Stone. Iron. Salvation.
|Sword and Rifle
“You could sleep if you wanted to. I cannot with their infernal racket.” He sits himself next to her, his proximity close and comfortable with her now. She sits upon a stone hill and sees out over the craters and uneven hills before them. A threatening and majestic expanse of mountain range climbs high in the west, their peaks unseen among the clouds.
The Mechanimus were howling in resounding, metallic cries. They must have found a nomad Clan; they only make such noise after a large kill.
“I could not sleep through this either. Such frightful creatures they are. I had seldom run-ins with them, but when I did, I felt the fear down to my bones.” Her voice was grave and she still was looking over the land.
“I can never decide which freezes my blood more: the fanatics, the Warlords out for conquest and murder or the Mechanimus. Therefore I don’t think about it.”
“How can you not think of it?”
“Before I met you I did not think or feel much at all. I shut myself down and focused on surviving from day to day. After a while I would occasionally wonder why I even bothered to keep running from it. Why was I living if I could not feel or take action against anything? I would not think on it long though for another monster in another form was soon to appear and I would focus on living again.”
She longed to know his name and who he was and where he came from. She longed to know with such intensity that it almost scared her. Yet she held herself back. He would merely brush off her questions. Yet this never stopped her from the wanting.
“I could never help my fear. Even Talla has been very much afraid of the things we’ve come across here.”
“It is a dreadful to close off ones emotions. I am glad you did not. For your resolve ruptures eventually and the fear and anger come in torrents then.”
“Did you ever rupture?”
“Many a time, and when I did I was scared of myself. How silly I must seem saying that! But it was very true.”
“I have been afraid of my own shadow, I know it well.”
They both sit in silence for a while. They watch as the unchanging ocean of stone and iron passes its time in stillness, the shadows the only thing that danced across its expanse.
She suddenly leans close into his shoulder; he does not shift away.
“I know snippets of my past sometimes in my dreams. I remember I used to lean against my mother like this when I felt unsure of the world around me.”
“Do you feel that way now?”
“Very much so.”
“You would not guess it the way you moved in battle. I could scarce see you with the way you ran.”
“It’s the sword. It’s enchanted with some of the strength of the Old ones of the Sky.”
“No, that is what we call dragons. I know much about the ways of my home yet not what my land is or is called. We had no Sky-Beings we worshipped but we did revere the magic and strength of the Great Dragons. They were seen as higher, more intelligent beings than us so they were our Kings.”
“Were they just Kings?”
“Yes. They were the most just creatures alive. Though they did tend to lie a little and spin grandiose stories. It was always a grand time when a dragon would come to your fireside and tell stories.”
“Do you remember any stories?”
“Parts and pieces of them. I only remember the beautiful songs they would sing to us. The dragons and spirits loved humans dearly and viewed us as their children to protect. They would even sing the human children to sleep with their song and music. The dragons would hum a tune in the background and the spirits would sing to us. When a bloody human war would erupt they would always come to our beds and comfort us with song.”
“What a joy that must have been.”
He paused and sat in contemplative thought for a moment. “My Clan name is Aren.”
“Your name.” She said simply, straightening her back and staring at him.
“You long to know, I can tell. You have saved my life, Carmilla, I thought you should know by now. It was stupid of me to withhold it from you. My Clan was led by an old woman and was made up of mostly women and children she had taken in. It was a nice gesture, but it also made us weak…”
“They were taken by a monster.”
“They were taken by those fanatical religious militants that took you. Though I was a mere boy at the time and could do nothing but hide. Still does not stop the regret of doing nothing. I know exactly what happened to them, even the Headwoman, and I did nothing and it kills me.”
“You were a mere boy.”
“A boy that could have tried to stop that and died with his efforts. Instead I must live with the ghosts of my fallen Clan who are constantly whispering over my shoulder of why I didn’t save them.”
She took his chin in her hand and made him look at her. “You were a boy. This Headwomen seemed like a kind and great woman. She would have wanted at least one of her people to be saved. Her work was not in vain and you give the greatest honor to her by livng, Aren.”
When she said his real name it felt as if his stomach had dropped through his feet. His heart beat faster and faster until it was fit to burst. She then came closer to him and took him into her arms. “It is not the ghosts you plague you, it is your own guilt that tears at your heart. If you don’t let go of them and forgive yourself for this it will eat away at you until there is nothing but bitterness within.”
As soon as her arms went around him a starburst of energy erupted through his chest. He felt his skin grow softer. He felt his muscles relax and settle into organic material once again. Every trace of stiffness vanished from his limbs, back and shoulders. A grand sense of relief filled his chest as he felt the change and what it meant for him. He never knew how afraid he was of turning to stone until she has taken this burden away. Aren closes his eyes and relaxes against her, feeling the soft skin of her upper chest on his cheek that felt human again.
“Thank you…” He whispers, she also knew the stone had vanished, and she was flooded with joy for him.
