In a time no one knows when, a man, Dylan Winter, cast the world into hell. Sick of the human race and its bickering, unable to stomach any more of its shallow, pointless existence, he chose to teach mankind a lesson. He opened the door to the Shadow World, the dimension on the edge of reality, where nightmares lurked and the monsters of myth were inspired from. He was the first to die and millions followed. The world became infested, terror was widespread, and the human race responded. Badly.
Most monsters could be killed with ordinary weapons, but people struggled to face them and some wielded terrible power. Magic and mayhem was engulfing humanity so it turned to science, creating improved men and women to overcome the horrors. However, not all went as planned as those made superior eventually turned on their creators, as did the robots and cyborgs then developed. These were what destroyed civilisation – the monsters only sought terror, the mutants and machines sought conquest.
Cities were overrun by super-soldiers, populations were decimated by relentless droids and creatures from the Shadow World gleefully flitted through the fray. The three races also fought each other and this saved humanity from annihilation. But, well over two centuries since Dylan Winter acted in hate, his people are scattered and the world is transformed. So is much else. Some monsters have lost their evil lusts and mutant breeds push on in their altered evolution. Things keep changing, even as the old sins remain the same. However, members of all the races – humans, monsters, mutants and machines – strive to overcome this hostile existence via whatever paths they find before them.
Simon scuttled over the rubble, keeping to the darkest parts, nervously alert and fearful of any sight or sound. There was little of either, however, in this ruined city. The broken buildings blotted out the dull sunlight and the tattered streets were deserted; none would usually risk being in such open territory, especially Simon. This place was his home, or had been. He knew what lurked out of sight, the things that could be hunting him. A human, alone and unarmed; he was prey for many.
He froze, faced with four zomboids; the demented androids were dismembering corpses in their lust to become human again. They heard Simon, turning to him, rotting flesh half covering their corroding metallic forms, and then sprang, eager to obtain more. He ran – there was no way to fight them. He had little chance of escaping them either; the pounding of their swift feet echoed about the ruins. Louder. Louder.
A screech of metal made Simon look back, causing him to trip and fall. Only it didn’t matter as his pursuers had already halted. Another foe was there for them to deal with.
Suddenly, one zomboid collapsed, bending back and then snapping. Its spine had been cut. Now the remaining zomboids circled cautiously. They had once been human, their minds inserted into the robotic bodies in an attempt to create better droids. It was an impossible change: they felt hunger, but could not eat; wanted to cry, but couldn’t produce the tears. They went mad, and still were, yet they recognised the threat of the intruder.
It was a harbinger, hardly an improvement for Simon. The lithe creature wielded a metal pole with blades at each end; one blade was semi-circular and the other was like a bayonet, and this stabbed into a zomboid’s face, into the cerebral core. That ended its existence. The others charged, but the swift monster turned to them in time, carving a reaching arm off, smashing into a leg, then leaping. Both abominations looked up as their enemy soared into the sky, then came back down. It seemed to swoop, completely in control of itself despite its plummet. Then there was a scream.
Simon watched as the harbinger rose smoothly, then pulled his weapons out of the zomboids as they toppled. Now Simon understood. He had split his weapon into two and used his momentum to bury them in their forms. He re-attached the two halves, the non-bladed ends slotting alongside each other before clicking into place.
He approached and Simon started to scramble away; he knew the loathsome reputation of harbingers. At least the zomboids would have ripped him apart swiftly! Unlike them, he didn’t hear the monster’s steps – too light, too subtle – so he yelled in shock as well as fright when a foot stamped on his back.
“Where are you going?” came the question. “If you go that way, you’ll run into the mutants.” There was a noise of contempt. “If I was you I’d get out of the city.”
“That’s what I was doing,” Simon retorted, looking round, up at his captor. Or was it? The tone was disparaging, yet not gloating, nor was the look malicious. He had already noticed a major peculiarity in this being: the usual expansive, rising ears were missing, which were how harbingers caught the slightest sound to detect their prey. Instead, thick strands of yellow hair fell to his shoulders, covering any sign of what might be left.
“Yes, I have no ears, well spotted,” snapped the harbinger, but again he wasn’t vicious in his speech. “Now come on, we can’t stay out here.” He reached down and pulled Simon to his feet with a forceful helping hand, which was covered in chain mail with metal points over the bone talons that jutted from his kind’s fingertips. The pair hurried to cover, then Simon was released and he leapt away. “Fine, piss off, I’ll stay here and see how far you get.” Simon stayed where he was. He couldn’t flee from this creature; harbingers were fast, agile and light. It was said that one pounce went further than a hundred steps. Then he realised the monster was referring to other dangers. “Why are you out here alone?” the creature abruptly asked.
