Stone. Iron. Salvation.
|Stone and Iron
Pain is for those of us who still know the sweet reprieve from it; despair is for those who know the void should hold happiness; hatred is for those who know there are those you can also love.
There is no past: only barren stone ground whose past has is as silent and lost as the soft earth there once was. There is no future: only the labored yet weak beating of one’s heart as it is slowly consumed by the solidification. All that remains is the present and the smarting of one’s heels as they pound the earth that wasn’t always so painful against them.
Even the screaming of their final death throes would be welcome over this solid silence. Because not hearing their secret whispers and soft trembles of laughter flit across the skin means even this present is not fit to last. And even this existence one would prefer over an uncertain oblivion.
This world is solid. This world is madness. This world is forever suspended in the eternal expanse of stone.
Their footfalls echoed across the barren landscape as a cloud of thunderclaps would resound if trapped within their sky cage. All could hear them coming but this mattered not. All it served was the hungry beast called fear within their hearts. But those who still kept the company of this beast survived within a cold rasp of oblivion. Fear made one irrational; fear made one stupid; fear lead one into the titanium jaws of the Mechanimus.
Their booming gallops faded away, the storm was over, and Remington sat huddled into a ball as he took shelter in the hollow of an iron tree. There he waited. With every breath the rough gray bark of the tree bit through his woolen cloak. Long past were the days of leather since the animals now were all mechanized mutations of their former selves, it was a wonder they still had fur instead of wire. He was also long past wishing that or anything was different. Wishing he had a real name instead of the word he found on the stock of the rifle he always carried.
Strangely rust and erosion had not claimed the gun, in this world machines thrived. For that he was thankful. But he also knew his time as an organic being was numbered here as well. Every breath of the air sent a metallic tang down the back of his throat. It was slowing him down. It was making the sheer act of living unbearably difficult. He was becoming something solid and static.
He had never believed in the magnificent Organic Sky Beings that would lead them to a world that was like how it once was as the others did. He did not know what happened once you were dead or if your Inner-Life could even escape from a stone shell. He did not understand why the trees turned to iron and the humans and animals to stone. And then, when the deep rifts in the earth shifted and split open, those who fell beneath the cracks previously would rise
up as hideous half organic half mechanized wraiths. They rose up to purge us from the Stone Waste.
After the Mechs had departed, he waited…. Black acidic rain began to fall. The consistent sizzle, patter, sizzle, sizzle, patter erupted from the stone ground. It was not a gentle nor forgiving sound. It was harsh upon the ears but no auditory threat could match the ravaging effects it had upon bare skin. Even woolen clothes were paltry protection against it, it would simply slip through the tender threads and start searing. The iron trees were also victim to nasty bouts of erosion, leaving them scarred, frail and shapeless mounds of their former selves.
Inside the tree’s hollow he staved off some of the burning onslaught but not all. It need not take very many moments before he was consumed by the stench of his own burning flesh. He did not cry out and his eyes were clear of tears. No one was left to hear him whimper fruitlessly.
The temperature was creeping upward. He could feel sweat sliding down his spine and his woolen overcoat was starting to feel very heavy against him. A scalding droplet from inside the hollow hit the exposed skin between his glove and sleeve. His mouth opened wide in a preemptive howl, though he did not make a sound. Loud sound meant attention, and that was something he desperately did not need. He could not help it: melting iron was worse agony than acid rain. Too late did he realize that the hollow was not natural but a sign that the tree was close to its collapsing point.
Before this conscious thought could fully cross his mind more iron was dripping onto his woolen clothes. He would either catch on fire or be encased within the solid iron remains of the tree. He chose the impossible third option: living.
His hands shoot outward and he began grappling and pulling at the smooth stone ground. His legs kicked out behind him and kept a steady, fervent rhythm. Within mere halve-moments the hollow was closing and hot molten iron was pouring upon his legs. He bit down on his lip hard to keep from screaming. The slow melt and burn of his upper body felt like a mere tickle now. The iron was fast solidifying now and filling every open crevice within the hollow. His feet were still within. The iron was reaching temperatures of unimaginable heights that humanity has since forgotten how to measure. All he knew was heat. His mind swam in it, long jet streams of flame radiated down his spine until they reached his feet in an unrelenting, sulfuric explosion.
He could not help it: a scream tore from his lips.
The sound seemed to give him one last boost of strength. So long had he dwelt in the stillness of the eye of the storm. The sound, though despairing, gave him new life. He pushed. He wrenched himself free. Mercifully, the black rain stopped as if the sky’s tears were abated with his desperate cry.
