paid his debt, and left to return to his daily life. The doctor saw him off, and actually felt pity for a patient for the first time. The man, though optimistic and perseverant, was blinded by his desires to the point of self-destruction. The man disappeared on over the horizon, anew with spirit that he could triumph as the hope of his reborn heart spread throughout his body.

The Doctor’s Lament

It was only seven months later that the mad doctor found himself ripping the dying organ from the subject’s chest cavity for a third time. The damage was severe, but he had no doubts that it could be made to function again. The bothersome question was why the individual continued to put himself through these relentless trials. What reason did he have to keep trying to attain something he was not fated to have? What with the crude application of the bandages, appalling welding beads, and the inconceivable use of duct tape to hold the instrument together, it was baffling as to how the device even continued to function with so many faults. Was it running on willpower alone?

The doctor hooked the organ up to life support and went to work, knowing that his efforts would be in vain. The subject never ceased in his persistent attempt to accomplish his goal. The doctor knew he was only fueling the subject’s pain, but deep within, he wanted to actually see his work become a success.

Returning the reconstructed device to the shell from which it came, the man sprang to life once more. After donning a shirt to hide the countless scars, he thanked the doctor before setting out once again in his relentless campaign to find what he was looking for. The doctor wished him the best of luck, and began to prep his medical instruments for the subject’s inevitable return.

The Subject’s Desire

The doctor’s greatest hope was that his works would never come back to haunt him, but now his greatest failure stood before him  for a fifth time in the doorway, late on a winter’s evening. The man’s bags underneath his eyes and the sullen expression upon his face told of a great weight that had been placed upon him, or of an important possession taken.

The doctor invited his former subject in and placed a tea kettle on the stove to boil as he readied his equipment to give the man a physical, hoping that he could diagnose what was wrong. He already had his assumptions, but he had to know. Understanding how this man worked was a mystery that he couldn’t allow to go unsolved. After donning his stethoscope, he listened for the man’s heartbeat, and the results reinforced his fears. Only a small remnant was left, so minuscule that to feel any single strong emotion would fell the remainder.

Upon asking for the whereabouts of the subject’s heart, he was shocked to discover that the instrument had been given to another, and not returned. The subject had repeated his failure once more. He had allowed the doctor to perform so much work to the device that failed him so many times, and now that work was lost. The doctor actually felt sorry for the man, and attempted to comfort him in his time of sorrow. He assured the subject that it was probably for the best, as the heart had driven him desperate in the pursuit of his desires, and without it to fuel his self-destructive endeavors, the subject could finally find peace.

The subject would hear none of it. He only desired his heart, and the doctor promised him that transplanting another would not fill the void, but would change the man entirely. The subject demanded that the doctor aid him despite the risk, but when he was refused his service once more, the subject used the last remaining fragment to invoke a feeling of rage within himself, for what more should a man feel with no heart?

By the time the body was discovered, the doctor’s subject was already far away, hunting down trails that might lead to his last, desired possession of misfortune.

The Crimson Tower

The tower stood tall and foreboding, eerie in setting, and intimidating in appearance. No one dared approach it for fear of the being that lived within the stone walls. No one wanted to suffer the same fate as the young woman who had last visited the tower and met the creature inside. The story was that she went to spread the word of God, and returned pale and lifeless with a gaping hole in her breast that allowed a look into her insides. It was baffling; the woman’s heart was missing, and no one had an answer as to how she was still alive.

To many, ‘alive’ was a poor word choice, as she had been observed wandering about her days aimlessly, with no care to be given to the world around her. An emotionless shell of her former self, it was as if the very faith she had for the world had been torn from her. The residents of the town had condemned the area surrounding the tower, and forbade anyone from traveling to it.

Within the walls of the tower resided the late doctor’s final subject, a hurt and shattered replica of what he once was. Once a prisoner of pain and his own failures, he now felt nothing as he stood upon a ledge on the highest level of his only sanctuary from what he deemed a dead world. Gazing upon the town in the distance, he felt nothing for them, but his sociopathic personality that he had adapted to following the loss of his heart told him that the world would be better off sharing his forced apathy. If the world knew no pain, then no one would know the sorrow he still felt resonating like a phantom pain.

The man set out with a resolve as he descended his tower and left for town. Upon his arrival, men and women both kept their distance, as the very air about him carried despair and melancholy. Nameless and void, no one would claim him, or infringe upon the circumstances of his appearance. They all eventually made for the safety of their homes and places of business, leaving a hint of the presence of fear in their wake. The man resented this fear, and pegged it as a byproduct of the hearts of the people. Storming through the structures one by one, he invaded, an immortal harvester, and tore out the hearts of the citizens.

With his harvest complete, the man returned to his tower and placed the hearts in storage upon a shelf. Though accomplished, there was no satisfaction to be felt or found. The man’s work was far from over, for the entire world was afflicted with the disease that was human emotion.

The Heart Collector

Gray and lifeless was the world following the harvest seven years before. Shelves upon shelves were filled with jars that contained the hearts of mankind in the tower of the collector. If he could feel anything, he imagined that he would feel accomplished, for in a world that knew no love there was no risk of hatred. His collection was vast, and the task complete. Now the world would never know the very pain that pushed him to this extreme.

While he was taking inventory, a knock came from the large wooden door. Puzzled, the man approached the door and undid all of the locks secluding him from the rest of humanity. He did not expect the company of a young boy who looked as if he had seen the sorrows of a thousand lives. The collector towered over the boy, and leaned far down to address him. He asked the boy why he seemed troubled, and the feeble, frightened child told the collector about his woes concerning the heartless souls all around them. He wanted to know why the man had taken the hearts of the innocent. The man, taking note of the worry the boy expressed, replied that he was only helping spare them from miserable fates. The boy disagreed, and told the man that he had killed the animated vessels around the globe by removing what makes them human. Without hearts, no one could experience love, anger, sorrow, or joy. The man flexed his hand as he informed the boy that to lack one of those positive emotions means feeling the rest, and that could hold negative side-effects, as the negatives outnumbered the positives.

The boy shook his head, and retorted that to not experience all of those emotions was a pain all its own. How could a person live without being able to express their feelings towards anything? It only trapped oneself inside of their own mind, and that was a Hell all its own.

The collector nodded, and then abruptly ran his hand through the boy’s chest and grasped his heart. The boy’s eyes faded to a dull color as the man replied that they would live better off never knowing of the happiness that wasn’t promised, and the pain that was. With a swift jerk he tore the heart out and held it high above, but something was wrong. As he beheld the instrument clutched in his hand, he felt. He felt remorse. He felt wrong. He felt shame.