“Because there’s no one else,” Simon revealed, sinking to his haunches. His old boots creaked and he rubbed his thatch of short, dark hair. His clothing was worn and did nothing to hide his lean figure. “The mutants came in. We held them back for a bit, but then those super-soldiers showed up. Everyone’s gone now, I can’t stay here anymore.”
“Wise move,” noted the harbinger. “Then again, the whole world’s a horror. Where will you go?”
“Eden,” Simon instantly declared. The harbinger said nothing. “I suppose you don’t believe it exists.”
“Don’t need to, I know it does.”
“You’ve been there?” Now Simon was back on his feet.
“Of course not,” scoffed the other. “To you Eden is salvation. To anything non-human it offers only annihilation.”
“Good,” spat Simon, and flinched at the other’s scowl, but then the harbinger smiled, showing the small pointed teeth in his protruding mouth.
“When humans are hunted by everything in existence, that attitude is expected.”
“We’re hardly helpless. There’s still more of us than all you monsters, mutants and machines put together.”
“Just as well.” The harbinger seemed only half interested in the conversation, often looking around and tilting his head to listen out; his hearing appeared fine. “There doesn’t seem to be any more zomboids, or anything else either. We’re safe.”
“We?” doubted Simon, preparing for the worst. He only received a disdainful look and smile.
“I’m not going to kill you. Where’s the challenge?”
Simon considered this. Harbingers were known as the foot-soldiers of the monsters; their speed and skill perfect for combat. They had done much of the fighting when humans had tried to exterminate the nightmares that had arisen in their world. Also, this one did seem a warrior – a superb one. He was slender but muscular, with clothing much like his own and just as worn. Without the ears that flared out on either side of most harbingers’ heads and the wicked contempt in the eyes, this creature didn’t terrify him so easily. If anything, he was safer with him than without.
He suddenly shook his head.
“What am I thinking?” he snarled at himself, then pointed. “You’re trying to lure me in, make me relax, then kill me.”
“Why?” countered the harbinger.
“So I won’t be so chewy when you eat me.”
“Harbingers don’t eat humans, we just enjoy the fear that lie creates.” There was something about the way he spoke that told Simon ‘we’ didn’t include him. Suddenly the harbinger sped forward and knocked Simon down. The human was hit hard and let out a grunt of pain, before looking up at the harbinger smirking above him. “I can kill you whenever I want. I don’t need tricks.”
“Understood.” Simon accepted the help back up from the taller being. He avoided the gaze of the slanted eyes as he rubbed an arm. “So, uh, what do harbingers eat then?” The creature grinned, reached into a small satchel and then produced a shiny black worm that filled his hand. The human recoiled. “Brain-maggots!”
“To you and to this world, but in the Shadow World they were food.” Simon relaxed as it was put away. “So, you head for Eden. Think it will take you long?”
“I’m prepared for the days ahead,” confirmed Simon.
“Days?” The harbinger laughed scornfully. “It will take weeks before you reach the coast, then you must somehow cross a vast sea, then you have more land to trek over.” Simon’s look fell and the monster’s mirth went. “However, there is a portal, still some distance from here, that could cut the journey by well over half and bypass the sea.”
“Where is it?” wondered Simon, with desperation and eagerness.
The harbinger considered this question, then nodded. “This way.”
Simon woke, saw the harbinger sat before him and yelped in fright, then relaxed.
“Sorry,” he said to the other’s wry grin. “I still can’t get used to the sight of you, and sharpening your blades doesn’t help.”
“It will when we meet trouble,” came the reply. The creature was using a flint from his satchel with smooth strokes. Simon nodded in agreement at this, rising and then stretching before looking round at the wasteland they were in. He would ask how far the portal was, but his companion had long since grown fed up with that daily question.
Lotus was the harbinger’s name; his people relished taking the names of pleasant things to heighten their own cruel nature. Though he wasn’t like that, the worst Simon saw in him was his disdain for humanity. He came across as honourable, truthful and, most importantly, lethal. He often practised with his weapon.
It had taken time, but the pair now understood each other. They were temporary allies; one needing the other’s protection, the other… Well, Lotus didn’t need Simon, yet he did seem lonely. He enjoyed conversing with his new acquaintance. He also smiled a lot more than when they first met. But he would only take him to the portal; he had no wish to be anywhere near Eden. Simon had agreed, glad for that much help.