He lay motionless, the pain within his feet making his vision swim in endless swirling pools of light. He did not shiver, he did not make a sound, he did not even pray in appreciation or relief for no one would hear him.
There was only the tar black sky, the hard, biting stone stinging his cheek and the radiance he saw before his eyes and he let it swallow him whole.
Bleary and disfigured splotches of grey and white float before his eyes.
Where was he? Cold water lapped like the icy smooth crystal that forms sometimes between his fingers when the cold was so intense it burned like the flames.
Who was he? A distant echo of his meaningless name came into his mind. He belonged to no one. So his name reflected that. His hand shakily tightened around the rifle nonetheless.
Enough questions, it was time to move. He had not moved since his collapse. The water blessedly clarifies when it pools in the huge eroded holes that populated the stone ground.
Shaking violently, he attempts to prop himself upon his hands. He cannot get himself steady enough to maintain a firm balance. His attempt ends swiftly. Let the titanium beasts come, at least with death the sharp, stabbing pain in his feet would no longer ail him.
Adjusting his body position he places his feet where the pool can lap lazily at his charred feet. Whether he could ever walk again was an unknown, but at least he could lessen his pain slightly while he contemplated how long much pain he would have to endure being eaten alive before it all ended.
Something brushes his foot so gently he almost doesn’t feel it. Though miniscule, it makes its presence soon known. A slight humming vibration comes with its touch as it coils itself around his food. He had never known Iron Beasts to live within pools for there was quick erosion there, but he also couldn’t let himself hope it was something benevolent either.
A glowing, cylindrical orb of light glided into his vision. Tiny sounds that came to his ears like the soft tinkling of bells ringing along on a gentle breeze. He heard a song somewhere within the depths of its unknown language. Maybe it was sprite meant to lure him into calm so the kraken beneath could devour him without struggle. Its music was too sweet to make him care much if it was some elaborate fatal ploy. He would rather die happy than screaming in the gullet of some Mech while its acid burned him alive.
He felt the gentle pull of the tendrils take him into the water. He closed his eyes and clutched his old, faithful rifle that had more of a birth rite than his own skin. He felt the light creature embrace his face; light airy warmth spread through his body from the pumps of his stone heavy heart to the tips of his fingers. The suddenness makes him gasp.
His head then slips underneath the surface of the pool and he is jerked more quickly once he has left the surface. He clamped his mouth shut on reflex, too surprised to have taken a proper breath. He struggles to keep it shut. The force of the current spiriting him away forces it open and he swallows….
Air: warm, fragrant with the smell of green foliage long forgotten to the Stone Wastes. Organic scents overwhelmed his senses and he even sneezed from the foreign pollen in this air. His eyes watered and they too were forced open.
What he saw he took for oblivion. It surely must be the afterlife for the pool could not possibly have reached this deep. Could it?
Even within the ray of light surrounding his face he saw nothing but blackness in all directions. No trace of the surface light lay above him; nor fellow creature around him; nor bottom below him. He knew he was sinking in water but that was all. Perhaps he truly was dead, just not fully aware of it yet. It could have been plausibly assumed that he had been taken by a fever and infection for how severely he was burned; it could also be that he was swallowed whole while asleep and now deep within the bowels of a Mech.
Before he could decide a light burst forth into being from below. A rainbow broke through the heavy blackness and as the light shrunk the distance the more brilliant it shone.
A long, twisting form began to materialize. A narrow-snouted scaled face; eyes on either side of its extended cone face; rough skin so brilliant it was hard to make out its definite features; tendrils fanned out around its eyes; its body a long and snake-like; pairs of talons near its head and end.
A dragon. An organic dragon that only lived in the stories nomadic people told in stories. He had heard such stories when his trope was still alive. He had thought these fantastical beings had died with them. Dragons were always told as Sky Beings; ethereal creatures that granted wishes to mortal Nomadic men and to be prayed to and rewarded for it. They were not meant to actually exist, just be a small hope and force people clung to.
Here was one in the flesh before him. For a long moment It studied him, its colorful glittering eyes slowly tracing his outline.
“Am I dead?”
The broken silence seemed to offend It, Its upper lip curled in a nasty snarl, revealing a huge set of silvery fangs.
'Foolish question. Human-voice-noise disturbs world. Use not again. Mind voice.'
He understood instantly, though he had never learned how to speak telepathically.
'Simple, human cub. Speak in mind.'
'Where am I?'
'Human cub where needed.' Even though the Dragon’s speech was incomplete to his custom it still conveyed a deep knowledge beyond his years.