Aren’s feet were raw and sore and he was so weary of walking he felt like collapsing onto the ground then and there. It had been so long since his body had been so fragile and easily worn out. He blearily looked over at Carmilla and her confident stride and wondered idly if she would mind if he rode on her back.
“Where is this Temple again?”
“Do you not even know where we are? You are of this land more than me.”
“We are in the Talon lands. The Warlord Micah rules here. He is not a kind little kitten when he finds out a foreigner is in his lands.”
“Lands belong to no man. They belong to the Dragon.”
“Well, tell that to the sharp side of Micah’s sword when it falls on you.”
“We must go through this pass if we wish to travel through the mountains. There was no other way unless you wish to climb over to their peaks for the rest of your days.”
“Why must we travel this way?”
“To find more temples.”
“And how do you know it’s this way.”
“My sword knows where suffering resides. It has Dragon magic within it, remember?” A small smile curls her lips. Despite his pestering complaints she had been remarkably patient.
“Maybe a Mechanimus stubbed his toe….”
“No, these are children’s tears.”
That stilled his tongue.
“Do you require a horse, oh sturdiest of Knights?”
“Excuse me for my muscles being mush after being turned back into flesh, mi’lady of the Thorny arse.”
“I merely jest. You are too sensitive.”
“I wish I could sit upon my own arse right about now.”
“Do you wish to rest?”
“Gladly.” He didn’t care much for the show of strength right about then.
Talla trots up to Carmilla and takes the spot by her side. She drops a half-iron field mouse at her feet. “Thank you, my dear, but I have no appetite today.”
“Do you think I could talk to her somehow?” He sat on the other side and eyed the wolf-dog with interest.
“Such thought you put into it. Don’t overly strain yourself with the effort I wouldn’t want you to break a sweat on my behalf.”
“You are not of my world. You cannot possess the power I do. When Talla tries to communicate with you she experiences a solid wall.”
“Did Talla tell you this, Mila?”
“Mila?” She gave him a curious look when he said it.
“What? Is it so bad I wish to call you something less complicated?”
“No, it’s just… I never expected you would be so fond of me as to give me a nickname.”
“Bah. Carmilla is just a pain to say.” Aren was always an awful liar.
Pounding footfalls like a lightning storm were heard over the expanse of the Waste.
“Mechs.” Aren grabs her arm and pulls her down. He mouths the words Not a sound to her. She nods in understanding.
The steps grow closer and closer. Sweat starts to bead upon his brow and he begins to quake a little. Carmilla was strong but even she could not take on even one Mech in battle. She shifts her hand and places it on his back, he relaxes and looks at her, she smiles at him.
One of the newly-made iron trees crash to the ground just a few feet in front of them.
A mechanized wolf steps over the felled tree. Its cold red eyes fall upon them. It starts to snarls and burning acid begins to drip from its maw. The grinding gears shift and spin and groan with each of its steps. Its engine steam shoots in a Jetstream from its back. It’s bright red eyes look onto them and the wires of its fur begin to glow from their tips.
Aren is frozen with fear, her hand on his back grips to him. She gets to her feet and draws her sword.
“NO! We must run, Mila, we cannot fight it!” He tries to grasp her arm but she shakes him off.
“A real Knight never runs when faced with death.”
“Screw your Knight’s oath! You have to run with me and now. It will strike you down where you stand with one blow.” Tears were springing to his eyes as desperation bubbled up within him.
She gave him a hard look that he will never forget. “You may run, Aren, but I will stay.”
The words froze on his lips. Talla bristled and snarled beside her.
“You know I have to stay by you, Mila.”
In fighting stand her sword began to shine once again. The forms of roaring dragons began to emerge from the white fire.
“The Dragon will protect us.”
Aren stands beside her and aims his gun. She puts a hand in front of it though. “Trust the Dragon, Aren, and he will protect his children.”
“I know nothing of your Dragons. All I know is… is…”
“You have met the Dragon, you know.” She smiles at him and then leaps, sword cutting down upon the iron beast. The wolf roars its robotic cry and rushes to meet her.
He wants to look away but he cannot. He must know what will happen to her.
A tremendous metallic clash rings out when they met. Neither is harmed but they are swift to clash again and again. Carmilla dives and searches for the beast’s weak point while the beast looks for a way to clamp its jaws around her neck. It sweeps its paws outward and makes contact with her.
Aren screams and tries to run to her but Talla jumps in his way and growls at him. Then the wolf-dog runs toward the Mech and starts clashing with it.
She gets to her feet once more, blood gushing down her face from three deep slash marks yet it does not seem to bother her as she leaps back into the fray.
“A Knight.” He knew what the word truly meant now. She was its embodiment.
Talla yelps as she is thrown away, a deep gouge by a claw driven through her shoulder. Aren runs over to her and kneels next to the wolf-dog. Part of her chest is also torn open and he can see one of her ribs sticking through her skin. He covers his mouth and fights the bile rising in his throat. No matter how much death and nasty, infected wounds he saw they always made him feel sick. She whimpers in pain and does not even struggle to stand up.
