What Would Boromir Do?

One of my favourite authors is David Gemmell, and one of my favourite stories about him comes from something that seems small, yet reveals a lot about why I liked him so much.

He had a rough childhood and later became a bouncer, so he knew how to handle himself. The story goes that one time he was passing an alley and heard a woman cry out. He looked down it to see two men attacking a lone woman.

David Gemmell thought: what would Boromir do?

He went in, beat the men up and helped the woman.

Apart from the obvious, what I like about this story is that Gemmell’s role model was Boromir. As I said, it reveals much about him which is also shown in his stories. Boromir was a flawed character, weak inside, yet a strong, brave and loyal soldier who wanted to save his people. He did wrong for the right reasons and then had a redemption moment as he defended Merry and Pippin with his life.

Gemmell had a number of characters who were flawed heroes or cowards who came good or those who erred at one point only to redeem themselves later on. Perhaps he was a big believer in redemption. Considering his personal life, this could be. You get the feeling from his work that he really understood how flawed people can be while still becoming heroes. I don’t think he saw this in himself alone but in others too. He could write more straightforward heroes and villains, but for me Gemmell was at his best creating characters who blurred the lines. Noble cutthroats and honourable renegades. Rascals and rogues. He had a fondness for them I think.

I do too. I loved his versions but many others in cinema and literature. Long John Silver is a great example. He was as treacherous and ruthless as can be, but he genuinely liked and admired Jim Hawkins.

They say never meet your heroes. With Gemmell, I won’t get that chance because he sadly died some years back. But through his writing and life you can get a strong idea of who he was and what he was about. The same goes for other authors. Knowing that an author I adore thought of Boromir as his hero and inspiration just appeals to me.

Being that flawed hero, that tragic hero is a huge ask but not unreasonable. The saintly heroes are unrealistic for the most part, let’s be honest. Even Martin Luther King had affairs and his enemies hoped to silence him using that information. He refused. People should look to overcome their flaws, not hope to have none. It won’t happen.

The main heroes, the ones who live to the end, who get the girl and the crown, who ride off into the sunset. Those are the easy options. Finding inspiration from a character who tries and it costs him or her is far more admirable. You’re tasking yourself. Yes, this could hurt me for doing it, but it is right.

Boromir is one of my favourite literary heroes. Yes, he betrayed and broke the Fellowship, but he was a normal man who had his strengths and weaknesses. The great truth in the Lord of the Rings is that the Ring was the untameable tempter. Gandalf, Galadriel, Cereborn, Elrond, Aragorn – none of them could take the Ring. They each knew it. Aragorn’s strength is shown in giving it back to Frodo. In a way it shows him to be stronger to Boromir, but perhaps he is just wiser in knowing his limitations. Boromir is driven to do the right thing. He likely has some glory lust in there too, he is a warrior after all, but he is not bad. The Ring will tempt the great and the good, that’s why they can’t carry it.

What would Boromir do? I love that idea. I love that that was Gemmell’s thought. Boromir was brash and brave, strong and stern, proud and prone to weakness. He was exactly the sort of hero Gemmell would look to and was clearly inspired by in his writing. I’m glad to say I am too.

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Exile From Eden

The Revered Doctor Abbas ascended the stairs to his laboratory, the sounds of alarm not a concern to him, nor to most others. He reached the door and entered his code before going in. He eased himself into the chair at his desk and activated several monitors, typing with his aged hands. He brought up the plans that he was working on, yet three of the screens showed outside – the mutants were trying another attack. While they were his enemy, Abbas felt sorry for them; it was pointless, they would all die. They would not live to see their children play, as he once had, or grow grey in their beards, or achieve anything of note. Eden was impregnable. Covered by a force field, surrounded by a ring of steel fortifications and trenches, the last refuge of humanity offered only death to its attackers. He wondered, briefly, if they found comfort in prayer as he did, then he set to work.

Abbas looked up at the screens as bursts of plasma rose from the ground. The flame-fountains were the outermost defences and by them alone the assault was decimated; hundreds of mutants were showered and then consumed. Those that survived came into range of the troops in the trenches, as well as the cannons and rocket launchers of the fortifications, and the slaughter increased. Some mutants returned fire, yet their technology was far inferior. The defence of Eden was solid once again, but Abbas had never doubted.

Eden had always been secure; that was how the human race had survived here while the world had been devastated and overrun by evil. It had existed, almost since the beginning of the troubles, in another form. But it had always been a stronghold, a refuge for humans, a place of preservation.

When monsters had appeared and begun their terror, many people had believed it was the Apocalypse. Hell had been unleashed, so the Middle East, the Holy Land, had been an attraction to millions as they sought salvation. Yet monsters came too, either to lay waste out of spite or seek the power so many believed to be there. Whatever the reason, the presence of numerous fiends, including very powerful ones, had led to the old enemies of the Jews and the Arabs uniting in defence of their revered cities.

The situation worsened as mutants came from the north, driven away by the humans who had created them, and around the world the products of science, mutants and machines led to its destruction. When Jerusalem, the last and most revered of the cities by the Jews, Arabs and gathered Christians, was obliterated by a powerful monster, they decided to abandon their reckless brethren and establish an impregnable fortress to save themselves and ensure the enemy could never rule the Holy Land.

By pooling resources, they began building the Tower of Babel; once an act of human arrogance, this time of humility and hope. At first it was only the Jews and Arabs, but then the Christians were accepted, not many by then, although all had suffered great losses. It was through their contact with the west that businessmen learned of this one sanctuary in the entire world and sought to be a part of it, offering everything they had. They had been accepted too. Babel was swiftly finished, better than intended, and with these industrialists came more resources as well as the best of the staff from their companies.

The Tower of Babel had stood for decades and over time a theological state had been forged, the corporate atheists too small a minority to resist. Science became loathed for its degrading effect on humanity, if only for a while. Then an argument arose that they needed it, that it was not science but man’s arrogance; as usual, that was the problem. In the end, science had been embraced again, on the condition that those who wielded it first learned that God ruled all things. Such had Abbas, first a priest, now a scientist as well.

Abbas liked to think it was this unity of religion and science that had done so well for his people, that the humility which came with worship prevented them from overreaching themselves. It had also been due to the technology brought by the rich, of course, but it had been applied correctly; the greatest invention being the force field that had arced out from Babel to close off a large section of surrounding land.

Under this dome the humans had set out, well armed and in atmosphere-suits; a century in the fortress as the world changed had left them vulnerable to it. They had constructed and revitalised, building a glass dome beneath the field and filling the space within with splendid structures and luscious plant life. Eden was born, around Babel, and now the humans lived out under the darkened sky, the land more dangerous than ever as foes were drawn to this paragon of humanity. But within they were safe.

The doors to his laboratory opened and Abbas looked around, not surprised to see Grace enter; as leader of Eden, she could go anywhere. Like him, the woman was Arabic and old. She had been a respected figure among the Elect since her youth and was esteemed as the best Governor in God’s Name. She had ruled Eden wisely for four decades now, continuously re-elected. She was politically smart, religiously devoted and equally committed to her people. Grace was from a noble family yet had had none of her own, putting her duty first. She treated every child in Eden as if it were hers and so, now, at the age of eighty-five, she was seen by most as Eden’s mother.

“How goes it, my friend?” Grace asked, standing by Abbas. Despite her age, she was physically healthy and her eyes sparkled. It wasn’t until he offered a chair that she sat.

“I am almost done,” he told her. They spoke the common language, once called English, leaving Arabic for holy occasions. “All I need is one more test and then it is ready.” He looked at her. Even sitting down she looked poised, her grey hair trailing smoothly behind her back, her hands clasped in the lap of her blue dress. She was a woman of purpose, always. “You intend to make your move?”

“I feel I must,” stated Grace.

“Many will oppose you,” warned Abbas. He gestured to the screens, displaying the defeated mutant attack. “We are safe, we know this as surely as we know God exists, and your plan will jeopardise that.”

“Perhaps, however, as with God, there is much we don’t know. If all is ready, if all will work, then my argument is on stronger ground. For that I rely on you.”

“I will not fail.” Abbas bowed his head to her, out of personal respect, not due to her office.

Grace looked at the screens. “They attack us out of hate and jealousy, that we know. Yet what other motives do they have? What else hates us? What lies beyond them? These questions must be answered, and if I have to, I will force compliance. But first I will ask for it.”

#

Grace sat in her chair as the Elect gathered in the Tabernacle, the marble hall where debates and decisions took place. Those elected to this place were a true representation of the people: men and women, Arab, Jew and Christian. The latter were the minority, yet all religions, while continuing their own ways, were valued equally; they were all People of the Book.

There was a division, though. The Elect were made up of Tolerants, Conservatives and Fundamentalists. They sat in these sections as they settled on the benches, rows of them on the seven steps that arced before Grace’s chair. Their numbers were equal, that was a law, and the space among the Conservatives where she had once sat still remained. But she knew she would have to convince even her own with her idea. She had allies; she had prepared for the debate, but her proposal was known and some were set on its defeat.

“Let us begin,” Grace proclaimed, everyone ready, and now they knelt. They prayed for wisdom and guidance, calling on God by different names, using various languages, and yet were united in faith and worship. Once done, they sat again and focus was replaced on the Governor, although she wasn’t the only object before them. Next to her chair, slightly behind, was an empty throne, a reminder to all leaders that they were second-in-command only. “Never have we needed help from above as today, for I propose that we reach out into the world and see what has become of it.”