The generator of life in his right hand was an abomination of what he was used to seeing that represented the anatomy of a human heart. It had been damaged and carefully repaired with great detail, but astounding resources. There was no mistaking it; the heart was his own. He didn’t understand why the heart was in the possession of the young boy in the first place, but he had to know why. He demanded an answer from the boy, shaking him violently. The boy’s eyes didn’t meet his own, but he answered him anyway as he stared at the jars of hearts around them. The boy explained that the heart was a gift from his mother, as he was born without one seven years prior. His mother had kept it hidden when the collector went about his campaign of terror. She knew her sin of stealing the heart from it original host would constitute a curse upon her offspring, and countered it by giving the child the enduring heart that could stand up to evil, no matter how many times it had faltered.

The collector turned his back on the boy and held the heart close to his chest. The beating sound it emitted grew louder by the second, and the mechanical sounds within only compounded the maddening noise. Soon, the beating of the countless hearts surrounding him all joined in a chorus of unrelenting pounding in his eardrums. The collector began to sweat and panic. The noise wouldn’t cease. The madness wouldn’t end! The collector began smashing the jars into the floor, over and over again. With every broken jar a whole heart was released. Every shattering of glass soon overtook the pounding, but a howling of wind overwhelmed even that. The hearts had gathered into a whirlwind of emotions about the two, and as they encircled the collector, he felt every possible human emotion all at once. The pains, the blessings; all simply overpowered him as the hearts ascended the center of the tower and burst through the roof. He was powerless to stop the events transpiring. The hearts all scattered throughout the world to find their places in the bodies of the ones they belonged to. The collector was left on his knees, staring at the black sky above. Not one star shined upon him.

The faulty heart that was once his own now lay on the cold floor in front of him, rhythmically beating away as the boy approached him. The collector lowered his eyes to the device, and he scooped it up in his hands. Standing to face the boy, he offered the heart to him. The boy’s face emitted no expression of gratitude or joy, but he obediently took the heart into his hands as the man walked towards the large wooden door to leave the tower. The boy stared at the contraption as the door slammed shut, isolating him from the man who had taken so much from the world that had taken from him. The boy vowed to put his heart to good use, and placed it back into the cavity of his chest before setting out to join him.

And so it was that the Heart Collector was denied of his desires once more, but for that brief moment where he could feel all once again, he felt the burdens of mankind overshadowing the joys, and still sought to take the pain away. Wherever there is pain, wherever a broken heart threatens to bring a person to the brink of their humanity as did his own, he would strive to be there to take the burden away and, taking upon the work of the doctor that gave him life again more than once, rebuild it to handle the trials of the world once more, in the hopes that someone would succeed where he had failed. If he could not, the very boy he left his hope to would be there to offer a second chance with the device passed down to him from the man who had twice given him life.

Where Angels Dare to Tread

This short story was actually based off of an RPG my friends and I never got to finish. It needed a conclusion, so I made one. This is my first true attempt at fantasy, so I was a bit nervous of the undertaking. Enjoy!

The colossal hallway leading towards the entrance to the dungeon appeared just as dark and menacing as when they had first entered the dominion of perpetual atrocity merely an hour before. Blue flames from the torches connected to each pillar that lined both sides of their walkway gave the passage just enough light to see, but it was still eerie enough to have everyone constantly scanning their surroundings. Considering the difficulty the party had just faced and triumphed over, there wasn’t much light to be seen at the end of the passageway in spite of the fact that most had made it out with their lives. There was one casualty; Jaeger, the fallen immortal, was lost to the tyrant in the depths below. Even a fallen angel could meet death once more in such a place. The vicious behemoth of a serpent had squeezed his body in its clutches until his bones shattered, and there was nothing his partner could do to save him, despite all of her witchery. Engel was a powerful fey mage, but even her arsenal of healing spells weren’t sufficient to keep her loved one alive. She was still silently mourning his loss at the tail end of the rest of the group, trailing behind and staring at the marble floor beneath her feet as she stumbled along with an air of misery. She may have survived, but her spirit was broken and gone with Jaeger. Kanye was the only member of the group with any sense of satisfaction still evident as they departed from the hell they had traversed. The greedy little thief had nabbed himself quite the load of treasure to pawn off once they were back in New Vale while everyone strived to leave with their lives. An opportunist such as himself didn’t need to waste the chance to obtain treasures by aiding in what had inevitably become a treacherous battle with a monster that was in the depths of the crust for a reason; a reason it made clear by nearly killing everyone but the thief himself. Mar, the half-serpent, kept to the side close to the columns they passed by, refusing to make any comments about the botched descent into what was obviously dangerous and unknown territory. He kept his mind occupied tending to the wound on his right hand as he slithered on, just happy to be alive after the encounter. In truth, he felt no sympathy for Jaeger; the once divine being knew what it was getting into when it tried to face off with the gargantuan snake alone. Mar had no pity for foolishness.

The only sounds that were noticeable in the somber silence were the heavy footsteps of the crystal golem, Idgaf, and the tapping of the staff belonging to the twisted but somewhat neutral being shrouded in rags that only answered to the name Lethe. Lethe carried on ahead of the group, unfazed by the death of one of their own. There was that sinister aura about the entity that struck the rest of the group as odd, but no one wanted to speak up against the vile being that had set fire to a tavern only days before with people still trapped inside, and blew up a family of dwarves right before their child’s eyes not long prior. Menacing as it was, the group needed the awful individual’s aid, as any was more useful than not, though in truth, Lethe only saw the party as a means to an end.

Kanye, never afraid to get anyone riled up, decided that the absence of conversation had lingered too long, “You know, bag of bones, you could’ve just unrobed yourself in front of that thing. Your black bones might’ve actually scared that damned thing long enough for me to sneak atop it and run a blade through its eye. That or the fact that you’re a genderless abomination to nature.  Might’ve saved Jaeger the trouble of getting himself killed.”

Lethe stopped, and the rest of the party followed suit. It wasn’t entirely a secret to most in the party that Lethe wasn’t human…at least not anymore. Underneath the robes it donned were literally dark bones that framed the body of the being. It turned to face the short thief and made an audible hissing noise under its hood before speaking. That raspy voice always sent chills up everyone’s spine, no matter how brave they tried to appear.