'I would still know where I am. It is very unsettling to know not where one resides.'
'Where not important. Where useless. Why is.'
'Then why?' He might as well gain what he could from this discourse.
'Ah. Human cub wants. All Humans want. This all. Never give.'
The Dragon seemed to fall into deep, mournful thought that was punctuated by many rolling growls and snarls that made him flinch. He waited. It seemed many moons had passed before It spoke again.
'World changing. Rapid this. Humans not keeping pace. Saddens spirits. Saddens Earth. Saddens animals. Dependent on Humans. I am not. Pah! Earth do better. Earth needs healing. Fool spirit aids Human cub.'
'What made the world change? What is Earth?'
'IGNORANCE!!! Its maw opens wide at this outburst and his mind vibrates with the force of it. Cold, drenching fear creeps and crawls beneath his skin and in his blood. Earth is this. On now. KNOW NOTHING!'
'S-Sorry. I have never heard the word “Earth” before'.
'Once Gaia. Wed Life and Nature. Now nothing. Name now Earth. Life and Nature gone. Died. Perished. MURDERED!'
'By whom? How?'
'Human does forbidden. Human opens that should not. Cannot say. Cannot say. Ancient sleeping power. Creation abomination. Existence unintended. It awoke. Murders Nature and Life. Earth weeps. Earth falls. Half life. Half death. Yet....'
Again a long pause.
'One loosed. Came forth.'
'You came forth from it?'
'….Yes. Was apparition. Was folktale. Now living. Now breathing. Now… End. Not meant. Meant in page. Not Earth.'
'Must I put it to an end?'
Frustration boiled within him. 'Then why am I here?'
'To know. To prepare. To wish mayhaps. Look.' Glowing spirits wreathed Its head. Their heads in the shape of a bell and their bodies small humanoid shapes no taller than half a foot. 'See. Spirits weep. Weep for human cub. Feel them? The spirits let out a soft, broken ringing. It had lost its tune but its message was clear.'
'Good. For I will not. Gracious acceptance. Good.'
'…. What should I do now?'
'What all do. Live.' Its eyes bulged and the tendrils encircling its eyes sprang forth. They coiled around his feet and a warm tingling engulfed them. When they receded the burns marks were gone. Meet fellow. Find truth. Forsake not Earth.'
His eyes snapped open and he sat bolt upright. His woolen cloak and clothes were soaked through. If it had not been a dream, then what was it?
His feet no longer screamed in pain, yet he felt all the more unsettled after the encounter with the dragon. A wondrous experience and no less so, and yet… he felt as if a gaping chasm where hissing metallic cobras dwelt had opened up beneath his feet and he was dangling just on the edge of it.
Dragons were infamous in the legends for the telling of half-truths. What was real and what was not often hinged on the hearer’s own knowledge.
He had no knowledge of this… Earth’s end. He was no Oracle. Yet a Dragon always telling the truth somewhere in their tales, yet, something about the creature’s tone led him to believe it was all truth. And the spirits’ song, at the time it had not affected him so much, but thinking back to its discordant melody made his eyes spring tears.
A piercing burst of steam came shrieking through the mutated iron trees.
A gruff human voice barks orders.
An icy spear plunged through his chest: The Sky-Temple Caravan.
He had heard similar noise prior to his own Wandering band being slaughtered. No men and boys were left alive after the onslaught and the Headwoman had disguised him as a little girl before they arrived and begun the genocide. She had hidden him in a cellar and told him not to move until she came for him. Once the screams were replaced with the sounds of the dying he had waited three days in that cellar. There were provisions enough for him. At sundown on the fourth day he finally emerged…. What he saw will never be forgotten.
The People of the Sky-Beings never took men. Women were considered more valuable since they created life. They made their captives build elaborate stone Temples from the stone bodies of those who have solidified. Once they are finished they impregnate every last one so the Sky-Beings know their sacrifice is invaluable.
There is nothing more sacred than an innocent child. Without the taint of stone or iron, the Sky-Beings can cherish their organic bodies. It is believed one can survive one year longer if one’s unborn child is taken up and consumed by a Sky-Being. He had never seen this to be true. The fanatics died slow and painful deaths choking on the toxic, solidifying air just like the rest of them. They still liked to boast that they lived longer.
He knew that if he stayed in the open he would be instantly cut down. He also knew that if he tried to play the hero and save a sacrifice he would be cut down. The People of the Sky-Beings were well-organized and did not lack in man-power. Their religious fanaticism made them ruthless and powerful when it came to their “harvesting lambs.” It has been told that once a Sky-Leader locked eyes with you your fate has been abruptly decided.