Most of the Elect reeled, gasping, exchanging stunned looks, although several were unmoved. Grace knew why.

“What is now being handed out to you by the Levites is my plan, every detail of it. You can examine it as we go through it. Summed up, my wish is to send one of us from Eden, a soldier carefully selected, to travel as far as possible and report to us as discoveries are made. Armed and equipped to the best of our ability, this soldier will be our pillar of cloud and fire, paving a way for us and revealing what lies ahead.”

“So you wish for us to leave Eden as well?” someone asked.

“It is a possibility for the future, depending on what is found. You see, that is my fear. While we have dwelt securely here for almost two and a half centuries, the world has moved on and we have no idea of what has occurred. Ignorance is a sin, many have claimed. It is a weakness too. For all we know, the human race is enslaved, or perhaps it is reclaiming the world. We obviously know of mutants; they surround us, and monsters, some still reside nearby and we were all raised on tales of their terrorism. We know machines turned on their creators when made in arrogance. But what inhabits the world now? We must know.”

“To what end?” a Fundamentalist spoke. They were her main opposition in this argument. “We are the human race and us alone. If any remain anywhere else, they are no longer kindred to us; the fact we cannot survive outside our dome proves that to us. Within Eden we will outlast all other races. What they are is of no importance to us.”

“I cannot allow that to go unchallenged,” a Tolerant now declared. “God has blessed us with Eden’s creation and we cannot abuse that by deserting humanity. We have the technology and the faith to save the world; even those misguided mutants can be helped, for what are they but altered humans? From here we can restore the world to better than what it was, except how can we without knowing what awaits us?”

“I believe we should leave the everlasting debate of humanity to another time,” announced Grace, unable to agree with either view; as a Conservative, she believed there were humans outside of Eden, but mutants too. “While I am convinced that we should extend our reach, I also feel that act should be delayed. My point here is that we know nothing of the world beyond our sensors; there could be a horde of monsters heading for us or the machines could be close to world conquest. We are safe here, but for how long? Is there superior technology for us to beware? Are we deluded in our sanctuary or are we righteous?”

“If there are dangers out there, then the last act we should make is to tell the world where we are,” a Conservative pointed out.

“There are suggestions that knowledge of Eden extends far,” someone else countered. “Despite horrific losses each time they attack, the mutants about us grow in number, not decrease.”

“The soldier could prove or disprove that suggestion,” added another.

“As you can see on my plan, the soldier will lack nothing and be able to tackle any task,” Grace said, but her look fell a little. “As you can also see, whoever volunteers for this mission will need to be altered to leave Eden, so even if he or she learns enough and survives everything to be able to return, which is unlikely, they won’t be able to live here.” This made everyone sombre: to serve Eden someone had to leave it forever.

“What if no one will volunteer?” one of her opponents had to ask.

“No one can be made to,” Grace admitted, “but that is a problem to be faced only if it arises. Nothing is lost by asking.” That, none could contest. “The Revered Doctor Abbas has worked hard to produce the necessary gear for the soldier, including a ten year battery that is going through its last test now.”

“Ten years? A personal power source cannot last so long.”

“If the test succeeds, it will. We have not needed to create anything so self-sufficient before so we have not pushed our limits.” Grace looked up and about them. “Eden is the perfect home; the generators have never failed us, the dome has not even been scratched. While I thank God every day for this security, we are highly dependent on it. We need to know if we have gone so far as to become complacent.”

“But this also argues against your proposal,” a Conservative now spoke up. “To save the world we need every advantage we have. By sending someone out so well equipped, we could reveal our secrets to our enemies.”

“This plan only endangers Eden,” a Fundamentalist agreed, which made the Conservative regret his words somewhat.

“For all we know, it already is endangered,” Grace told them and saw the uncertainty affect most. In Eden they could be sure of many things: faith, safety, happiness. Yet the world was unpredictable and that meant they either wanted to hide from it or solve it. The Fundamentalists and Tolerants each seemed united in their different choices, mainly for political reasons, and so Grace looked to her own group to decide this issue.

“The soldier we send out will not carry a banner of Eden nor shout the mission to the world. The aim is for us to learn. True, it cannot be kept a secret – suspicion will be aroused, questions will be asked, revealing the truth to some will benefit us – but the risks stand alongside the potential for when we unveil what lies beyond our sight. There could be allies out there as well as foes, and if foes, in order to defeat them, we must know them. We could be capable of saving the world while we sit here or we could be merely awaiting destruction. I believe we must know.” From many looks she now received, Grace felt more sure. “Now, let us go through the details and then vote.”

#

Captain Mordecai came through a chamber and into Eden, his home. It always felt good to walk the cobbled streets after the violence of a mutant assault. Though they were an advanced people, the city had been built to be pleasing to the senses, and so he passed by houses of smooth stone and coloured glass windows, along with blooming gardens and tranquil ponds. Technology was always present as well, evidenced by the machines that helped maintain their lives, yet the immense city remained a place to be cherished. The outside world and its harsh evolution was kept at bay in more ways than one.

The only places where this wasn’t so were the perimeter defences that surrounded Eden and the Tower of Babel at its centre. He had just come from the barracks, where he lived as a soldier; there he walked through rounded corridors of steel and could don full armour to fight the enemy. Now he headed to the Tower, a gleaming spire of black alloy that still bore the scars of long ago. It was in the Tower where scientists laboured and tested, and where Eden’s leaders met to govern the community.

The mutant attack hadn’t been a serious one, yet he had been busy since, checking on his unit, reporting to his superiors, talking to his fellow officers entrenched elsewhere. It had been just after the unit’s prayer of thanks that he had been called to the meeting with Grace. Since then he had showered and changed, leaving his combat-suit in his quarters, now in his uniform robes.

He walked with an even stride, arms by his sides; he tried not to march when he was among the people but he was too well drilled. He took in lessons better than most, always had. Not that he was ashamed of being a soldier, nor could he hide it. His robes of green and white and silver told all that he was an officer who lived to defend them. Many nodded their heads to him in recognition as they passed. It made his heart glad to see such admiration in their eyes.

Mordecai exchanged salutes with a fellow officer, then bowed his head to a priest as they passed each other. As usual, the priest wore robes of the most mundane colours; they were men and women of dignity and wisdom, not fashion or display. Of course, no one wore anything that was unseemly anyway, and only certain ranks could have colours such as gold or silver. Blue, brown, green, yellow, black – these were to be seen all around him, giving a sense of wholesome splendour. Never would someone dare to offend by wearing something as gaudy as red, pink or purple.

As Mordecai came to the Tower, a cherub approached. The hovering, gleaming robot headed down the street, pausing to scan a chatting couple, then an elderly man snoring on a bench, before it reached the officer. The cherub was about the size of a head, a cross between a sphere and a diamond, and Mordecai tingled as its sensor-ray ran down him, ensuring he was truly human. It was equipped to act if he wasn’t. The cherubim patrolled Eden and Babel constantly; every citizen could expect to be scanned at least three times a day. It was a mere inconvenience to ensure security and purity.

It wasn’t long before Mordecai had ascended the Tower and left the elevator to arrive at Grace’s office. Several Levites were at work in the reception area, hard at work he noticed, but one still came to welcome him. Even though Mordecai was not the biggest of men, he felt imposing against the slender other, whose hands had clearly never been honed in training, nor his shoulders been rounded with muscle from exercise. The captain waited patiently as he was declared, he couldn’t help but wonder how dull life must be for these people, and then he strode into the office.

Within, the woman waited and Mordecai sat before her desk, pleased to meet her; like so many he viewed her with the highest regard. She had led Eden his entire life. He had heard she had recently won yet another debate, such an historic one that whispers of it were already whirling around the city and the activity outside indicated to him that it was all true. Even so, Mordecai was amazed as she now revealed to him what that decision was. He reeled further as she explained his part in it.

“Yes, it is quite a request I make of you,” Grace acknowledged, only her gaze never left him, “but I must. I have here a list of candidates for this mission. You are the best of them all, you are also the last. I had intended to meet everyone and then choose out of those who agreed, except not one has, none will leave Eden. Before, you were my preference. Now you are my only option. I offer this role to you, Captain, yet I beg you to accept it.”

“What of others not on your list?” Mordecai wondered, unable to say much else at present.

“They are not on my list for good reasons,” stated Grace. “You are an excellent officer and fighter, and while there are others out there better than you in those respects, they lack in other vital areas. You are intelligent, but you are also clever – you think on your feet and you are open-minded. If you were one of the Elect you would be a Tolerant, not someone who saw all as enemies. Your skills are superb, your loyalty undoubted, your faith like iron. You are one of few who can handle a journey into the world.”

“A journey I can never return from?” Mordecai had to ensure.

Grace was grim but still looked at him. “There is a remote chance, perhaps. If you can survive all the world has and then penetrate the armies of mutants around us, the surgery may be reversible in the future. Presently it is not. You will be fashioned to live outside Eden, not in it.

“Yet you will serve it equally well, better I say. I will not spout rhetoric at you, tell you that this is God’s will or for Eden’s good. Others can argue the same for you not to leave. But my opinion is that we need you to go. I feel we can no longer hide from the world. In fact, I fear we have done for too long. We are ready to re-enter it and I feel you are the best we can offer as our first appearance. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually – you are the choice for this role; only now, if you do not go, it will not happen. I won’t send the wrong person. Better not to do this than do it badly.”