“Says the ruffian who sought treasure in objects rather than a sentient being during the strife. You dare to question my concerns? If you’re trying to blame me for the fool’s death, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed to discover that I simply don’t care. He tried to be a hero, and he failed. It’s not really my problem if we lose a person or two once in a while. As long as we accomplish the goal, I don’t see the issues presented by you as crippling. We have to make sacrifices. If I should perish, others will be sent in my place to ensure all I’ve worked for will not be in vain.”

Zack couldn’t believe his ears. He practically snarled at Lethe as he stomped towards the being, teeth bared and eyes glowing their yellow tint. Lethe watched his every movement. It may have been a powerful necromancer, but it was hard to keep a beast man down when it was pissed, and Zack was a useful ally for what it believed awaited ahead.

“What the hell are you talking about?! You keep mentioning this ‘goal,’ these ‘others.’ Who the hell do you think you are?!” Zack demanded, “You claim that the thief values objects, yet you yourself see us as expendable! We’re not pawns for you! Someone just lost a life, and in turn, someone else lost someone dear to them! I’d ask if you have a soul, but according to you, you have many! Aren’t any of them registering some form of sympathy for someone who’s been with us since the beginning?”

Lethe knew it wasn’t trusted amongst all of the party, but it understood human emotion, even if it couldn’t necessarily channel and radiate any one in particular. Things like being an emotional character weren’t really easy when you were comprised of countless souls that were all competing for control in your shell. Underneath its robe was a stirring of fabric, and out popped the tiny, purple book imp that served as the creature’s trusted servant.

“Pipe down, wretched dog!” It spoke in its squeaky voice, “If you truly understood the forces at play, you’d know he will be spared from the hell to come!”

Zack emitted a low growl before speaking, “Foul darklings such as yourself had best keep to the shadows, least you find yourself devoured by a larger, more menacing creature of the night.”

The imp began to rant off in a demonic tongue, but Lethe cut it off as it spoke calmly in the same language. The imp surrendered the fight and disappeared back into the necromancer’s robes. Lethe then directed its attention to the near-animalistic Zack once more.

“If I said I sympathize with the woman, I’d be lying. Is that the answer you seek?”

Zack could feel his change coming on, which in turn led to Lethe raising its staff, but Mar was quick to interfere with the quarrel between the two. The poison tipped tail of the serpent man was right at the beast man’s throat, and its dagger pointed in the direction of the dark one. Zack was too surprised by the apathetic member of the group’s apparent interest in someone else’s affairs for once to focus on the argument. Idgaf was uneasy about the threat against its master, and stepped forward as the corridor shook underneath its weight.

“I don’t care if you two rip each other apart by spell or claw,” Mar spoke, “but if you’re going to do it, wait until we’re back in town. At least then you’ll put on a good show while we all have a drink to Jaeger’s memory.”

Lethe said no more as it lowered its staff and turned away to continue the march out of the dungeon, but something stopped it from getting too far away. In front of the party was the lone figure of Jaeger, standing whole and alive before them. Lethe stood its ground as Zack and Mar cautiously approached, perplexed by the sight.

“J-Jaeger? Is that you?” Zack asked. The figure tilted its head as if it only heard him, but didn’t understand what he was saying.

“Hey, bones,” Mar asked over his shoulder, “This some of your mess?”

Lethe made a sound of disgust underneath its hood, “You insinuate that just because I’m a necromancer that I’m responsible?”

“Let me reiterate,” Mar protested, “You blew up a dwarf and reanimated him for his daughter. Then you blew him up again anyway just for the laughs, and let me tell you, there were none.”

Lethe couldn’t argue that one. It knew its reputation amongst the others was…well, its presence was baneful to them. Still, it wanted to understand why the dead angel was standing before them as if nothing had transpired. Lethe tried to get a feel for any arcane energy in the surrounding area, but there was none other than its own and a faint hint of Engel’s. There was nothing binding the soul before them to this world other than natural life. That was saying a lot for a person who had been crushed and devoured by the biggest cobra in the known world just a short while before. Lethe was going through the conjoined thoughts of every soul in its melded mind to seek an answer as to how Jaeger was before them, and only one made any sense. Engel was already approaching him with sheer joy expressed openly as she extended her arms for him. Lethe decided that losing her to test a hypothesis wasn’t an option, as she was too valuable, even if she did know spells to down him in an instant. As much as he hated to admit it, her role as the deterrent in the party was one of the things that kept the others from turning against him.

“Fool!” Lethe snapped, “He’s a doppelgänger!”

Though Engel knew Lethe to be of a minor threat to her, it was still a terrifying presence to be reckoned with, and that voice was downright bloodcurdling. She stopped in her tracks as Jaeger seemed to express disappointment. Mar and Zack looked to Lethe.

“How can you tell?” Zack asked. Lethe mulled the thought over as it examined the man before them.

“You may call it a hunch, but even you saw the fool die before your own eyes, did you not?”

Zack actually agreed with the dark one for once. He looked to Jaeger and began to smell the air. It hit him, “His scent isn’t right. It’s definitely not him.”

“Hey!” Mar shouted to Engel, “Get back here, you idiot!”

Engel had started to walk toward him again, but no one anticipated the wicked smile that tore over Jaeger’s normally composed face. The fey had no time to react as his right hand suddenly morphed into a long blade that he plunged through her chest. It erupted from her back in a mist of blood that collected on the marble behind her in spray and droplets. Everyone watched in horror as Jaeger ripped the blade back out of her in a violent fashion that tossed her behind him towards the entrance. Lethe raised its staff to him and bellowed in a dark voice, “Wretched monster! You had best bow before I make you! I need that creature alive!”

Jaeger smiled and pointed the bloodied blade at the new challenger. Zack and Mar flanked him on both sides while Lethe began to channel energy. It hated a challenge, but wasn’t against killing something that had probably just cost him a powerful ally. If anyone was going to kill the fey, it would, but only after she had outlived her usefulness.

“Hey, Jaeger!” Kanye called out from the sideline, “We all want a piece of the bastard, but why the hell did you do that?! That was Engel!”

“It’s not him, you imbecile!” Zack snapped.

“If you worms don’t stop arguing,” Lethe muttered as it continued to manifest magic into its staff, “I’m going to make you all kill yourselves when this is over.”

“I’ve had enough of this,” Zack argued back as it looked to the crystal golem, “Idgaf! Restrain the one that looks like Jaeger!”

The nine-foot tall golem looked to Zack, but nothing more. It was hard to make a golem with the mental capacity of a seven year-old do anything without dumbing down steps.

