by M.D Schultz
From the belly of the dark world, he is born again to continue the endless war.
|“I’ve heard it said that war is the embodiment of hell. This can’t possibly be true. There is indeed a war that rages in its fiery depths but, it cannot be compared to any other for the soldiers who fight there aren’t released with death but born from it.” -Priscilla
The struggle began in darkness. An unforgiving black that held neither light nor sound. A world devoid of the necessities for life. This place was a battleground where the unborn fought for the right to exist. It was here that he woke driven by little more than instinct. An instinct that told him to fight and grow strong for he was not alone in the darkness. There were many others unable to see and pressed so close to each other that war was inevitable. They reached out clawing at each other's faces and rending the spirit of their would be flesh. It was there that he first tasted greatness tearing into his brothers and sisters with reckless abandon. Their corpses piled around him vanishing into the dark only to be replaced by many more. Indeed, he was great but what was greatness to a being without conscious thought? The will to survive was the only force driving him on. So it was that the weak were consumed in favor of the strong and when the weak were gone, the strong killed each other.
He was one of the last to stand a near perfect machine of limitless death. As he grew stronger so to did his mind. Like a drop of clarity in an ocean of madness, a powerful force pushed back against the instinct that controlled him. Something that all those of unconscious thought want even at their own peril. The nameless crave a name.
From the belly of the great devourer came a name of ancient prowess returned from the endless cycle. Even before knowing it, they fought for the right to carry that name and so thousands died until only three remained. Even to the very end, the others trembled before him and he slew the last two as easily as the hundreds before reveling in his victory. He was the strongest and so the name claimed his body for its own pushing his broken mind away. Icarus the Rat King had returned.
From the darkness Icarus was born again clawing his way from the soft flesh that held his body. He tore himself free sliding from the unnatural cocoon and coughing up a black liquid yolk that coated his body. All around him were the unopened caskets of those who failed to appease his desire for strength. They would never wake from the black world their spirits slain in the war for his name.
Icarus lifted his head black fur bristling beneath the scales that unevenly coated his body. He tasted the air with a forked tongue and tested the strength of his arms thick with muscle, sinew, and bone. They were indeed strong but his fingers, hundreds in number, were small and delicate. This was as it was supposed to be for Icarus was an engineer the greatest among the nameless horde. The horde who would obey him, who would be shaped by him, and who would go to war for him. Yet, now was not the time for war and, although he had walked this world thousands of times before, his body was young and trembled from the effort of birth. He needed to find shelter and needed to do so fast.
In the air, he tasted the scent of a rival drawn to his own. Icarus knew this smell well, it belonged to Persephone an engineer who sought to end his life while he was weak. It was a sound tactic and one that he himself was not above using. After all, he had killed her the same way many years before. However, the tables were turned this time and she had amassed an army of thousands enslaved to her will. That was the power of engineers. The ability to control the nameless swarms born of their father's madness.
Without hesitation, he answered her challenge sucking in the air around him until his chest heaved and bellowing a cry that shook the earth beneath him. The sound traveled for miles around echoing off both the living and nonliving alike. His ears, like great open caverns on either side of his head, trapped the sound that came back to him and was far better tools than his useless milky white eyes. Within seconds he had constructed a map ten miles across and knew the location of Persephone and her horde. She had split her army in a pincer movement that sought to close off his escape. Icarus would not allow this.
Even fatigued his body moved with agility and strength that betrayed his size. With inhuman leaps, he crossed ravines and moved up the sides of mountains. Icarus broke ahead of Persephone’s horde as the nameless converged on either side sealing off the place of his birth. He was angry to have left behind the flesh of the unborn which he could have used to build a hive. Persephone would no doubt take advantage of the corpses to bolster her defenses. Yet, if Icarus had stayed, his time here would have been cut short. After having waited a decade in the dark world, he was not going to go back without a fight especially not after acquiring such a strong body.
Though the enemy engineer was preoccupied, she sent her forces ahead tracking his scent. They were persistent, following his every step. Fortunately for Icarus, they were also loud and so he could keep tabs on their locations. Sight was almost never used in the overworld as the light there was only marginally better than pitch black with the only source coming from a hulking metal structure floating high above. Outside of the citadel, there were no lights on the horizon and no sun to rise in the east. The overworld existed in the belly of the great devourer and their twisted father provided warmth in the absence of light. Despite its shortcomings, this world was far better than the darkness they came from. Even in the thick of battle, a war was preferable to nothing.
As Icarus fled, he came across a pool of boiling black tar and dove in rolling around as if it were mud. The steaming liquid burned his exposed flesh but the damage was minimal and the fluid masked his scent. Persephone’s horde was known for its sense of smell and, without that, they were lost. In the end, he evaded them with ease and put distance between himself and the pursuing hive. After an hour, his strength finally gave away and he had to take shelter in a natural cave in the side of a massive ravine.
He stayed there for what might have been days as his body fully recovered. Over time, Icarus carefully scraped the hardened tar from his body with an effort not to lose any of the scales that covered him. They were all that was left of his life before and now the black fur threatened to tear through them like the freeze-thaw of water on rock. No matter how many bodies he took those scales, and the bloody stumps that were once wings, always manifested themselves. That part of Icarus would never be whole again.