“I can see the risks if this goes wrong,” admitted Mordecai, “however I feel you are correct. Eden needs to test the Earth it sits on, just as Noah did after the Flood.” Even so, he didn’t look about to volunteer.

“I know what I ask and I, for one, would not leave. Eden means too much to me,” Grace said, somewhat comforting, but her voice became a mix of imploring and proclaiming once more. “However, someone must go. Not merely to learn, but I want someone to seek out human allies. Yes, I have not revealed that to the Elect, but I know I can trust you. I seek to move Eden to, one day in my lifetime, expand and fight for our world. For that we will need help. I want you to discover what roams this planet, how life is lived in this time period, and as you do that, find us allies.”

There was a period of silence as Mordecai mused the plan over. As a tactician, he agreed with it; as a Tolerant-sympathiser, he supported it; as a soldier, he would carry it out dutifully. Yet, as himself, the idea of leaving Eden forever wasn’t simply terrifying, it was abhorrent. This was his home, a glorious place, safe and serene. He was at the prime of his life, recently turned thirty-one, with his career on course. Also, while he had no family of his own, surely a reason for being selected for this mission, his parents and brothers were close to him; the old rabbi would be proud if he left for this, yet devastated too.

“When would I leave, should I agree?” he asked.

“Within a week. We would move everything along swiftly; much is already in waiting. All we need is the soldier. We need you.”

“You truly believe Eden needs this? I value your opinion above all others.”

“I am convinced. I have been for a decade. Nothing has changed my mind and I, like any true believer, test my convictions so they become stronger when they are proven.”

“And if they are disproved?”

“Then I know better and can react, but that hasn’t happened.” Grace watched him as Mordecai pondered, then smiled. “Go and take time to think, we are not in that much of a hurry. Either you agree or it doesn’t happen. So go and think. I will be patient.”

TO BE CONTINUED…..

Disturbance

“Sarge, we’ll stop here,” the captain called back, then returned to his lieutenant who held the map. “Five minutes, then we go on; I want the men sharp before we reach the villages.”

“There shouldn’t be any trouble there. Whoever attacked them has moved on,” the other remarked.

“Says who? The few who fled to us without checking for other survivors?”

“They were pretty scared, Captain. Whoever drove them out did so in such a ferocious way they didn’t stand a chance, let alone get a good description.” The taller, younger officer protested while maintaining respect for his superior. It was appreciated.

“I’m not insulting them, just saying we’ve no idea of the enemy or the aftermath. We rely on our own reconnaissance and nothing else,” the captain stated, patting his arm. He was an experienced leader; at thirty-three he was young enough, and fit enough, to handle the pace but wise enough to know when you should slow down or speed up. The lieutenant nodded in response, smiling too. He had been part of this squad for over a year and was starting to realise he could trust his captain’s judgement. Well educated and keen, he liked to voice his view, even though it had shown his naivety several times. It had amused the men, but he was certain enough of himself to take it and the captain had a lot of patience.

They joined the rest of the squad, sitting or crouching in the jungle’s undergrowth, several standing farther out on guard. Something moved in the trees that clustered overhead, yet none even flinched; they knew the natural sounds of this land, understood the ways of what was out here. Still, guns were always in hand. They were soldiers and well trained ones at that.

“Corp, sit somewhere else,” urged one of the privates.

“Why? Nowhere’s safer than beside me,” responded the broad-shouldered soldier, slapping his barrel-chest.

“Nowhere’s more dangerous, you mean! What if a relative of one of your trophies turns up?” Corp just grinned, proud of his lion-skin sash, snakeskin belt, crocodile boots and strings of teeth.

“No hunting this time, Corp,” ordered the captain. “I want your focus completely on the mission, we need you and the heavy-gun.”

“But what about the bazooka and the flamethrower? Do we really have to carry all this so far?” a soldier complained.

“Yeah, it feels like we’re going to war,” added another.

“Sounds like the squad’s going soft,” remarked Sarge, eating a biscuit and brushing crumbs from his thick moustache.

“Too true, our break ends now.” The captain rose. He was a fair man who let his troops speak their minds, but he had a limit and none dare cross it. Now all were quiet as they moved out.

The squad consisted of twenty-two armed and equipped soldiers, moving almost silently through the jungle, heading south into denser undergrowth as the mission dictated. Machetes were used at times yet, more often than not, they left the land as undisturbed as possible – to cover their tracks, but as this was also their home, they didn’t want to ruin it. True, they lived in the cities, yet the jungle was theirs as well. They were trained out here as people, as well as soldiers, and some even grew up in the villages before moving to civilisation.

The Dark Land was a vast place and the Northern Federation only ran along the edge, so it had always been necessary to have troops out in it and for the people to learn of it. They couldn’t make progress; the cities that existed now had been rebuilt or reshaped where old ones had stood. It would take tremendous effort to create space and then construct new cities, not least because the jungle would try to reclaim territory. Since the Shadow World came, Africa was an untameable land.

When many nations were decimated by monsters, mutants or machines, or all of them, people fled to wherever there was less danger, near or far. Africa, despite having plenty of monsters, was the instant choice for those descended from its inhabitants to take refuge on and hordes from Europe, of all colours, took the short trip to safety, bringing what resources they could with them. That was how the Northern Federation was born; cities swelled with those from the U.S.A. and Europe, then they were fortified against the horrors that plagued the world.

However one good thing came from it all, as Africa, for so long a suffering land, ceased to bear the brunt of the sun’s heat with the Shadow World’s presence dulling the day. That gave the chance to a number of powerful magic-users who created a spell to re-ignite Africa, to bring back the lush beauty it had once known. Unfortunately, the spell took the lives of those who cast it; some wondered if the thirsty land drank more than they could spare. But what resulted was that Africa was now overgrown, covered from coast to coast to coast by plant life of many kinds. Out in the jungle, it was rare to see the pale sun.

“Lieutenant, take Yakubo and Jason and move ahead,” the captain whispered before watching the three disappear into the gloom and growth ahead of him. He halted his squad. He knew a village was near, and he was extra wary because of how far south they were. Glancing about, he saw it was the same with his men. Even Sarge and Corp, veterans who had served with him for years, were on edge. It had been that way since he had noted they were nearer the equator than their homes.

Captain Traore removed his cap and rubbed his clean-shaven head, a common feature for soldiers out in the jungle. Even if it wasn’t as hot as history told, it was still enough to make a human sweat. Only Sarge and a few others had any hair on their heads.

He signalled Sarge and Corp to him. “Keep to the flanks. I’ll need you two to keep us in shape and, if this goes wrong, organise a retreat.”

“You think this is bad, don’t you, Captain?” noted Corp.

“Six villages are nearly annihilated in four days; no one nice is responsible for that,” came the reply.

“Must be a lot of firepower,” agreed Sarge. He had started life out in a village, farther north, and he knew that, while they had no soldiers, they could defend themselves. They had to.

The Northern Federation may have been born as the world drowned in chaos, yet it took a long time to grow up. Many cities were assaulted by various foes and the people spent long periods in the jungle, along with the monsters and wild animals. The monsters grew in number as many came to this land of scattered, low-tech people and soon the humans were endangered, fearful of the things that skulked through the dark. Yet the near constant blackness wasn’t a help to the monsters either; they were not things from nightmares and only a few had the ability to see without light. It was those who were clear to them who were taken, until only the darkly brown-skinned were left. Then the tide turned.

The humans had spent so long being hunted in the dark that they had gotten used to it. They adapted to their world yet again, maybe they were actually changed by being in this land of new life. They began to be born with slightly larger irises to see into any shadow and grew up knowing every sound and smell that could occur. The monsters didn’t develop, however, they struggled to spot the black figures in the Dark Land. The screams soon transformed from human to inhuman.

Even as the cities improved and became secure, the people had their children raised in the jungle, honing them in the environment that their ancestors had thrived in. They would never return to being the prey.

Lieutenant Holden reported quicker than expected.

“The village is there and a pack of ghouls are having a feast.” Others heard this and word spread. Traore sensed the eagerness of his men, as did the lieutenant and he smiled. “They’re all gorged; they won’t sense us until we’re on them.”

“Well, we need to check the village,” the captain admitted and the others chuckled. This was where they stopped being soldiers and remembered their lessons as youths and the horrid tales they were told as infants. They were hunters with wicked intent. Traore gave orders and his squad rearranged themselves before moving out.

They swiftly reached the huts, built between trees and in bushes, and also found the holes in the ground used in emergencies. It wasn’t long after when they spotted the ghouls. Gangly, yellow-skinned and dead-eyed, they had gathered corpses and were ripping off pieces with long fingers, chewing or sucking meat off. Ghouls were despised even by other monsters, only interested in eating what was already dead. Yet, if need be, they would kill, and then they could be quick, even graceful.

Shots rang out from rifles, then Corp opened up with the heavy-gun, it bellowing away as it ripped up foliage and monsters. Surprised, the ghouls dashed from the flashes of fire, only just seeing those who came at them. Another barrage came from the side. More fell, torn open numerous times; they were being herded, driven from parts of the village and then out, except they didn’t get far. The captain and lieutenant waited with a dozen men, knives ready, then were all over the enemy remnants, silent and deadly.

With the fun over, the soldiers became just that again as Captain Traore ordered a search of the village. While much still stood, most was scattered and wrecked, and what did stand was only ruin. The ghouls had made it worse, it was hard to tell how many villagers had been slain here, but there were tracks and other evidence.