“Grab Jaeger!” Zack demanded. Idgaf understood that one. The crystallized automaton stomped its way to the mimic Jaeger and reached out for him like a clumsy child, when Jaeger suddenly leapt from the ground up to the golem’s head and brought his left hand across his chest. The hand took on the form of a mallet-looking instrument before Jaeger whipped his arm out and beheaded the golem with a mighty strike. Idgaf’s severed head crashed through a pillar and brought a small portion of the ceiling down next to Kanye, who was quick to evade. The rest of Idgaf collapsed to the floor before Jaeger even descended from the assault. He landed perched atop the golem’s back and took a fighting stance as the party dealt with the disbelief that the mighty golem had been felled by a single blow.

“Bastard!” Zack snarled mid-transformation, “You’ll pay for that!”

His bones began to break apart and reform in an audible manner, causing Mar to twitch at the sounds. Fully formed once more, the hairy, monstrous wolf form of Zack howled with an intensity that surely reached every corridor of the dungeon. Kanye was actually interested to see how this would play out. He and the beast man may not have gotten along all that well, but it was always a sight to watch him tear his opponents limb from limb. Zack crouched low to the ground, and then pounced on Jaeger. The doppelgänger braced himself, but stopping a living anger machine wasn’t something anyone was really capable of. The duo went through a pillar and into the wall behind it. Zack had buried the mimic into the foundation, and was striking it repeatedly with blow after blow. It was too dark to make out anything other than the sounds, but everyone felt safe in assuming that Zack was winning the fight. Zack backed off into the light and howled, making Kanye back off. He was more interested in living, so he only hesitated for a few seconds from the terrible sounds before bolting up the hallway. Lethe could see into the low-light area, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Jaeger had been beaten into a bloody mess, but his face was still intact, and the smile was unnerving. Lethe pointed the staff and waited, but he couldn’t get a clear shot past Zack. The beast rushed forward and began tearing into the mangled bits of flesh stuck into the wall, ripping away all kinds of anatomical parts. There were no cries of pain, and no howls of agony. There was only the smug face of the man who was dying a death far worse than even Prometheus. Lethe couldn’t wait any longer. With its left hand, it waved, and a great force struck the beast aside with a yelp to allow the impatient necromancer a direct line of fire. Some of the souls within Lethe’s life force were laughing at the idea as Lethe finished his incantation. Fire erupted from the tip of its staff and swooned over the area directly in front of it. It raged on as it engulfed the mimic and continued to blaze away for a full minute. The extreme heat was felt by everyone in the vicinity, but no one wanted to look away from the mortifying sight of the robes around Lethe flailing about and revealing its skeletal frame. Its hood was blown back, and the flames protruding from its eye sockets were fierce as it gazed upon the hungry inferno. When the fires finally subsided, the wall was left blackened and misshapen along with the pillars. One gave way and crumbled, bringing down yet another part of the ceiling above. The sound of rocks hitting the floor echoed down the hallway continuously as everyone waited for any signs of life from the pit in the wall. Lethe’s eyes could see into the darkness, and nothing was about to emerge from it. The necromancer shook its head and looked to Zack, who had reverted to his human form. He was barely clothed, but fully conscious.

“Damn shame,” he spoke, “you could’ve left some part of him for me to claim for my necklace.”

Lethe made a grunting sound and pulled its hood back over its skull. The battle was over, and the doppelgänger gone.

“So,” Mar said finally, having been astounded by the action, “is that freak of nature dead?”

“Yes,” Lethe spoke in a dull tone, “It’s gone. Damned things aren’t that powerful.”

“No, I meant you,” Mar corrected, pointing to Lethe, “I was asking Zack. Seriously, what the hell are you?!”

Lethe’s true form had been unveiled in the bout, and it neglected the thought of the half-serpent not knowing the truth. Mar was the newest member of the party, after all.

“So, are you going to tell me, or…” Mar’s voice trailed off.

“Or what?” Zack asked. Mar had fallen silent. It took a moment for Zack to realize that something was protruding from his chest. Blood began to trickle down the front of the serpent man from where the object was implanted.

“Mar! What the hell-”

Mar tried to speak, but blood came out instead of words. His body fell forward to reveal the figure of Jaeger standing behind him, clutching the serpent man’s tail. Zack’s eyes followed the tail, and he realized that the pointed tip was what had been driven through Mar’s chest. Zack prepared to retaliate, but an odd sound drew his attention to Lethe. A round orb burst from its staff and covered the distance between it and Jaeger in a second. Jaeger tried to avoid it, but his right arm was severed by the impact. Jaeger took a knee and lowered his head. Lethe felt a bit of satisfaction as it watched its enemy finally take a position it saw fit, but the doppelgänger raised his head. He simply spat blood onto the ground and then sneered as the arm began to regenerate, paralyzing Zack with trepidation. The cocky wolf man had finally been silenced by a sight that even his brain managed to process as fearsome. The fiend stood up from his place on the ground. Lethe backed away and readied itself. Every soul in its composition knew that this thing was a major threat to its mission. Anything that could reform after a concentrated ray of fire and an impact strong enough to sever limbs was not to be underestimated. Lethe just wanted the smug freak gone. It wanted to erase the monstrous humanoid from existence, and the next attack it had ready would surely get the job done. Suicide wasn’t really enjoyable for Lethe to watch, as it basked in the destruction of its foes by its own doing, but forcing a fiend such as this to kill itself against its own will would be just as rewarding if it could compel the bastard to experience fear as it ended its own life. Lethe prepared to take over the creature’s mind and raised its staff at the being as it began to chant, but the outcome wasn’t what it expected.

“Can you hear me, spawn of Styx?”

Lethe was petrified. The creature was in its head.

“That’s right. I know what you are. I wonder if a vessel such as yourself is capable of experiencing fear?”

Lethe said nothing. It was too busy regretting the decision to use the staff’s power to try and enter the mind of the being. Now it had an advantage if it could see all of Lethe’s abilities.

“Interesting. I believe you are already experiencing it. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Fear is such a powerful tool. It keeps those smart enough to respect it alive, while killing those foolish enough to attempt to overcome it. Tell me, soul-filled bone house of the damned, which would you prefer? Living, or dying the death of countless souls, all at once? I’m sure that will be a sound worth hearing. Silencing every single one in an instant. Probably deafening. That’s actually a challenge I’d like to partake upon.”