Aren gently strokes her cheek and then her ears and head. “I don’t know if you can understand me Talla but… you’re going to be fine. Just you see, once Carmilla has slain this Mech we will take you away and let you rest.” Tears sprung to his eyes… he was a horrible liar. He rips part of his sleeve away and wraps it around her chest to staunch the bleeding.
Talla’s eyes found his, she lifts her head up and Aren leans close. The wolf-dog licks his cheek and whines. “I don’t want you to leave either.” When he looks at her eyes again he knows he understood her. “I will stay by your side. You will not be alone. Mila will win, I promise and after that I will be the one to protect her.”
The wolf-dog’s eyes glittered whenever he mentioned Carmilla. Talla really loved her. And this time she was too steeped in the fight to say good-bye. The wolf-dog gave her tail a feeble wag as if in good-bye to him. Aren pressed his forehead against her cheek and then let her go. The wolf-dog’s eyes closed and on her maw he sees a grin.
He hears Carmilla shriek and he is once again brought back to the battle. She clutches her shoulder as blood drips through her fingers. Yet her sword is buried in the Mech’s chest. Sparks shoot from its wound as it convulses and jerks about. She falls to her knees and roles into a little ball. Aren is quick to his feet. He grabs her and pulls her up into his arms and runs out of its crazed path.
Yet the creature is not quite finished. It lumbers clumsily yet swiftly towards them, its maw snaps open and shut, open and shut. He runs with all the strength he can summon from his legs. He can feel the hot, metal-tanged breath open his neck now. He clenches his eyes and hopes his end will not tarry too long.
The Mech collapses into a pile of rubble. Carmilla’s gilded sword sticks from it in a triumphant display. Yet there is no celebration at this victory.
“Talla… Talla, where have you gone? Talla, come back to me. Please, Talla, Talla.” She whimpers. Aren sits down draws her close to him as she cries weakly.
“She was happy. She knew you would win.”
“She still cannot leave me. I need her. Talla, Talla, please.”
He doesn’t say anything and just lets her cry. He is too tired and weary to cry not and all of his tears have been spent during the battle.
“You won, Mila.”
“I have lost everything.”
Despite himself he felt hurt when she said this. “Am I nothing then?”
She is broken from her hysteria. She looks at him then hangs her head. “Forgive me, I am a fool in my grief.”
“Nothing needs your forgiveness.”
She buries her head on his shoulder. Silent tears wet his coat and she presses close to him. “She should have stayed away. When the Dragon comes forth death follows for all in its wake when you’re near it. She could not help her instinct to protect me.”
“She stopped me from running to you.”
“As she should have. She was a wise and strong companion to the end. She was like my sister to me.”
“The Dragon will take care of her now.”
“It is said that dragons escort the newly dead to the Land over the Horizon. Afterward though…”
“They are at peace.” He kisses her forehead, his lips lingering there before drawing away. He splashes water from one of the crater pools onto her shoulder wound until the dirt is flushed out and then tear some more of his sleeve off. He wraps it around her shoulder.
“Sleep, Mila. Talla will be waiting for you in your dreams.”
The dizziness from her blood loss finally overcame her and she slept.
She slept for two days. Over those two days she grew hot with fever. Aren was always awake to wet the cloth upon her forehead with cool water again and to make her drink. He rubbed honey upon her lips to sustain her and watched over her with blood-shot, shaky eyes. His nerves were fraught with tension and he could not stay still yet he always needed to stay as near to her as possible.
When the fever broke at last he wave of intense relief flowed over him and his entire body seemed to deflate as he let the anxious energy be released.
When her eyes opened he was still looking down at her. Her cracked lips broke into a smile at the sight of his face leaning over her. She feebly reached from his hand and took it in hers. She said not a word, they merely just stared at each other.
“I saw Talla.” Her voice cracked with disuse.
“I knew you would.” He didn’t mention her fever or the awful fear he had suffered while she was asleep. All that was over now and he was so overcome with relief that it didn’t matter anymore.
“You stayed.” Her fingers wrapped around his.
“Of course I did.”
“I knew how you stayed while I slept. Talla told me. She told me how you stayed by her side while I could not. Thank you.”
“I had grown fond of her. She was… she was so…”
“Precious. She was the one who led me through the confusion the year before I met you. You…”
“What did I do?” He brushed the hair gently from her forehead.
“I must smell awful.” She laughed weakly.
“Your smell is nice to me.” He smiled and looked at her dreamily.
“I must wash soon, I feel disgusting.”
“Please…. Please don’t leave just yet. I… I was so afraid.” His voice quaked.
“Oh… I will wait a little while longer then.”
She closed her eyes and rest with her head in his lap. The stroking rhythm of his hand lulled her to sleep once more.