“You see this, Captain,” Sarge said, pointing to a fallen wall, numerous holes punctured in it. “Looks like the work of a heavy-gun. Someone shot through this hut and everyone in it. But that wall has the same damage, it was crossfire, and I doubt they would use the only serious weaponry they had to destroy one hut.”

“So they had more than just two such weapons,” remarked Traore.

“There’s scorch marks on a lot of trees and huts too,” added the lieutenant, looking about. “The attackers had explosives and flamethrowers.”

“And something else,” Sarge put in. “There’s scorch marks I’ve never seen before, concentrated and piercing wood.” Before the captain could reply, a call came and they ran to one end of the village, then moved on a bit farther to join three soldiers who stood open-mouthed.

“What did this?” wondered Lieutenant Holden.

“How could it possibly be done?” countered Traore. “Whatever it was, it seems the attackers also knew how to ambush people into a killing ground.”

The land had been ravaged. Several craters lay before them and blackened bodies were scattered about each, unappetising even to ghouls. Clearly whoever had carried this assault out had no concern for the land; devastation and slaughter were their handiwork, and there didn’t seem to be any gain from it.

While monsters were the main foe of the humans here, conflict between themselves was known. The captain’s first mission had been to punish a village that had raided others. Yet those attacks had been done carefully, as had the final one Traore had been a part of. More importantly, no village had this kind of fire power.

“It looks like the work of cannons, but you can’t bring those through the jungle,” said Sarge.

“If they did manage it we’d see the trail,” replied the captain. He removed his hat and rubbed his head as he considered this. Holden walked ahead to inspect a crater, yet kept out of the pool of sunlight; exposure was death in the jungle and, even in the cities, night was more active than the day. Then Traore put his hat back on and called him over.

“Let’s see some more villages before we start inventing answers. Get the squad focused and back in formation, then we go.”

With that, his subordinates broke up, giving orders as they went, and the captain took a pen and notebook from a pocket to write down his findings. It was a habit he would never let his men know about. Ever since becoming an officer, he feared failing a mission so that he and all his squad died in the jungle, leaving him unable to tell anything he had learned to his superiors. Now, if he fell, someone might find him and use his notes to go further, even succeed. It was a negative view and his men would see it as bad luck or doubting them, but he quickly wrote his discoveries down and tucked the notebook away before leading his squad on.

TO BE CONTINUED…..

I Defy You

Young Martina scrambled through the jungle, past trees, through bushes, not caring how scratched or tired she became. She didn’t look back either. She wanted to; she almost did now and then. But she had to focus on going forward, not on what was behind her. She ploughed on; if she slowed or stumbled or even hesitated, it would get her killed.

Then she had to stop. The land ended and the rolling sea lay before her; there was nowhere to run to. There was a beach ahead but it was no help: enclosed on the sides with nothing to hide her; they would catch her there easily. Martina looked about, then dove into bushes. She wormed her way deep into the undergrowth; again she didn’t care when she hurt herself or disturbed something that crawled; she had to escape their detection. Then she lay still, panting, but slowing it down, taking deep breaths, calming herself and her body so she could be silent.

The demons appeared, running after her, following her tracks, then halted where they ended. There were six of them: tall, muscular, human in form, apart from the heads. One signalled and they spread out. They searched for her, using their talons to swat aside undergrowth. Sometimes they simply lashed out with the wooden clubs, the bone hooks raking away leaves like they would skin.

Martina froze. There was no way past them; either they would find her or not, and she doubted they would give up. Demons never had before. One came close, sniffing, looking; the scarred, animal-like head moving back and forth as eyes sought her.

They suddenly stood and looked out to sea. Martina had no idea at what. For a while they remained transfixed, seemingly puzzled. She had never seen demons like this before. She couldn’t resist; she adjusted and wriggled to one side, and then saw what they were looking at.

The woman was beautiful, yet the instant Martina saw her, she noticed the nasty jagged scar across her face. It began above one eye and slanted down over her nose, cheek and to her clenched jaw, and on the way it slashed over the other eye, which was inflamed and reddened. Martina couldn’t understand this. How could such exquisite features be so ruined? Her hair was a mess too; ruffled, uneven, a silky black blaze around the smooth olive skin of her face. She was tall, appearing strong, slim and well formed. She was gorgeous yet grim, glaring at the demons, hands in fists, ready.

One charged and swung its weapon, then reeled, its head snapped back, blood spewing from the mouth. It hadn’t been a good punch. Martina had watched warriors spar and seen far better; it had been a lash of a fist. Yet, what it lacked in skill, it overwhelmed with raw ferocity. A foot drove into the demon’s midriff; again, not a warrior’s kick, but it worked. The demon folded up and dropped to its knees.

Her head smashed into a second demon’s face and she twisted its arm. It snapped. She charged it into another and the demons fell, entangled, one on top of the other. The one beneath had a shout of pain cut off when the other’s head thudded against its face. Both bled through nostrils. Then yells of pain came as the woman stamped on their legs.

The three remaining demons were springing to the fight; quick, supple, agile.

The woman spat hate as she dove into one and they rolled. She ended on top, beating down on its horrid face. Then she grabbed the head and wrenched. There was a sharp crack.

With a talon in her hand she rose, then threw it. The club struck a demon and the bone hook latched into flesh. The weapons were made to torment and catch, not kill, and the demon shrieked as it tried to pull it out.

The last attacked. She caught arms in her hands and they struggled, the demon slightly bigger, certainly wider, yet she didn’t budge. Martina was stunned. No one stood up to the demons, let alone attacked them. Now she saw the woman yell fiercely as she pushed her foe back.

It twisted and threw her around it, yet when it ran in she grabbed a leg and wrenched, sending the fiend rolling and screaming.

Two came again, one holding the talon it had taken out of itself. Both were hurt and still confused; they weren’t used to such resistance, let alone aggression. When she rose, one stepped back. She went for it, hammering fists to eyes. The other attacked from behind. A back kick on a knee produced another terrible sound, yet the talon swept through the shirt she wore, slicing open her back. She cried in pain – no, howled; it began in pain and ended in anger. The demon reeled from a punch, only to be grabbed at the throat and brought back for another punch. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another.

Then it fell.

All froze.

The woman stood over the demon with its head in her hand. Only it wasn’t a head; it was empty. The head was still on the body; bloody, smashed, but even Martina could see it was a human face.

The woman looked at the others. Three demons were struggling to their feet, staggering and clutching injured legs. One lay dead. The only one standing was staring at the head she held.

She threw it at the demon, then lunged for the head of the being itself. The demon squealed in fright, fended her off and then ran. She charged at the rest and they hobbled away as fast as they could. She let them go and spat on the ground.

“Freaks,” snarled the woman, as she swayed on her feet. Blood was pouring down her back and legs. Martina came from hiding and ran to her side, quick to help her saviour. The woman made to hit her, but she stopped, seeing the girl. She accepted her help, leaning on her, yet she led the way to the beach.
#
The demon came to, slowly, not able to sit up for a while. Eventually it did, and then it saw the bestial head on the ground. It had never seen its own face before, yet knew that was it. It touched what was now there instead: skin, teeth, lips, ears, hair. It staggered to its feet and went to the dead demon, hesitated, before grabbing the head and ripping it off. It leapt away, falling, unable to believe it.

It looked like a human’s face!

The demon touched its own face again, then looked at an arm; the bronze skin like a human’s too. It gazed at its own body with a new level of consideration.

Movement caught its eye and it turned to see black lines race over the ground. Intertwining, separating, spreading; the thin lines sprawled across the area, then jabbed out into skin. The demon gasped in shock. It didn’t hurt, yet the lines weaved up its legs, over its body, into its arms, over its new face. Then it reached down and took up a rock before proceeding to smash to pulp the dead demon’s head. Once done, it obliterated its own.
#
“Well I’m ready to go,” announced the woman.

“What?” exclaimed Martina, looking round from the rock she sat on, lost in the beauty of the sea. The woman stood tall and proud, then turned slightly and pulled up her new shirt from her leggings, revealing a long scar. “How…? That only happened yesterday.”

“I heal fast, always have,” said the woman with a shrug, tucking herself back in. “Wish my clothes would, now I’ve only one spare shirt. No, wait, this is my spare shirt. Damn.”

“But how can you…?” Martina was lost, especially at the woman’s casual manner; not only had she healed after nearly passing out in her boat yesterday, she had fought demons, she was now a hunted creature. “You’re not from here are you?” realised the girl.

“Out there,” the woman said, pointing out to sea. “You see those rocks here and there, and bigger ones close to the horizon? Well just after it are islands, some big, some small, some tiny, and they go on for miles. It’s said there used to be land stretching from here to the landmass to the north, but it was destroyed and is now just hundreds of islands.”

“Landmass to the north?”

“Yeah, a continent I think you call it, like this one is. They used to be joined. The northern one was advanced, they had devastating weapons, and when they were overrun by mutants and machines someone used them. Legends say many humans fled south to this land, so their enemies targeted them. There were already plenty of islands around here, some great for magic. Anyway, it’s all a mess now.”

“People live out there?” checked Martina.

“Not one for taking things in easily, are you?” The woman grinned and sat next to her. Even side on, Martina could see the start of the scar, there was no avoiding it. “Yeah people live out there, if barely. Those weapons did more than blow up the land; they poisoned it, and the sea, and magic affected places too. People survived; through the centuries they found ways to keep going, even moving to different islands, but the population has always been falling.”