Zack had noticed the necromancer fall to its knees. If anything could bring down moral, it was watching one of the most fearsome entities he knew practically bowing to the monster’s might. Lethe wasn’t going down on its knees. It hissed and pointed its staff to the wolf man. Before Zack could react, he was stricken with agonizing pain that pulsated throughout his body. The sensation triggered his transformation, but something more was buried within. Zack hit the point of anatomical shape shifting, but his body mutated beyond the normal transformation. His features were more monstrous and bulbous in appearance. When the horrible grinding sounds of bones reconnecting stopped he resembled a horrendous wolf that had been possessed by something far more bloodthirsty than his animal spirit. Jaeger’s smile vanished as the monster stomped towards it with one marble-smashing step. The normal restrictions that kept the shape shifter in check with his humanity were no longer present, and only the murderous intent remained in the shell.

“You know, mimic,” Lethe spoke in a raspy voice, “You may resemble a monster in any form you take, but let me ask you; when you remove everything that keeps a wild beast’s instinct inhibited, who is the real monster?”

Zack snarled and began to crush the ground between himself and the doppelgänger. Jaeger prepared itself. The beast didn’t even take the time for a dramatic stare-down. One second it was throwing debris through the air with just its footsteps, and the next it had sent the doppelgänger airborne with a swipe. Jaeger smashed through yet another pillar with enough force to be embedded into the wall behind it. Before he could attempt to push himself out, the monstrous Zack snatched Jaeger from the rubble by the throat and was squeezing tight. Zack was forfeit to Lethe’s will, and its will was the utter destruction of the shape shifting demon in the monster’s deformed hand. Jaeger didn’t appear aghast. Lethe didn’t like that. There was no way Jaeger was still in control, so why was he so calm?

The abomination that was Zack raised its right hand and brought it down with a godly force, slicing clean through Jaeger’s torso. Blood splattered onto the floor beneath them, but Jaeger still stared absolute death in the face with no hint of fear. Lethe’s rage was beginning to boil over as thousands of voices filled its head at once, all trying to command the vessel. The staff was raised, and Zack tossed the cadaver in Lethe’s direction. The mimic hit the floor hard, and before he could get to his knees, Lethe commanded gravity to crush its foe into the marble, creating a crater where the being was suddenly hit with multiples of the planet’s gravitational pull that would have killed even Zack’s present form with ease. Lethe was forced to release the spell early as its power began to burn out. Endurance was not in its favor.

A hand emerged from the crater and grabbed ahold of the floor, hoisting up the figure of Jaeger from the depths.

Lethe snarled, “Wretched, relentless bastard. Zack! Break him!”

The monster roared and leapt over the pit, taking Jaeger to the ground as it began tearing into his chest with its barbed fangs. Lethe used the time to prepare another spell, and when the monster finally stood up to swallow the feast of flesh within its mouth Lethe pointed its staff to the ground next to it and summoned a spiraling black vortex. From its depths emerged a being of nightmares that only possessed one characteristic that wasn’t abnormal to its wriggling appearance; a gaping mouth lined with three rows of razor teeth. Tentacles lashed out in every direction from the being as it screeched its desire to fill its mouth with flesh. The horror that Lethe had deemed the Maw of the Void months before extended a tentacle and ensnared Jaeger’s legs before dragging him from the floor where Zack had left his mangled body. The maw raised him over its mouth and released the being. Just as the maw’s teeth began to contract and encircle Jaeger, he sprang to life and sank his feet into teeth on both sides of the maw’s mouth. Zack readied for a swipe, but Zack’s arm mutated into a muscular, malformed limb resembling the monster’s own, and grabbed Zack’s wrist. With a twist, the monster yelped and sank to a knee as Jaeger’s left arm took on a bladed form once again. He brought it up and down in a flash, severing the wolf-monster’s forearm. While the beast grasped its spraying wound, tentacles wrapped around Jaeger and attempted to force him into the mouth once again. Jaeger did something that finally put an idea of mortality into Lethe; he looked to it and smiled.

Lethe pointed to the death machine with its bony left hand and struck it with a green bolt of lightning that erupted from its fingertip. The skin on Jaeger’s body began to melt away, but he still managed to grow in size, taking on the shape of a deformed being that almost resembled…

“Impossible,” Lethe spat as it watched Jaeger take on Zack’s appearance. The mimic tore through the tentacles and began to rip the maw apart, sending writhing bits of black mass everywhere that quickly disintegrated into black smoke. Zack had managed to seal his wounds through his regenerative properties and was about to deliver a death blow when Jaeger spun around and turned the aggression on him. Both went tumbling into the darkness, but Lethe could still see the action. Both monsters dealt hellacious strikes to one another, but it was obvious to Lethe that the mimic was the imminent victor. Opposed to the impending outcome, Lethe readied another necrotic spell when a figure emerged from beyond the darkness and pounced on Jaeger’s back. Kanye had returned from his previous retreat and was on the attack. Swiping quickly, he made clean incisions all over the doppelgänger’s neck and tendons as the beast swiped immaculately, rendering it combat ineffective. Dropping to its chest, the monster was at the mercy of the three remaining members of the party.

“I applaud your work, thief,” Lethe praised, “but I’ll finish the nuisance.”

“Nope,” Kanye rebutted as he drew a short blade from the hilt behind his waist, “I’m calling this kill.”

“Aside!” Lethe barked as it smacked the thief aside with an invisible force. Kanye hit the far wall and was knocked unconscious. Lethe was free to finish the weakened animal that lay at its mercy. Lethe hissed laughter as it raised the staff for one final damning act. What a trivial concept for the being that had sold a soul or two to the devil. It wished it had the muscle and skin tissue around its mouth to form a smile.

It hit the monster with a spell that boiled the blood inside with intense pain as veins burst open from the sheer heat of the super-heated liquid inside. It could make out the sight in the darkness, and the joy that swept over as it watched the being shape shift uncontrollably under the pressure of the pain that it couldn’t even imagine the mimic must have been experiencing was immeasurable. Lethe didn’t care. It just wanted to bask in the moment of its enemy’s torment. The mimic’s features all converged in on itself, and the black mass swelled to a new shape. The featureless humanoid began to walk forward as it took on a new appearance. It was shorter than before, but when it finally emerged from the liquids coating its body as it transformed, Lethe began to step backwards. The persistent mimic had taken on the form of Engel, the fey that actually knew holy magic that could potentially harm Lethe. Desperate times called for a Hell-spawn. It commanded the demonic Zack to return to scrap with the fake fey, but Engel simply waved her right hand in his direction and a white light radiated from her, hitting the beast with a force that tore the mutated body away in a black silhouette that evaporated in the light and left Zack’s human form to fall on his face. Waving her hand, she caused the body to spontaneously combust. Zack perished without feeling anything. Engel then turned her attention to Lethe and winked at it, actually unnerving the necromancer.