He knew little of portals, rumour only, so Lotus had explained. The merging with the Shadow World had distorted reality to various effects: duller sunlight, the existence of magic, and also portals – holes around the world that led to each other. However, they were unpredictable. The links between them were not set, so destinations varied at different times. According to Lotus, a command of magic helped to control the path, but since neither of them knew any that was no help. Both magic and monsters had come to this world, together, yet most monsters had no ability to use it. Not that Simon trusted magic. He wasn’t sure of the portal either. However, Lotus had assured him that this one would take him in the right direction. He had twice used it himself. The harbinger had been travelling a long time and visited places Simon had only heard of. Simon knew he had lived a tough life in the derelict city, but nothing compared to walking this earth alone.
Lotus looked round at the odd sound.
“Hungry still?” he asked of the human, who grinned sheepishly. Lotus put his flint back into his satchel, then pulled out a brain-maggot and offered it. He had removed his mail gloves and the bone points on his fingertips dug slightly into its black skin. “Try it, they’re delicious.”
Simon took the meal with reluctance, his grip tight on the thick eel-like creature, then brought it to his mouth. Instantly it flailed, sensing its own food within his head. Simon dropped it in alarm, only for it to speed up his leg before Lotus’ bayonet impaled it with a precise jab.
“Thanks,” gasped Simon, yet again grateful for the harbinger’s reflexes, who now held the maggot aloft, wriggling futilely. “Forget it. I’ll never let one of those near me again.”
“You can eat them,” Lotus assured him. “They attach themselves to the back of your head to feed; bits in your mouth can’t harm you.” As if to prove it, Lotus bit into the maggot and tore away a third of it, chewing rapidly with ease.
“You could have food that’s less dangerous to eat, you know,” Simon pointed out.
“I like challenges.” Lotus smirked slightly as he said this. Simon shook his head. Lotus shrugged and continued devouring.
“There must be some people out here, hidden away,” remarked Simon, hoping for normal food.
Lotus stood, finishing his maggot, looking around. “If they’re hidden we won’t find them,” he responded.
“We can’t keep travelling like this.”
“I have.” There was Lotus’ arrogance again. “Anyway, mutants eat the same as you, or we could find some animals. You have no problem eating them, do you?”
“As long as they don’t want to eat me,” Simon joked. Lotus laughed. That was another peculiarity to this harbinger. Most supposedly had a shrill laugh that reeked of wicked delight; his was a chuckle, like he was truly amused. He twirled his weapon in his fingers as he looked out, as if it were merely a stick; harbingers made their armaments light, yet strong, much like themselves. That thought made Simon uneasy again. No matter what the understanding between them, this was a monster he walked with. He had to be insane to… No, insanity would be to go alone in this vile existence. Lotus’ deeds were what really mattered. “Well, you know the way. Lead on.”
“And you stay alert, don’t rely on me for everything,” Lotus more warned than snapped.
“Oh yeah. I suppose because your ears are gone…”
“They’re still there.” Now Lotus did snap. “They just cut the flaps off. My hearing is sharper than yours will ever be.”
“They? Who did it, and why?” Simon’s curiosity leapt up over any fear. Lotus didn’t answer at first. He pulled on his gloves and started walking, so the human followed, but then he spoke.
“Where I grew up there was little around us but humans and they were pitiful, even for your kind; wretched and terrified. We preyed on them. Since before I was born my kind stalked them. Never to destroy, only to torment and demean, and when I grew up I opposed this.”
“You felt sorry for the humans?”
“No. I feared for us. We were growing lazy and pathetic without challenges; to prey on such weaklings only weakened us. I wasn’t alone in seeing this, but no other spoke up and when no one would listen I chose to leave. That was agreed to. I would seek out others of my kind as well as challenges to better me. I went to say farewell to my family before I left and that was when they ambushed me. My parents cut my ears from me as my siblings held me down. Only then was I allowed to leave.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It was the last bit of proof that my people had fallen so low,” Lotus went on. “By doing this to me, I am disgraced; all other harbingers shun me and so I cannot join another clan to tell them how craven my own has become. That is why they did it – to hide their own weakness.” Simon had nothing to say. Losing his own people had been hard, but to be turned on like that would have broken him. “I left by choice, yet my solitude is enforced. Why else do you think I am with you?” Lotus said this with almost a sigh. However, Simon smiled. At least he understood Lotus’ attitude now. “I’ll admit I’m jealous of you. I doubt you’ll reach Eden, but at least you have somewhere to head to.”
“True. But you’re wrong, I will reach Eden.”
Lotus looked around and regarded the determination of the young man. He then smiled and gave a firm nod. “I will help you all I can,” he pledged.
To be Continued……