“You seem fine, better than fine.”

“Out there it’s said one in four children reach adulthood. I’m the only one of five, so you could say I’m owed extra,” remarked the woman with a wry smile, but she looked grim too. “You need to be tough to live out there, every generation since it happened. If you don’t have the will to get through, then you won’t.”

“Then you are from a long line of strong characters,” pronounced Martina. That explained a lot about her.

The woman grinned again. “I don’t know them all, but I imagine so; my grandfather was made of iron, knew a fair bit too. A big believer in will, he was. If your will is strong enough, nothing else can withstand it. That was his conviction.”

“Yours too?”

“Starting to be. After I made it all this way to here; over that ocean, through the wind, waves and rocks. Yeah, my willpower is feeling pretty invincible.”

Martina nodded at that, looking out over the rolling water, seemingly unmanageable. She also remembered her fight with the demons.

“Why did you come here?” she now wondered.

“Had to go one way or the other and north is crawling with mutants and machines,” said the woman simply. “Staying out there was pointless; there’s hardly anyone left and monsters are moving in. So I came south.”

“Which isn’t any better,” Martina quickly pointed out. “You aren’t safe here, the demons rule this land; they will come after you.”

“Demons? You mean those men in the masks?”

“No. Well, yes, I think. I didn’t know they were men. I know they look like that, but… they’re demons; they always have been. They roam the jungle and read the Proclamation.”

“What’s that?”

“A reminder to worship the Infestation, that which freed the land from the mutants and monsters.” The woman still frowned. “Long ago, we humans had to fight to survive too, but then the Infestation came and drove them out. We live freely now, as long as we obey the demons, the servants of the Infestation.”

“Obey them how?” Now the woman looked suspicious.

“Mainly simply by listening to the Proclamation, which tells us how we must obey and never forget what we owe to the Infestation. We give food, sometimes, and a few times tools and other things; whatever they ask for. However, now and then they claim our children.”

“They claim kids? Hasn’t anyone ever wondered about that and the men-like demons?”

“No. You see, they take boys and girls and they all go to the mines, yet many return after they have served.”

“Mines?”

“Where they do lots of digging.”

“I see. Hey, were you claimed, is that why you were hiding from them?”

“No, it was my younger brother. I didn’t want him to go so I threw a rock at a demon’s head.” Martina smiled as the woman laughed; she had as lovely a laugh as she did a horrific snarl. “It wasn’t much but they chased me for it.”

“Never bow down to anyone, my grandfather would cheer you for that. I suppose your family must be worried about you then. We should go to your home.”

“You should leave here,” warned Martina.

“Unlikely.” The woman stood and went to her boat, taking out a thin, long coat of animal hide, then a bag with a few possessions in it. She looked at Martina. “I haven’t told you my name yet, have I? It’s Persephone. My grandfather heard it from somewhere and liked it; it made him think persistence.”

“I like it too, and I’m Martina.” She rose and ran to join the woman; alongside her; no demon could touch her.
#
Martina’s return to her village caused the biggest uproar she had ever known. They had decided she was dead as soon as the demons pursued her; many took some convincing that she wasn’t a ghost. In time all believed and celebrated, the demon rebel had overcome, and then interest went to Persephone: the strident, scarred female who they soon found to have done far more than throw a rock. However, the tale of unveiling demons was beyond the belief of any.

Persephone returned to the cluster of huts before dusk with an unconscious demon, his limbs broken, a talon in her hand dripping blood. Everyone crowded round, agreeing that this was a demon, then gasping as the head was removed. The man came round and was verbally assaulted; the people demanded a name, how and why and what, but he had no answers. The people then raged, took up rocks and sticks, and beat him to death.

“You have freed us,” declared the headman; a tall, strong, leader of his people through his displays as a warrior and thinker. “Now we know what these… vermin are, we won’t hide from them anymore. We won’t stand and listen to their Proclamation! We’ll kill them and we’ll tell this truth to all other villages. Soon they will be hunted.”

“What of the Infestation?” asked Persephone from where she sat on a log. “In fact, what is it?”

“What its name says; it moves through things, living things. It is throughout this land and can even control what it infests.”

“But it doesn’t control demons,” noted Persephone. “It doesn’t need to, I suppose. Still, it needs to be defeated.”

“We will do so,” proclaimed the headman, slapping his broad chest.

“How?”

“Uh, we could raise an army and destroy the demons, then…”

“Where does it come from?”

“Everywhere.” The man shrugged.

“Where did it start?”

“Everywhere.”

“Is it up to anything, does it seem to have a purpose?” The man looked blank. “Is there anywhere people cannot go?” Now he shook his head.

“We are free, if terrorised, and of course we are actually taken to some places.”

“The mines?” checked Persephone, and he nodded. “Where are they?”

“Mountains. Wherever there are mountains there are mines.”

“What is dug up?” persisted Persephone.

“I do not understand.”

“What are they dug for?”

“Rock. Rock is brought out, then they are filled with earth.”

“Seems pointless,” noted Persephone, mulling the information, or lack of it, over. Then she regarded the big man. “How will you start your rebellion?”

“We are making weapons and forming ourselves into bands of warriors, then we will set out and grab some demons before showing them to other villages.”

“A good plan,” admitted Persephone, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “You should capture at least some alive and make sure you don’t unmask them until you show them to others.”

“Like you did,” acknowledged the headman. “We will not fail; we will not live in fear.”

“So you shouldn’t,” agreed Persephone. The headman nodded, stood still as the silence continued, then realised the conversation was over and turned and went. “He seems capable enough.”

“He was taken to the mines,” Martina explained. “He survived and came back to give us his strength.”

“You like him,” remarked Persephone with a grin. The girl looked embarrassed, trying to cover her face with her long black hair, then she slapped her younger brother on the head as he laughed; her once concern for his life long forgotten, as was her rescue of him. Persephone picked up the bowl of food they had brought for her and ate as they argued and the young men of the village prepared.

“When will you be leaving with them?” Martina now wondered. Persephone frowned and the girl pointed to the war preparations.

“I’m not going, I’m not a warrior. I’ll leave that to them. I’ve done my bit,” Persephone stated.

“But you beat six demons by yourself. You aren’t afraid of them.”

“Neither are they, not anymore.”

“They haven’t faced them yet,” countered Martina, a good point Persephone had to admit. Still, the girl thought far more of her than she really was.

“I’m not a warrior,” she insisted.

“You’re a fighter, at least on the inside and you…” Martina paused, trying to figure something out. “You seemed a step ahead of them.”

Persephone nodded. “I get a sense of things. It’s nothing serious or clear cut, but I can pick up someone’s intentions,” she revealed. “When feelings are strong or focused, I can feel it. I’m no mind-reader; those demons were clear in their threat without an extra sense. But I sort of knew, no, felt what each intended as they came.”

“Another benefit of living in a bizarre area?”

“Probably. Also of growing up in a dangerous place, you need to see a threat coming or you won’t survive. I did.”

“I’m sure you will again if you confront the demons,” declared Martina.

“I will, but I don’t intend to confront them. I’ve had a nasty enough life as it is. Now is my time of peace,” Persephone announced. Martina gave a nod and led her brother away, back to their home.

TO BE CONTINUED…..

The Accursed

There are four of them walking across the ravaged land, spaced out, yet clearly a group.

The first of them is Shade, a human male; an apt name as he is dressed in black and has skin colour of the same. He belongs to the Sect of Shadow and Steel, a society of assassins, or he did before he failed in a mission. Those of the Sect never fail, at least that is their claim, so he was cast out. In fact he was sentenced to death, except he killed his executioner in their deadly duel. Now he must make his own way by his skill and cunning.

He met Grim when under attack by ghouls, the overly large human waylaying into the monsters with aggression and gusto. At first, Shade thought he had come to rescue him, yet it turned out Grim was merely hungry. He fed on monsters. Grim was part human, if not completely. He had been raised by brutes, taken as a baby by a couple who had just lost theirs. Fed on his mother’s milk, he had grown to their size and with their strength, but the others of the tribe saw him as an abomination and eventually killed his parents. Grim had escaped yet swore revenge on all monsters, and since then he not only butchered them, but ate them too, dead or alive.

The third was a deemi, a monster, yet Grim knew better than to start trouble with such as her. Scynthia; deemi liked to take human female names and distort them. Except her kind were not females. They looked like women – beautiful, voluptuous women – yet had skin and hair of abnormal colour and tone, and their true nature was hidden within. Using these forms, they seduced humans and then killed them, devouring their souls too. So had Scynthia, up until meeting a man she had fallen in love with. Her sisters had ordered his death. Eventually she had complied, but had let his soul fly free and so had been expelled.

Shade and Grim had come across the lone deemi and attacked, yet she had eluded them using her kind’s deceitful magic. Later the pair had met more deemi and, amid the luring speech, they had revealed the tale of the outcast. Shade and Grim, escaping their clutches, had gone after her, found her and then persuaded her to join them; they were fighters, she could be the magic-user. Scynthia had agreed.

The trio had become four one morning when a hobgoblin had begun walking with them and wouldn’t leave no matter how many times they chased him away. Short, hunched, quick and tricky, Deg was like all his kind and no one wanted them around because they were always where they shouldn’t be, stole whatever they could and had an almost helpless desire to mess things up. Still, the three had nothing to steal or ruin.