“What dark magic is this, doppelgänger? I sense the fey’s arcane forces within you, yet you’re nothing more than a shape shifter. How can you possibly possess her powers?”

Engel threw her head back and cackled, something the necromancer wasn’t used to her doing. It was unnatural. It was wrong. She looked at the necromancer again with a ravenous stare, “You know not what I am, slave to the dark,” the doppelgänger spoke in her voice, “be gone from this world, and never return.”

With that, Engel lifted her left hand and the remains of Idgaf began to levitate feet off of the ground. Lethe braced itself, and Engel’s eyes squinted in concentration. She flicked her wrist forward and sent the crystallized body of rocks soaring towards the undead being. Lethe brought its left arm back and quickly threw it forward, raising a green aura in front of itself that the golem’s body smashed into, shattering into hundreds of pieces. The sounds of crumbling and rolling stones filled the corridor for the longest time before the remnants settled. Lethe dropped the barrier to save what stores of magic it had left, but the fake Engel took the opportunity to launch another attack, and with the flick of her left wrist she sent a frosty white ball through the air in its direction. Lethe couldn’t get the barrier back up in time, and the ball smashed into its center of mass and sent it to the floor. It looked down at the gaping hole in the robes it donned and saw the vapors from the ice coming out of the chasm in its body. Lethe forced itself off of the floor and managed to gain footing, but when it looked to Engel it knew something was wrong. Engel was smiling again. A few seconds later icy spikes exploded from within Lethe. The icicles were protruding from the center of its ribcage where the ball had embedded itself. A mortal would have died. Lethe didn’t know death. It had control over the state. The attempt was nothing more than an inconvenience, albeit a crippling one, as moving his arms around the spikes would prove a challenge.

A string of profanity broke out to the left, and Lethe turned its head just in time to see a blur run past its field of vision, followed by a battle cry and thud. It was hard to keep up, but it looked as if Kanye had reentered the fight. Sure enough, the short thief had taken Engel by surprise and was going stab-happy on her. Her appendages constantly manifested into various weapons as she swung wildly at the swift little annoyance, but Kanye was too fast. Her left hand became an oversized flesh mallet, and he ran a blade through her wrist severing the nerves. Her other became a club barbed with bone spikes, and he drove a longer sword through her elbow to keep it from bending. Engel just couldn’t get a fix on him as he cut her down from one vital point to the next. Lethe was impressed; the pint-sized mortal was even deadlier than it had ever anticipated. It would have to remember that after the mimic was dealt with.

Kanye dashed away as the mimic Engel began to regenerate from the onslaught of blades. Lethe didn’t want to give the horrible thing time to recover, so it began to channel energy for a final death-dealing blow that would ensure the absolute destruction of the doppelgänger. The soul of a powerful wizard was trapped within the confines of the embodiment of damnation that was Lethe. His knowledge of powerful elemental magic would prove useful right now. Lethe prepared the spell, knowing full well that there was a great risk involved, but at the same time it was too curious as to just how much destruction it could really wreak. A combination fire and lighting spell, the wizard had deemed this one “Absolution.” Imagination from the wizard’s thoughts weren’t enough to satisfy Lethe’s desire. It had to use the spell that the wizard had killed itself with. “Damnation” seemed more fitting.

Several shuriken came spinning from the shadows and struck Engel, sending her stumbling backwards. Lethe pointed the staff and focused. A miniscule ball of fire with sparks around it appeared at the tip. It was taking a lot of will to keep it together, but Lethe had it, and it was all to kill the bastard that had set its plans back an unprecedented amount of time.

“Hey, bones!” Kanye shouted from beside one of the few remaining pillars to the right, “If you’re going to do something, do it fast! That bitch is pissed, and I’m out of weapons!”

Lethe wanted to scold the thief, but any stray thought would ruin the spell. It had to succeed where one of its former lives failed. Engel regained her footing and started to march towards the thief. Kanye would be collateral damage for this cause.

“Die, monster! You don’t belong in this world!” A bolt of lightning was chased by flames from the staff. The bolt struck Engel and wrapped around her like a binding before the flames engulfed the doppelgänger once again, only this time the fires were living shapes that were peeling away the flesh. Limbs were ripped off as skin melted away. The mimic was trapped in a horrible fate that even Lethe thought fitting for someone trapped in the circles of Hell. Kanye was actually safe from the concentrated attack, which led Lethe to wonder how the wizard had died from such a marvelous display of power. When the fires finished literally devouring the mimic, the lightning darted in the direction of the thief. Lethe didn’t see it ensnare Kanye, but it watched the fires chase after the bolt. It understood; the flames actually fed. They were the souls of the damned, pulled from the depths of Hell much like itself. It was actual hellfire. Kanye cried out in despair as he died a brutal death far worse than what the others had suffered. When he was finished, the bolt of lightning made for Lethe. The necromancer was trapped by the electric bindings as the flames swept the distance to it. As they neared it, strange voices were audible over the roaring.

“I’m so hungry!”

“Maybe that one tastes better than them!”

“I’ll feast upon its bones if it’ll quell my appetite!”

Lethe understood the language. It eyed the approaching firestorm and bellowed, “Insubstantial souls! Would you dare attack one of your own?! I am composed of many things far greater than your useless lives now exist as! We are brethren, nonetheless! The enemy is not what you see before you! The enemy is that wretched wench that is rising now as I speak!”

The flames actually halted and seemed to change wind as a silhouette rose from the ashes where the imposter Engel had fallen. The flames jumped to the occasion and burned a path between Lethe and the figure that was taking shape, but stopped once again once the shape manifested into Lethe.

“Sorcery!” Lethe hissed, “Destroy the fraud!”

The impostor’s left hand came up from under the robes, covered in flesh. Lethe couldn’t connect the pieces in its mind fast enough as a blinding light tore through the flames and struck the necromancer with a force that destroyed the lightning bonds, shattered the icicles in its frame, and sent it far back into the corridor. That hurt.

Lethe understood holy magic. After all, it was one of the few nuisances that existed in the world that could harm it. The doppelgänger had used magic from Engel’s arsenal. It was only a matter of time now; Lethe couldn’t win. It rose to its feet, but grabbed its staff with both hands as it dropped to a knee. There wasn’t much more to be done. It had expended enough power for a day between the serpent and this fiend. Its tattered robes clung to its skeletal frame, which was cracked and damaged in multiple areas. Zack lay dead against the wall, body charred, and contorted from the ungodly possession that hadn’t worn off before his time came. Kanye’s ashes lay in a pile near the right wall. Engel was no longer visible in the darkness created from the bout, and Idgaf’s remains were now scattered in front of Lethe. Mar’s body was buried under rubble from the ceiling.