Curiosity was not a strong suit in the Stone Waste, yet he could not hold himself back from at least watching the procession march past. He could not tame the wild instinct to become a hero and try to save at least one of the condemned. He wished he were the gallant hero that would burst from hiding, cut down forty plus warriors and liberate the unfortunate band. He was not so brave nor so stupid. Grappling with the occasional beast for food did not make him a valiant Knight capable of such feats of grandeur. He was merely a dirty little boy when it came to combat and he could not delude himself for long when faced with this. His agility was the only saving grace he had in his arsenal.
Looking on at the downcast brood made his mood sink drastically, he decided he would depart, but as he turned a head held high caught his eye.
Her head was held so high and her confidence was such that she seemed to glow with it (it seemed she actually did glow). A resolute, strong and striking face belonged to her.
Her face was odd-looking. Her face was all angles and sharpness. Her hair shone with such whiteness that it stood out in stark contrast to her surroundings. He could say she was beautiful, yet her face seemed so foreign that cold fear seemed to slither up his spine with icy tendrils when he looked at her. She did not belong here.
He knew what must be done. He dreaded the mere thought of it but he knew it had to come. He was compelled by her as if she was commanding him herself. Her air, her demeanor, her stance and highest of all her face all told him what he must do and he felt he must obey.
Before he could even think about what he was doing or if it could get him killed he went against every screaming survival instinct in his head and aimed his Remington at the sky.
He allowed it to rise, he let it lunge and he let it break free of its cage.
A shot rang in the air and a couple of the ragged young girls let out ringing screams. Gruff shouts followed and a few of the guards yelled at the girls and lashed them with their spiked whips. The band was about to break into chaos and they feared the women would run, heedless to the guards who might try to kill them. This was for good reason. A gun is seldom ever heard.
He wastes no time after the affront of confusion. Darting from behind his malformed hideaway he springs upon the mystical woman. A Sky-guard lunges upon him, his saber slashing just past his ear as he throws his body to the side and tumbles away. Gaining his footing once more he fires off a shot at the guard’s chest. There’s a gurgling, strangled cry from his convulsing mouth as he falls for the last time. Two other guards catch sight of him, both mounted upon iron horses. One scowling, fearsome man is so far gone his whole right side is encased in stone. Desperation rings true in his battle cry as he swings his axe upon the rifleman. The other man is not as quick or as blood thirsty and instead he drives his horse away from the wild arcs of the halfman’s blade. Using his rifle to parry he throws the halfman’s axe the other way. It takes less than half a moment for the menace to hurl the axe back around at the rifle. Lithe as a storm gust, rifleman fires off a shot point blank into the halfman’s head. Struck still by sudden death the halfman is hurtled from his steed. The spooked horse flees, stampeding a couple of the guards along the way.
Knowing the day is lost against a rifleman, the other guards are quick to flee.
A greater man I fooled them into bed with. Yet when they pulled back the covers they thought she was no maid. They knew not the look of a maiden.
He turns his blood-spattered face toward the woman. If she was frightened by him she made no allusion to it, her stance was as resolute as before.
“Come with me.” He says breathlessly as he grabs her arm roughly and pulls her away before she can utter a word. If she could respond he does not even know, nor does he care. Her lip curls upward in silent slyness.
“Someone did come...” She murmurs under her breath, more to herself than him.
Once they had fought free of the dangerous band, he spins himself around.
“You know, talking to yourself betrays insanity to some people. How do I know you will not slit my throat in the middle of the night?”
“You do not.” She says casually.
“Then how do I know if it is wise to have you with me?”
“You are compelled to. If you were to abandon me to those tyrants your mind would turn you insane.”
“Fair point.” As blasé as he tried to sound his gut was twisting like a coil.
“Calm yourself. What use would I have killing my own protector?”
“You are prone to hand out titles no one desires, aren’t you?”
“You desire it because I wish it, soldier.”
“Well, splendid work is wasted when undone. You may come if you wish.”
“She will accompany us as well. Talla!” A grey speckled wolf-dog emerges from behind a misshapen mound and bounds up to her.
“I guess a mongrel would not hurt.”
“She is no mongrel, soldier!”
Talla curls her lips in a nasty grin as if she sensed his insult.
“Apologies… dog-thing? And is a ‘your grace’ in order for you?”
“You may address me as Carmilla.”
A name? She must belong to a Clan of some sort. Her origins were as grey and uncertain as the sky.
“Do you believe in Sky-Beings?” He asks suddenly.
“What are Sky-Beings?”
“We are getting along better already.”