They were four outcasts together. The Accursed, Shade had joked: a biblical term, as in cursed from the land and from people. None of the others understood the meaning but agreed that the name was suitable and, while none said it, they wanted a name for their quartet. It bound them together when nothing else did. They were four loners, which made them strong as a group, only that left a tension; none could take charge for too long and all kept an eye on each other. Especially Deg.

“There we are,” Shade said, stopping on a ridge. Before him was the coast, near the horizon, but within it was an island and it was covered with life. “That’s Trade Island.”

“So that’s where we get jobs,” noted Grim with a grunt.

“And with jobs come food,” Shade assured him with a grin. That was how he had persuaded the abnormal man to come along. As a member of the Sect, he had taken work here and so headed to it instantly, determined to survive on his own. But a creature like Grim had more basic aims, as well as many uses.

“But what jobs will we get here?” wondered Scynthia, stopping alongside them, her voice smooth and eloquent. Her kind strutted around naked, after all, their fabulous forms were their clothing. But since her exile, she had come to hate herself and so, fortunately for the three males, she now wore a long piece of velvet with ends hanging down her front and the middle coiling down her back. “You are an assassin, we are not. What is for us in this place?”

“Plenty,” Shade replied, his look not just on the island but also the settlements about it. He knew there were more nearby; he wasn’t the only one ever attracted here. “There are all manner of beings: monsters, humans, mutants, even a machine nation to the north that trades through the city, if no machines come. No one wants them to. There are business families and gangs. There’s a powerful devil-beast to the south that calls himself the Demon King. With our combined skills, there will be no end of work.”

“He’s right,” chirped a voice and Scynthia looked down in disgust before yanking her drape from Deg’s admiring claws. The hobgoblin hopped away and pointed to the city. “There’s lots of my people there, we work in every place, even run some. I’ll soon tell everyone how great we are.” His speech was as quick and restless as everything else was about him.

“Lots of hobgoblins,” remarked Grim and turned to Shade. “You sure we should go there?”

“Don’t worry, the humans run Trade Island. But don’t trust anyone.”

“Never do,” confirmed Grim.

“Smart,” said Shade with a chuckle. He looked at Scynthia. “You still in?”

“I might as well come, yet your plan seems too vague. You persuaded us to join you and come all this way to this place, and what struck me was your intent. You had a definite plan.” Scynthia’s gaze was locked on the assassin’s.

“Bounty hunters,” Shade revealed. The rest frowned. “When I was here before, I took interest in the law enforcement, as I would, and noticed a big problem. The humans run the island and enforce their laws, in a fashion, but because of the precarious situation, with all the various races packed around it together, none wants to start a fight. So if a criminal gets off the island they’re fine. That is, unless someone hires us to bring them back.”

“There’s a lot of crime here?” ensured Grim.

“Overflowing,” Shade assured.

“That is actually a superb plan,” admitted Scynthia. “But how do we get established as bounty hunters?”

“We go see the mayor,” Deg cut in before Shade could answer and he nodded, glaring at the hobgoblin now beside him. “By the way, I like your plan too, and agree to join you.”

“None of us asked you to come,” snapped Scynthia.

“You don’t need to ask, I’m here to help,” Deg reassured her, hooking thumbs in the straps of his backpack. She scowled.

“Let’s go,” called Shade, heading on, “and Grim, don’t eat anyone.”

“Yeah, be good,” Deg added, now behind Grim, jumping to slap his rear. He snarled and swung for the hobgoblin, but missed, so stomped on to follow Shade. Scynthia followed too, with graceful, light steps. Deg kept pace at a distance.

#

Trade Island had got its name by being just that. While the rest of the world was tormented by bloodshed and horror, here was where the various sides had learned to work together.

When civilisation had collapsed, a mutant army had come here. Humans had crowded onto this island for refuge, then fought their enemy across the water. Bridges were destroyed, as were buildings, but the mutants couldn’t get across and the humans offered peace. They proposed that if the army ceased they could trade, they had resources to offer, and the mutants saw their logic; monsters had gathered and machines were near. Conflict only weakened them for the rest. In time, though, the other groups joined in the trading, also seeing the advantages. Then more beings came from elsewhere, seeking the area’s growing prosperity as well as its safety.

The island was now covered with buildings, some tall structures, others squat; all kinds of people and creatures lived here and so the settlement varied too. In its midst was a small, simple dome, which was the mayor’s home and office. The mayor of Trade Island was a figure of authority; he organised and oversaw the place’s inhabitants. However his influence was, in truth, very limited; there were others here who had real power. Even so, he was the person the Accursed needed to see.

Mayor Phil looked from his desk at the strangers before him. The man who met his gaze reeked of lethal ability. He had moved like a killer, sure and silent, although he carried no weapons. He certainly dressed like one: his black clothes varying in texture and shading, all strong yet also supple, perfect for both movement and protection. His own form matched it exactly; lean but muscular, and he never twitched or lost focus. That wasn’t his most distinguishing feature though – his all white eyes seemed to blaze from his black face.

Then there was the abnormal man. He was huge! His thick, hairy arms swelled with muscle whenever he moved them; he looked like he could lift the large desk Phil sat at with ease and then devour it. Those teeth! Irregular, sometimes broken or sharp, but they all appeared thick. His black hair flowed across his shoulders and down his back, while his large beard was tangled and gritty. Phil recognised the thick hair of brutes that made up the man’s sleeveless tunic and leggings and his boots looked like the hard leather skin of vandals. His own skin was white, if grubby and scarred, and in one hairy paw he carried a long-handled cleaver.

The deemi really unnerved him, however. Her deep red skin was so smooth it almost gleamed. Her silver hair hung in curls and glittered whenever she moved her head. She was living proof that wet dreams do come true, except her silver eyes barely glanced at Phil and when they did, it was with scant regard, which was a relief. Those silver eyes, matching her lustrous hair, had the black slits of a hunting creature, while those fangs… Many suspected her kind’s existence in the Shadow World to have seeped through to inspire ideas of sirens and vampires, just as brutes reflected trolls and ogres, and hobgoblins gremlins and, well, hobgoblins.
The hobgoblin…

“Get out of there!” Phil yelled, chasing Deg from a drawer in his desk. The grey hobgoblin hid behind the others as the mayor slammed it shut, once certain nothing was stolen. “So, uh, did you say your name was Shade?” The man in black nodded. “A blunt name. I’m black too, but no one calls me Silhouette or Dark.”

“I’ve got the same accent as you, so I think I’m originally from this land, yet I grew up on the other side of the sea, in a cold land of white people with blond hair. I don’t know why; my family all died when I was very young.”

“But you kept the name?” queried Phil.

“It sounds cool,” stated Shade. “Anyway, it suited me when I was in the Sect.”

“The Sect of Shadow and Steel? I thought you had to be one of them with those eyes but then…” Phil gestured to the other three.

“He got kicked out, they all did,” came Deg’s voice.

“Shut up!” snarled Grim.

Phil looked around. “Get off!” he yelled to the hobgoblin, who was perched on his chair’s back. Again Deg avoided his swipe. Phil looked back at Shade. “But you’re alive? No one leaves the Sect alive.” Shade merely shrugged. “I suppose you want to regain your honour?”

“Not really.”

Phil frowned. “Isn’t the Sect strong on honour?”

“It is, but I failed at that bit,” revealed Shade, but then gave a slow, white smile. “I’m great at killing though.”

“Me too,” added Grim proudly.

“Which reminds us of why we’re here,” Scynthia said to the mayor. He didn’t look back at her, unsure whether the eyes put him off the most or if the rest of her did – the drape of velvet hardly made her modest. “We are offering ourselves to you as bounty hunters. Shade has explained how useful we could be to you. All we need is for you to make us official so we can arrest people, then spread word of us.”

“Well, yes, but I’m not sure how the police chiefs will take this,” pointed out Phil.

“Your seven chiefs are corrupt, everyone knows that,” countered Shade. “But we won’t be under them. You ask us to hunt a criminal down and we will. They won’t be able to stop us. They can get away with things behind your back, yet in front of everyone is where you can act.”

“Well, that’s true,” admitted Phil, liking the idea of these four answering to him. “I’m not sure about pay though.”

“You offer us a price, if we like it we take it,” Grim stated with a big shrug.

“Well, that sounds fair. Still, there will be some dangerous…”

“Look at us,” snapped Scynthia, which the mayor briefly did. “I am an accomplished deemi, he is a deadly assassin, he is, well, a human brute…”

“And there’s me,” cut in Deg.

“…little is beyond our abilities.”

“Well…”

“What do you want?” Shade demanded to know. Phil flinched. “You’re hedging. You want something. What?”

“You know of the Demon King? His son, Prince Dranrog, is here for a visit and recently he went to a brothel. All went fine with his three girls until he became hungry and ate them. Now that means time in prison. We have laws, and all who come here are meant to abide by them,” the mayor hesitated, “pretty much. Only his father isn’t a good loser. He wouldn’t actually intercede as no one wants to start a war, but he won’t let it pass either. We should arrest the prince, yet if we do … if I do … then trouble comes here.”

“However,” said Scynthia, silver eyes narrowing, “if we brought him in, we get the Demon King’s wrath.”

“Clever,” praised Shade. He was also surprised; this man didn’t seem that devious.