“Necromancer,” the entity spoke, “there is no hope here for you. Return to your world and dwell waywardly in the Styx once more.”

“What are you?” Lethe demanded. The mimic hissed laughter in Lethe’s voice.

“I am but a lonely mirror that has resided in this corridor for many, many years awaiting the arrival of new toys. You have all served well as means for my entertainment, but now I must bring the performance to its finale. As for what I am…well, that is a more complicated question. I am quite literally,” the mimic began to demonstrate features from everyone in the party, and its voice carried the presence of them all, “what you’ve all made me.”

The horrendous thing had the serpent body of Mar, crystal left arm of Idgaf, right arm of Engel, torso of Jaeger, and the head of Kanye. Lethe couldn’t fight any longer in its state, but it could make minions to fight the battle for it. Still on its knees, the necromancer raised the staff in both hands and slammed the bottom on the floor as it began chanting in the demonic tongue. The doppelgänger began to approach, features taking on the bulging appearance of the frenzied werewolf. Lethe had to concentrate. It failed to drag the creature to Hell, but it could still bring Hell to it.

The remains of the party began to emit an ominous green aura. Slowly, one by one they began to rise to their feet. The ashes of Kanye became whole and recreated Kanye’s appearance with the inclusion of bright green eyes that lacked pupils. Idgaf followed suit, then Zack, and even Mar. Finally, Engel’s body reappeared from farther down the corridor. Lethe’s newly formed army of the damned would prove the most formidable against the mimic. Immortal and incapable of feeling the petty emotions that dragged mortals behind the superior, Lethe finally found itself sided with adequate allies. Holy magic no longer posed a threat thanks to the mimic’s mistake of killing Engel. Now Lethe could utilize her powers to shield the party from the justified side of magic.

The mimic looked around in a circle as the undead surrounded it. They kept their distance, but only because of Lethe’s will.

“How ironic,” Lethe boasted, “you don’t need life to take it. I must thank you, creature. Your actions may have actually served a beneficial purpose, despite what I initially believed. Maybe I’m just being optimistic,” it finished with a hoarse chuckle.

“You do not value the lives of your comrades?” the mimic asked. Lethe laughed again. It felt a lot more in control of the situation than it did three minutes before.

“On the contrary, I value them without life. Now they’re so much easier to lead. They were merely pawns before, but now,” it shook its head as Zack began to transform to the right of the scene. Kanye grabbed a small dagger Mar tossed to it, and Engel’s hands began to glow white. Idgaf stood its ground, waiting for an order. Lethe backed away from the imminent warzone and stumbled to the ground, still weak, “Now, they’re mere puppets. Now watch, watch as I pull the strings!”

Kanye and the transformed Zack pounced. The quick duo began to tear into the creature at breakneck speeds, which many of the morbid souls within Lethe found humorous as the mimic spun around in circles trying to apprehend the aggressors. The hammer-hand made another appearance as the doppelgänger swung for Zack, the bigger of the two targets. Zack’s body was stricken in the head and sent flailing through the air as it tried to regain footing to continue the assault. Lethe smiled at its perfected zombie as it ordered Mar into the fray. It was time for him to redeem himself. The half-snake slithered to the mimic’s back and drove two daggers through the back of its deformed legs and through its knees. The mimic was brought down as Mar sank his tail into its back. The venom from the tip was injected, and if this thing was susceptible to damage of the central nervous system, it wouldn’t be long before the paralysis would set in. Lethe wasn’t relying on it too much, so having the golem hold it steady while the others beat it into a bloody smear on the golem’s chest would have to do. Idgaf stepped forward and picked the creature up off of the ground to give it the worst bear hug imaginable. The mimic took on Mar’s form and slipped out of the clutches of the golem before becoming the crystalized automaton. Its right arm became a heavy blade that it swung wide and bisected Kanye with. Idgaf grabbed the weaponized arm, but the mimic was already swinging at its head with the hammer tipped left arm again, only it was much larger than the one the mimic had used as Jaeger, and for the second time Idgaf was beheaded. Lethe sighed.

“A useless boulder with rocks for brains after all. Then again, I guess I’m your brains…oh well, it can’t be helped.”

Kanye’s upper body got up on its arms after placing the hilt of a blade in its mouth, and hurried along after the enemy. Idgaf’s body continued to swing at the mimic as the enemy took on Mar’s form and slithered around the blows that tore the marble apart. The intensity hit a climax when the zombified party attacked as a whole. Jaeger made precise slashes that the doppelgänger couldn’t avoid to the fullest extent. It took on Idgaf’s form and withstood the blows before the original golem’s headless body delivered a punch that sent it stumbling. It recovered and took on Jaeger’s shape, but Kanye’s upper body darted between its legs and slashed at the tendons that kept it standing. Kanye’s body then moved away as Engel’s hit the mimic with holy magic that set it afire. The flaming mass of constantly morphing tissue treaded onward in Lethe’s direction. A hand rose with a pale white light beginning to take form. A flash of a sword later and the hand hit the floor and disintegrated. Lethe’s zombies were too much for the creature. The fight had finally become completely one-sides in Lethe’s favor. It was time to end it.

“You’ve proven the most dangerous foe I’ve encountered, mimic, but I can’t fall to the likes of you before rising to power,” Lethe got to its feet and waved the staff grasped in its right hand, “Hell is indeed my home, but I’ll not return until I’m ready to claim the throne,” Lethe channeled what was left of its magic, “You are but another obstacle I’ve had to overcome, and a worthy one you have been. Perhaps I’ll find use for your abilities once I’ve studied your original body, but that’s assuming there’s something left. If your regenerative properties are anything like most creatures that possess such a trait, you won’t be able to keep it up forever. I’ll just hold you still while you’re ripped apart. Maybe then I’ll get an idea as to how you’ve persisted in this battle for so long.”

The burning being suddenly drew the flames within itself and emerged from the pyro a new being. Lethe was looking at itself.

“Do you really think you can copy me, you insignificant worm?” Lethe asked the reflection of itself. The copy simply raised the staff that had formed in its left hand. The zombified party that had been acting against the doppelgänger now turned their attention to Lethe. The necromancer looked from one of its servants to the next, dithering on what to do. It could feel the shift in magic, and knew the undead were no longer bound to its will.