Long ago, he and his brother Xerxes fought for the throne of the metal citadel. They were the strongest, the greatest of all engineers and no other challenge would satisfy. For decades they fought until it was Icarus who fell from the sky. Xerxes tore the wings from his back so that he would never be a threat to the citadel again and a king only to rats. How many years had he stared up at the metal hive in the sky? How many years had his vengeance gone unsatisfied? Perhaps, in this life, he would be the one to rip his brother from his perch and end his century-long rule over their father's domain. Yet, first, he had to deal with Persephone.
The rains came two days after he took shelter. A torrential downpour of red fluid that was the lifeblood of all engineers. Names were not the only gifts provided by the great devourer. From that crimson rain were shaped the larval worms of the nameless horde. Icarus put his fingers to good use carving out a system of caverns so that the liquid could pool inside. He coated the rocky walls with the substance that quickly turned to flesh. In a matter of minutes, Icarus had created a hive of pulsing tissue right under the nose of his enemy. Within the branching halls of his lair, he constructed tombs to hold the red fluid and seeded it with his own blood to prevent it from coagulating too quickly. He needed time to shape his handmaidens. When the rains finally stopped, the entire ravine had been constructed into a hive that beat to the rhythm of his heart.
Deep inside that home of flesh and bone, his true work began. All engineers were uniquely suited to design and give birth to the nameless. With each of his hands, he shaped the next generation from the red liquid that acted as clay to his touch. A hundred fingers molded, pressed, pushed, and pulled creating organs and the muscles and bone to shelter them. Icarus worked from the blueprints in his mind. Over thousands of years, he had acquired many designs and often shaped as the situation called for it. He was not known for overwhelming his foes with numbers but instead relied on a few powerful pawns. The juggernauts and colossi were his greatest designs and so he created hulking monstrosities with a few modifications. In addition to their size and strength, Icarus reversed their stomachs and removed the intestines. They would not live long after birth but, while they walked the overworld, they would vomit acid and take thousands with them. This was unorthodox to his regular designs in which he preferred endurance and survival. Drastic times called for drastic measures.
When Icarus completed his work, he wrapped the unborn in cocoons of flesh and embedded them in hollow chambers. The walls of his hive perspired creating an atmosphere of humidity and warmth perfect for his maturing larvae. He could hear them take their first breath as the crimson coloration of their flesh darkened and black fur sprouted from their backs. All nameless bore the unique signature of the engineer who made them. It was just one of many ways that they stood apart from one another.
Icarus was efficient and used every last drop of crimson rain to support his hive or cultivate the young. The nameless colossi developed quickly and soon the halls were filled with the sounds of gnashing teeth as the cocoons were torn apart. One by one they were bound to his demands their minds simply too weak to resist the dominating will of an engineer especially one as old as Icarus. Yet, even so, the larger creatures were much harder for him to control and his mind ached from the effort. He still needed time to grow into his power. That would have to wait.
Icarus tested the limits of his control driving his horde forward and commanding individuals to carry out unique tasks. It was simple to order an entire hive to do one thing but quite another to micromanage over a hundred into performing separate duties. He had to fracture his mind into individual pieces and still maintain his tactical prowess. To this end, Icarus kept his forces smaller in number yet frightening in strength. If used to their full potential, his colossi would be enough to defeat Persephone.
With the resources of his home used to the last drop, there was no point in staying any longer. Icarus and his horde abandoned the hive, its walls decaying to ash. In no time at all, there would be no evidence of his presence and that suited him just fine because Icarus was a nomad. He was always on the move and known for his aggressive approach. Icarus would not wait for Persephone and chose to attack her first. The winds favored him when his enemy was on the defensive. Yet, first, he had to find her.
The sidewinder was a design he took from a rival long ago. Originally, they were small and traveled through the world unnoticed by all. They were scouts, designed to be the eyes and ears of an engineer. Alone, they posed little threat to an army but, under the control of a competent commander, sidewinders could be the difference between victory and defeat. Icarus admired the design. A sleek serpent that could move at speeds few could match. However, he saw room for improvement. In his hands, he sacrificed some of their agility for size and strength. He created monstrous serpents to serve as his scouts. Though size would seem counterintuitive, his sidewinders still traveled through the world unseen by burrowing underground. They surveyed the realm through seismic activity and were no slouches in combat. After all, they could easily dwarf even the largest of his colossi. While scouting, they moved through the ground pushing the soil away in a straight line. Yet, in combat, they could move with their bodies at an angle cutting out large swaths of dirt and rock causing the ground above to collapse. They were the bane of any who chose to create hives beneath the earth.
Icarus ordered his sidewinders to scout out the realm as his slower army advanced back to the place of his birth. Persephone had picked up on his location so quickly that he was sure that her hive was nearby. Icarus was not wrong. It wasn’t long before his scouts had found scars beneath the ground indicating the presence of a lair. He ordered the sidewinders back and to stay put until he was ready to move.