Phil looked sheepish as he shrugged. “None of the police will go near the prince, so if you did, not only would we be free of blame, but your role as bounty hunters will be assured.” This made the trio look at each other (Deg was looking out a window).

“What’s your offer?” Shade asked.

“Uh, one thousand gems.”

“Gems?” queried Scynthia.

“Not real ones,” Shade told her. “They use small, spherical crystals of no worth as currency.”

“Like this,” Deg said, producing one from among his many pockets and holding it up for her to see between his hooked nails.

“You mean gleaner droppings?” Scynthia was revolted, as now were the humans. Deg just nodded. Gleaners were vicious, arachnid-like monsters. There was a nest nearby the island; now Phil knew who the bankers dealt with.

“We use credit notes too, for bigger sums,” he added weakly.

“Is that a good price?” Grim checked with Shade.

“Very,” he replied and looked slyly at the mayor. “I doubt you can afford that much.”

“Others will chip in, to preserve law,” Phil responded, convincing none of them. “So, do you agree?” There was an exchange of looks, then nods.

#

“We wait until the prince leaves the island, that way we’re outside the mayor’s authority,” Shade announced.

“We should already be gone to pick the best place for the ambush,” Scynthia argued.

“But we don’t know which way he’ll go. This prince is said to be rash, not the sort we can predict for,” countered Shade. The deemi just nodded; she never conceded defeat in an argument.

The two of them and Grim were sat at a table in the corner of a tavern, the Picked Pocket, a place run by hobgoblins, bizarrely. It turned out many such inhospitable habitats were owned by the lowly monsters, but while theft was common, none were better at passing on rumour or getting it. That was why they were here. Prince Dranrog was far from subtle; each move he made came to them within the hour. They now lived here too. Few risked that much, but it was cheap and the owners had swiftly learned not to attempt trouble with their guests.

Grim looked around at the crash to see a hobgoblin struggling to drag his cleaver away before snatching it back. Lessons didn’t seem to stick with their kind.

“This prince,” the abnormal man began, “he must have an escort. He can’t be walking about alone.”

“Yeah, both him and his father never leave their home without guards,” confirmed Shade.

“What do you know of the Demon King?” Scynthia wanted to know.

“He’s a devil-beast, big even for his kind, strong in magic too, and he’s smart. He likes human politics; that’s why he calls himself a king – he even has a royal court. His son, the princely heir, is an arrogant braggart. He’s not nearly as strong as he ought to be.”

“When you don’t have to achieve, you do not try,” commented Scynthia.

“I’ve noticed that about you,” said Shade. “You train a lot, always getting better.”

“I can no longer live as I once did, luring sustenance to me, so now I must earn it. You should train too.”

“I did enough of that with the Sect. Anyway, I’m perfect.” Grim laughed as he munched on roasted meat of some kind; what, he didn’t care. Shade looked at him. “What’s funny, big man?”

“You’re not perfect; you’re not as strong as me.” He punched his chest.

“Who is?” replied Shade with a grin and got one back.

“I heard the Sect recruits from all over the world,” Scynthia commented to the assassin, resuming their interaction. “But why did they choose you?”

“They don’t choose, they take,” Shade said coolly, but then shrugged. “They grab a handful of youths and put them through a nightmare of training. Those who survive are then able to kill anything, anywhere. It’s made my life interesting.”

“I have no doubt, humans are so brief and bland,” said Scynthia with contempt, but it had a bitter edge – one human had been brief but not bland to her. “So, what other major figures reside in or around this island?”

“There are a few, yet the Enchantress, that’s a name to beware.”

“Doesn’t sound scary,” retorted Grim.

“She isn’t, she’s the opposite.” Shade gestured to all around them, the bustling tavern and the city beyond it. “This was begun by humans, and certain families became rich and powerful. Not long ago a daughter was born to one, the only child of a wealthy couple, and she was beautiful. She grew up pampered and adored. What she wanted was done, and as she grew, she became even more beautiful. She was adored even more, she was pampered more, and she became even more beautiful.

“It went on like that until she became so beautiful, so adored, that to hear her voice is to obey her and to glimpse her is to worship her forever.” Food dropped from Grim’s mouth as it hung open. “I’ve even heard that to look too long at her makes you go mad.”

“Since the Shadow World merged with yours, reality has become somewhat… unreal,” affirmed Scynthia.

“So, does she go round taking everyone over?” wondered Grim.

“No, that would only provoke her rivals to destroy her. Like all the powerful beings here, she has to be careful,” Shade explained. “She stays in her building, running her business, which her parents handed over before their timely accident. With her immense funds she hires whatever she needs.”

“So she could hire us?” Grim checked, wary, but keen.

“She could and not just as bounty hunters. We can perform all sorts of tasks once people know what we can do,” Shade said and Scynthia nodded.

“Nor should we be above a little corruption,” she remarked with a smile.

“That’s the only way to make real money,” confirmed Shade.

“We could steal it,” offered Deg.

“Where’d you come from?” Grim growled at the hobgoblin, who was sitting on a stool at their table. “Where’ve you been?”

“Talking, listening, a bit more,” Deg replied, playing with a handful of gems. As much as the others distrusted and disliked him, he was the only one ‘making’ money and establishing links. “I’ve found out more about the prince. He always has two brutes with him as bodyguards, but he arrived on the island with more: a few harbingers and a deemi.” Scynthia scowled. Grim growled.

“Hey, this is professional, not personal,” Shade warned. Neither replied. “What else do you know?” he asked Deg.

“He’s leaving, went across the Third Bridge just now.”

“Why didn’t you…? Nevermind, we can get ahead of them easily.” Shade rose, urgency replacing anger at the hobgoblin.

“We need to plan first,” Scynthia insisted.

“You’re the one who’s been demanding we get going,” countered Shade.

“Because we needed to set an ambush, but now you know his route, yes?”

“Pretty much. It’s nearly all open, uneven terrain out there. Perfect hunting ground for a small and mobile group like us. So yeah, now I know where he is and what direction he’s going in, I know which way we can go to cut across and be ready for them.”

“Then let’s figure out what we will do when we meet them.”

“I’ll mash the brutes,” declared Grim, “and you can take the deemi.” At this, Scynthia nodded quickly. “You, Shade, can match the harbingers for reflexes so…”

“No, no, that’s all wrong,” cut in Deg, only to receive three glares. “We’re a team, we can’t fight them each on our own. We should combine and help each other out.”

“The vile thing has a point,” admitted Scynthia and Deg grinned. “We have magic, strength, speed, skill. If we pit each attribute against its inferior we will win easily.”

“I suppose,” muttered Grim.

“We can’t fail; this is too important,” Scynthia instructed him. He nodded; he realised that. The deemi looked to the hobgoblin sat next to her and stroked his head, surprising the creature – he only ever got swipes! “Well done, uh…”

“Deg.”

“Well done, Deg. You’ve impressed us and you deserve to be one of us,” she said smoothly and he squirmed in embarrassment, then yelped as she pinched a small ear. “Just remember that you are one of us. I know your kind; you would turn on us at the right offer. If you wish to stay alive, don’t.”

“I do! I won’t!” yelped Deg before rubbing his released ear. Shade and Grim laughed.

“You should know, deemi are only nice so they can hurt you,” chortled Shade.

“It is a lesson for us all,” Scynthia cut in, and their mirth ended. “We are a new alliance, but this one act binds us. We will create enemies and so will need each other. To split will end each of us for certain.” Everyone nodded. “Good, then let’s plan our victory.”

To Be Continued…..

Our Saviour

The rocky terrain slowly disappeared and soft earth took its place. Not much, but enough to support life. The damage from the past had not reached here, perhaps due to the arc of mountains that formed about it. Whatever it was, the wilderness was behind and prospects were ahead: supplies, communities, information.

Straker stopped and looked about him, wary of threats, also looking for life. He wasn’t sure what type of being he would come across, but he was confident in himself; there wasn’t anything he couldn’t evade, outsmart or overcome. Even so, he took his automatic rifle from his shoulder and checked it over. Hardly his weapon of choice, old and troublesome, but he had carried out enough repairs on it to know it would do its job. He checked his ammunition in his backpack as well; three more magazines, plus only two grenades – he would have to try to get more if possible. He had a long knife strapped to a thigh and a small one tucked in a boot, plus he could kill with his hands, yet some problems needed an explosion to solve.

He continued his purposeful stride. Tall, muscular, but not bulky; he was a sculpted figure on the landscape. His hands were rough and his face was grim. His green eyes flicked about as he walked. He hoped he met humans or mutants here; he could pass for either, although in time the former would probably detect his superior abilities. Even so, as long as he was brief and careful, he could get what he needed and be gone before suspicion arose. As for mutants, they would revere him or possibly hate him on sight; some were jealous of perfection.

Sounds came to his sharp ears and he dropped, smoothly and suddenly, lying on the grass with his rifle ready. Then beings appeared, not too far away, climbing out of the ground, looking up and around before hurrying in one direction. Straker stayed still, watching, as over twenty figures stopped at a patch of upturned earth and rooted through it. Straker had already noticed a number of such patches about the area. There were also trees and bushes. Some individuals broke off to a nearby cluster where sacks were being filled. It was clear what was happening, but the sense of urgency was mysterious.

Then there was panic as the group heard a whirling noise. Straker had already heard it and seen the dots in the sky when they could not, but they seemed to know what these were and ran for their safety. The fleers were of all shapes and sizes, several moved awkwardly; Straker knew they were mutants and so rose.