“Tell me, necromancer,” the copy spoke, “when you delved into my mind, did it affect you?”

Lethe didn’t understand, “What are you driveling about, scum?”

“Name calling won’t get you out of here alive…or at least with any of your souls to inhabit that shell. Are you aware of what consequence fell upon you when you tried to take me? You found something you didn’t want to find.”

Lethe backed away as the zombies marched to him. Surviving against these odds would be a miracle, and Lethe didn’t believe in miracles, only deals offered by the gods that ruled over these mortals, much like the deal the countless souls within itself had made to return to the world.

“That’s right,” the copy continued, “you found fear, something you had long sought to rid yourself of. You silenced the weak-hearted souls within to keep yourself strong, but when you saw everything laid bare within my head, you were stricken with a feeling so powerful that those souls were awoken, am I right?” The mimic followed suit behind the zombies. Lethe pointed its staff at them and chanted something in the demonic tongue, but they refused to cease their advance. “You know what I am. You cannot win this fight, servant of the underworld. I’ve killed countless beings, holy, powerful, and naught alike. You are nothing different.”

Lethe was powerless over them. It was time to implement something risky. Lethe dropped the staff and pulled its hood back before grabbing at its robes, pulling them open to reveal the skeletal frame of its body concealed beneath. Its eyes burned a crimson red as the souls that encompassed the being began erupting from the green orb that was centered between its ribs. The souls took on ghostly apparitions of their former lives and swirled about the zombies, striking out and attacking the undead. In turn, the zombified party swung futilely at the violent spirits. Lethe collapsed to the marble floor from the loss of so much of itself at once. The thoughts rushing through the collective minds were all jumbled and abrupt. Using Lineage of Souls was drastic, but desperate actions were required. The spirits now had a handle on the zombies and were restraining them by gripping every part of their bodies, fastening them to the floor. A few spares dove for the mimic, but it simply waved a hand and blew them away with a blinding light. Lethe had grown tired of holy magic. The copy then summoned a series of ice spikes from the air above the path between itself and Lethe. The copy’s hand came down, and the spikes plunged to the floor one by one. Lethe attempted to summon a barrier as the path before it was impaled by the icy spikes, but when its hand swung before itself, nothing happened.

“Damn!”

The spike directly above it struck Lethe through the chest and pierced the marble beneath the necromancer. Lethe was pinned to the floor and helpless. A few of the lingering souls surrounded it to protect their vessel, but Engel’s corpse blasted them away with holy light once more. The mimic Lethe commanded the zombies that had managed to free themselves from their ghostly bondings to halt nonverbally, and then spoke to the pinned skeleton.

“You are powerful, necromancer, but you rely on that too much. You wish to overtake the hell below, but you cannot defeat the hell before you.”

Lethe struggled to break the ice, but its skeletal hand couldn’t damage the object stuck through its chest. It tilted it’s torso around it to lay eyes on the doppelgänger, “I am not finished yet, mimic.”

The fake Lethe cackled, “You are forfeit to my mercy, much like the innocent you have slain. Now, I will give you a fitting end. You wish to know what I am? I am no vigilante, not a hired killer. I am simply your unfortunate obstacle that you failed to overcome. I am a death machine to the likes of travelers such as you and your party,” the fake raised its staff and a glowing white orb emerged from the tip, “I am your premature ending to the quest you undertook.”

Lethe strained, but the ice wouldn’t budge. The undead menace had no magic left, and was weakened from the lack of souls to compose it. Lethe was about to finally know death as an immortal. It looked at what served as its death-angel reflection and the realization hit. It didn’t want to die.

“Be gone, monster,” its own voice spoke. Lethe covered its eye sockets as a blinding light hit it and tore the skeletal remains apart with a force that shattered the ice. The remaining souls of the ribcage were released and howled in agony as they were purged from the corridor and out of existence, and the final one that remained attempted to reestablish a connection between itself and the mortal world through Kanye’s body, but the effort was wasted. The wizard’s soul shrieked as it deteriorated and faded from reality, and was expunged from the world indefinitely. The party had fallen, and the quest was lost to one single entity that should never have existed.

Review: “The Fury” by Alexander Gordon Smith

For one of my education courses we were required to pick a young adult novel and plan a lesson around it. There were no limitations, so I was free to choose whatever I wanted, so when I noticed a thick hardback book on my advisor’s shelf of young adult books months before the assignment was given, I was curious as to if I’d ever get around to asking her if I could borrow it. With the assignment, I was finally given the chance, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel follows a group of teens (plus one younger girl) in the UK as their world falls apart…and I mean that literally in some instances. Their friends and loved ones are trying to kill them, and they don’t understand why. When I mention “kill,” I don’t mean they’ve turned into mindless zombies. Rather, anyone these individuals come into contact with instantly lose their humanity and become monsters hellbent on destroying the characters. The interesting note is that, assuming people succeed in killing one of the individuals, they return to normal as if nothing ever happened. Through a tale that invokes pity, anger, and a few laughs from time to time when the world isn’t trying to kill the protagonists, Smith’s thriller story of supernatural and fantasy horror combines characters of innocence with a dark setting that only explodes into something more than the reader expects as the plot expands from beginning to end.

 

The Good: The Fury has a nice opening that has you questioning just what the hell is going on immediately, and it’s a hook that kept me reading. The characters are easy for teens to relate to, and their reactions understandable considering the events that transpire. I’m a huge fan of books that follow a story from multiple perspectives, and this one was a job well done.

 

The Bad: I only wish more details were given about a particular character, whom I can’t really go into detail about myself since it would involve spoilers. Let’s just say that te story becomes so much more than a tale of teens trying to survive an apocalypse meant for them, and some of it can really have you wanting more of an explanation as to why events are happening.

 

Short things to love:

-Excessive violence (if you like that)

-Characters you’ll come to love.

-Awkward situations.

-Noble acts of heroism that you’ll probably feel depressed over for a few days following.

-Screwing over Newton’s Laws of Physics.

Short things to hate:

-Characters you’ll come to hate.

-Black holes.

-Emotions.

-More emotions.

-The feels.

The book was not what I expected, and that’s because I honestly judged it by the cover (the image had me thinking something else entirely). Of course, that’s not to say it’s bad. In fact, I enjoyed it. It took a few days to get over the ending, but I liked it nonetheless. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys dark fantasy with plot twists you’d never actually guess at.