The positioning of an army was just as important as knowing your surroundings. He recalled a time when he was young and used to care very little about his hordes movement. Just like Persephone, he used to overwhelm his foes with numbers and such tactics often cost him thousands of troops. That line of thinking eventually lead to his death at the hands of another. That death was almost a gift. Like all engineers, he learned just as much from failure as he did from success. When he was born again, he grew in his tactical experience and became a formidable foe. Icarus was now in a position to give that gift to another.
Persephone had built her hive in the center of a bowl-shaped valley. A single spire shot above the ground but was only a fragment of the labyrinth that existed below. She had been here for many of the crimson storms and had built her defenses well. Yet, that was just one of her many mistakes. Any experienced engineer knew never to keep all of their resources in one spot. If Persephone’s hive were to fall, the engineer who succeeded would gain an upper hand in scavenging materials alone. Frankly, it surprised Icarus that one of the elder ones, like his brother Xerxes, hadn’t taken notice of her horde. Perhaps that is why she chose to bury her hive deep. On the surface, it appeared nothing more than a single spire hardly worth the time of an old one. If that were true, their blindness would be his gain.
When the time was right, he ordered his sidewinders to carve a path through the unsuspecting hive. Though they couldn’t be seen, Icarus could hear the massive worms shift at an angle and cut through the chambers of Persephone’s lair like a sword through paper. In a matter of seconds, the entire valley collapsed in on itself the very top of the spire sinking beneath the disturbed rocks. For an instant, you could see the creatures responsible. Two towering serpents with scales peeling away from the black fur that erupted beneath. Icarus had designed them to be powerhouses of muscle and sharp bone and they did their jobs well.
The valley filled with the screams of those imprisoned in their collapsed home. With barely lifting a finger, Icarus had cut off nearly half of Persephone’s army and was in a position to wipe out any of the stragglers that fled from the carnage. Like a disturbed anthill, the valley came alive with movement from the nameless that survived the earthquake. Just as planned, the remaining forces were in total chaos. Having caught the young engineer unaware, her confusion broke the tenuous link she shared with an army so large. Without the guidance of Persephone, her forces acted independently for their own survival and even resorted to eating each other. Before they could regain composure, Icarus ordered his newest creations into the fray.
From the top of the valley came behemoths with mouths as large as their bodies and teeth near dissolved from the acid that leaked from their bellies. These creatures were designed free of pain to carry out a single purpose. As they reached the confused forces below, they emptied their stomachs launching a putrid yellow liquid that burned through anything it touched. Even with eight legs, the skittering nameless of Persephone’s horde couldn’t escape the raining death that poured from above. So effective was the acid, that even the bile beasts themselves fell prey to the liquid that melted through the softer tissue in their mouths and esophagus. Icarus took note of this and would design the next batch to have a stronger tissue lining above the stomach.
In the end, Persephone’s army fell with ease despite outnumbering Icarus ten to one. He found her body still quivering in pain upon the uprooted rocks that had once been the walls of her hive. Icarus had ordered his nameless to leave her for him. She deserved to die at the hands of an engineer. It was the only shred of civility that they possessed. She cursed him with her gaze having fallen for the second time against him. Only two of her eight legs still remained with the others little more than liquified nubs. The delicate fingers that she had once used to build her forces were all gone. Her body was useless now and death was a mercy. She was simply too inexperienced. Even with her large army, there was very little variety in the nameless she used. The pool of designs that she had was quite small. Persephone would learn from this death and, perhaps, would make use of the designs he had taught her.
Removing the head was the only clean way to kill an engineer. All of them possessed many hearts, lungs, and other vital organs despite only needing one. The redundancy was a powerful defense for even losing one was hardly crippling to them. Even so, they only had one mind and it was the seat of their name. When Icarus tore her head from her body the name Persephone was set free to wait in the dark world.
After the fall of their engineer, the remaining forces were dominated by Icarus to be melted down and remade as his tools. Those he couldn’t control were set free upon the overworld as rabid dogs. Such unorganized rabble posed no threat to him or any other engineer and they would roam the world killing each other in an attempt to satisfy their hunger. That hunger existed in every one of the great devourer's children. Even Icarus was plagued by a desire to feed on all life. A desire that threatened to undermine his free will. Eventually, that hunger would claim him and he would join his father in madness. It was the only true death that an engineer faced. Until that day, he would satisfy his urges with combat for only in the face of true opposition could an engineer forget his ravenous appetite.
By the next day, his forces had all but cleared the shattered halls of that broken hive. Within the collapsed tomb, they discovered vats of the crimson fluid that was still fresh and ready for use. Icarus stored it all within the cavernous bodies of his sidewinders. Within those mobile fortresses were the cries of his defeated foes who were being reworked into suitable allies. They would become the caretakers of the next generation. After all, Icarus had a new idea and was ready to take his sidewinder design to a new level. His next hive would not be stationary but one that could move through the ground and surface as needed. A hive that would suit his nomadic tendencies.
As his forces moved on, Icarus looked to the metal fortress high above which brought pain to the vestigial bloody limbs on his back. This time he would defeat his brother Xerxes and prove to him once and for all that even the wingless can fly.