“Quick, get in,” he urged, running for the hole in the ground himself, using the situation to gain entrance. They reeled in surprise but never stopped running. He aimed his weapon skyward. “I’ll cover you, hurry up.” The flying objects were closing in. Straker had never seen the like, but the mutants had and fled underground, the last closing the hatch, disguising the way.

“Who are you?” someone asked Straker, who had slipped in with the last few, not giving them a chance to shut him out. “Are you a human?”

“No, he’s a super-soldier,” another, a middle-aged woman, replied for him.

“How do you know that?” asked Straker calmly.

“You look too good to be human.”

The tall fighter grinned at that and rubbed his close-cropped black hair as he dipped his head to her. “My name is Straker and, yes, I‘m a mutant like you.”

“Not like us,” a young man noted, holding up his crooked arm. “Also, your skin and speech is different.”

“I am from far away, the other side of the world, in fact. I don’t know much about my lineage, after all, it no longer matters, but racially I am Hispanic. I believe you live in what was once Eastern Europe.”

“How do you know such old names?” yet another asked of him.

“I was told them.” Straker just shrugged, none of it was important. “But who are you and what were those things?” That mattered.

“Helicopters,” the youth spat. All in the tunnel looked hateful. “The humans use them. We can’t live up there, no one can, but even after forcing us underground they raid us for our food.” He hefted his sack.

“Then destroy them,” proclaimed Straker, fist raised.

“We can’t,” the older woman complained. “They live on the mountains, thousands of them, and they’ve blocked off every route possible.”

“Clever,” commented Straker, his companions’ plight forgotten as his military instincts kicked in. “With those flying helicopters they rule this area while no one can touch them.”

“It also means they have little food, that’s why they raid us,” someone added.

“How do you survive?” wondered Straker.

“We barely do, but we do,” declared the youth.

“This land doesn’t look like much but it produces quite well, it has learned to do better than it ought to, like we have,” the woman went on. “It’s the raids that do more damage; the humans brutally keep us down.”

“Maybe you could help us,” suggested a young woman.

Straker shrugged. “We’ll see. We should move from this hatch, in case they see it and try to come in,” he advised, and together the mutants headed down the tunnel.

#

“So you’re a super-soldier,” remarked Orlock, the hunched old man sitting cross-legged before Straker. He was the eldest of the mutants and so an unofficial leader. They were nothing more than a convergence of huddles and gatherings that had come to this habitable space before being united by their cruel neighbours. The pair were in his home, a small cave with a wooden door that was moved in and out of its place for entry, but Straker couldn’t care less; he was eating and he would learn more from his host than any other. “You don’t look like a super-soldier.”

“What?” This made Straker freeze – that was the last thing he expected to hear. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“I haven’t seen a super-soldier since I was young,” mused Orlock, “and you don’t look right. No, sorry, I use the wrong word, you don’t seem right.”

“I’m strong, yet agile. I’m not deformed like you,” Straker said without venom. “What else can I be?”

“I don’t know that, but I know other things. I know that super-soldiers are taller than you. They come in many shapes from around the world but all were made well over six feet. You look just over. I know that because of cloning in the past most super-soldiers have a blandness about their features, yet yours are sharply defined. Also, you seem so… independent. Super-soldiers live by their nature. They are very aggressive, they were made to destroy; even now they are war-like. You, however, seem calm, alert and also calculating. I hope that doesn’t offend you.”

“Not even slightly,” Straker said with a grin, but his look was intent on the old man.

“Super-soldiers were made to be clever at war but not much else, the humans only wanted them for fighting. You look like you could thrive in any situation.” Orlock had tilted his head as he studied his guest and his lopsided face sat straight and normal. “You have come to me to talk about our enemy, which makes strategic sense, but you have sat calmly, eating, patient as I tidy my room. What is your focus really on?”

“Very well, you deserve the truth,” confirmed Straker, but he locked his steely gaze on Orlock. “However, if you spread it any further I will spread you out amongst your people, piece by piece.” Orlock nodded quickly. “Then let me ask if you know about the geography of the world, that this area is part of a huge landmass that spreads in three directions? Well, almost opposite this there is another landmass, a long one that stretches down the world, and I am from the northern part. Actually this landmass was cut in half long ago, but that doesn’t matter.

“You see, my tale goes back to the beginning, when mutants were born and the human race was smashed apart. In that northern land mutants were made, super-soldiers, and also other creations – many experiments were carried out. But then they rebelled. The super-soldiers found that they had shortened life spans and had been secretly cloned. They were human volunteers but had been betrayed, so they struck back. Yet they did more than most mutants. They captured the eight head-scientists who had done so much to them and subjected them to the same.

“Only they liked it. These individuals were intelligent, imaginative and ambitious. They saw potential in their new state so continued experimenting on themselves, killing two, but the survivors became super intelligent and used this to improve the super-soldiers. We have already mentioned the limitations of these beings; the scientists had been ordered to ensure they had some to protect humanity. Now they could seek perfection, eradicate every flaw and explore any avenue they desired. They succeeded. They created the ultra-mutants.”

“You?” questioned Orlock. But he knew the answer, it explained everything.

“I am second generation, even better, but yes, I’m an ultra. We are stronger and faster than super-soldiers, and more intelligent, as you’ve noticed. We aren’t as tall, so we can fit in easier with others, yet we are more in control of our bodies; what we cannot overcome through strength we defeat through skill and cunning. We are all from the same mould because ultras were only made in one place. We’re all six two, lean and muscular. But none of us have been cloned; we are varied, racially and facially. The Brainers foresaw the problems the super-soldiers would have with similarity.”

“Everyone wearing the same face, enough to drive… The Brainers?”

“The mutated scientists,” explained Straker.

“An apt name, no doubt,” Orlock remarked wryly. Straker’s nod was firm. “Now I understand you…”

“You do not,” cut in Straker, making the old mutant flinch. “That was just the beginning. A nation of mutants, instructed by the Brainers, with their ultras leading the war against the humans that surrounded them, and just as the super-soldiers had overthrown their inferior masters, so did my kind decide to claim their destiny.”

“Destiny?” asked Orlock.

“We are ultras, the best humanity has become. I’m sure you can see what our destiny is,” Straker said, yet quickly went on. “The rest of my story will confirm it. The Brainers sided with the ultras but still sought perfection: the ultimate mutant. A being not merely without flaw, but unable to be surpassed in any way. Have you heard the name Gilgamesh?”

“Once,” Orlock whispered, “and in such a way…”

“He is a giant, five times my strength, yet fast and with genius crafted by the Brainers themselves, as well as all the knowledge they had gathered, and still have; that is why I know so much. The Brainers and ultras worked together and made him, and the super-soldiers and mutts, uh…”

“Natural mutants, I know the term,” Orlock said darkly.

“Actually, to us, the term has come to mean all mutants not genetically improved. As I said, many experiments were conducted, but there was nothing natural about their results. I understand that in this part of the world radiation was released on people to test theories, that’s why there are so many mutants here.”

Orlock gave a shrug. “I only know we are here,” he replied.

Straker nodded, liking his pragmatism. “Anyway, the other mutants were afraid, and they knew the humans were too, so made a pact and then fled as they attacked. Gilgamesh was complete, about to be born, but the humans came too soon. The ultras fought their way out, with the Brainers, yet Gilgamesh was lost.”

Orlock sat up as much as he could. “Lost?”

“To the humans, a pre-packaged, military and technological expert as well as an unstoppable titan. They chose not to destroy him because, if conditioned differently, he could lead them to victory, as he was meant for us. Only they couldn’t, none can outwit the Brainers. Yet they hoped and kept him in storage. Then others came along and bought him, seeking to use him too, failing as well, and since then the ultimate mutant has been bought and sold around the world, a walking war machine none dare activate. Except us.”

“You? What happened to your people?”

“We were crippled but alive. We went into hiding, knowing how feared and envied we were, and now we wait, or most of us do. Some of us roam the world in search of Gilgamesh, and when we find him we will be able to take what is ours,” Straker now declared.

“He is that powerful?” questioned Orlock, doubtful and yet hopeful.

“We were driven out about a century and a half ago, in that time we have grown strong again. But yes, he is.”

“And…” Orlock paused. “What of us mutts?”

“Super-soldiers were made to destroy monsters. Ultras were made by human-hating mutants. Humans are our enemy and so are monsters and machines, the latter especially because they believe they are the superior beings. We aim to win the world from them all. We do not count mutants as our enemies, although whether they do is another matter. But, to be truthful, the superior must be above the inferior.”

“Funny, I expected you to preach lies to me and even the truth sounded flatly honest, not a proclamation or boast,” said Orlock before grinning oddly. “Do you believe in what you just said?”

“I believe it to be true,” confirmed Straker.

“Not what I asked, but never mind.” There was a glint in Orlock’s eyes now. He also fidgeted. He was nervous about this stranger yet exhilarated by his tale. “So, now we come to it. Why are you here? No, wait, Gilgamesh!”

“Correct.” Now Straker grinned at the other’s shock. “I have a name of a recent buyer, perhaps the latest, and maybe you know it too. The humans on the mountains seem a military people, who leads them?”

“Air Marshal Blitzkrieg.” For a moment Straker was still, then he smiled slowly. “What do you intend?” asked Orlock.

“To have another talk.”

To Be Continued…..

Harbinger of my Doom

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……