Category Archives: Weekly Free Story

Weekly Free Short Story: Reflections of Eternity

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Reflections of Eternity

Rehman leaned against the statue of the great heroine Xella, wineskin in hand. He took a deep swig, the wine cheap and sour, but he was drunk enough not to care. The world was ending. Heljina’s song had quieted. The ground shook as Zarketh stirred, so the quality of his wine hardly mattered at all. A silent breeze—even drunk, it was strange not to hear the Goddess’s beautiful harmony upon the wind—ruffled his sky-blue acolyte robes.

He took another long drink.

Despite the fact that the world was about to end, it was like a festival on the temple grounds. All the temples were bedecked in their finery, from Heljina’s own, painted blue like the sky, to the temples dedicated to her daughter and son, Golden Felikia and Silver Bedko, and all the lesser shrines in between. All of the activity was centered round the Kurokin Stone. Every would-be hero and braggart for miles around had come to draw Bedko’s Blade from the sky-blue rock—to throw his or her life away to save the world. Rehman and his fellow acolytes had watched, and mocked, oaf after muscle-bound oaf heave and strain and groan until, cursing, they’d stumbled away, faces dripping with sweat.

After the third wineskin, Rehman and his fellow acolytes found the absurdity hilarious. He wasn’t too concerned about the world ending. Five hundred years ago, Heljina’s Song to her slumbering husband had also stilled. The brave Xella, whose statue he so unceremoniously leaned against, had drawn the first sword from the Kurokin, entered the Tomb, and never returned. The world hadn’t ended, so she must have accomplished something.

And if one of these moon-drunk idiots pulled the sword, Rehman was confident they’d do the same.

“Look at that one,” Dorrim laughed, taking the wineskin and pointing at the Kurokin stone.

At the stone. a burly man, perhaps a blacksmith’s apprentice, grunted like a rutting bull as he struggled to pull the silvered blade from the heart of the blue stone. The man’s face grew a bright red, his forearm muscles bulging, but the sword refused to yield.

“Doesn’t he know only the promised one can pull the sword?” weaselly-faced Vellin chortled.

“His muscles have squeezed out all his brains,” Rehman joked.

The apprentice blacksmith heaved and strained with all his might to rip the sword out. So great was his effort, that when his hands slipped from the silver grip of the sword, he fell back, landing like a sack of his turnips on his backside. Perhaps if Rehman had been just a little more sober, he would not have laughed so hard, but he was now on his fifth wineskin and his head swam with drink.

A shadow fell across Rehman as he grasped his knees, his sides aching with laughter. Dorrim gave him a sharp nudge in the ribs. He looked up; the apprentice towered over him.

“Worthy try!” Rehman exclaimed, failing to notice the angry shame flushing the apprentice’s face. “If only big arms and small wits were enough, then the sword would have been pulled already.”

The apprentice grinned dangerously at Rehman and seized his wrist with an iron grip. “Let’s see how you fare, little acolyte.”

“What?” Rehman protested as the apprentice dragged him forward, the man’s hands as tight as a jailer’s fetters. “Hey, wait!”

“Let’s see if a flabby body and a sharp tongue work any better!”

The hulking youth flung Rehman forward. He fell, hands braced before him, against the hard surface of the Kurokin. The blue boulder, the size of a large carriage, was warm beneath his touch. It pulsed with a slow, steady rhythm.

Beat, beat.

Pause.

Beat, beat.

Pause.

The Goddess’s hand had plunged most of the blade into the stone, leaving only the silver hilt and quillons—which swept downwards, forming a crescent guard—exposed.

“Draw,” the hulk ordered.

“Fine,” Rehman muttered. He grasped the sword and gave a half-hearted pull. “Well, guess I’m not the one.”

“You didn’t even try,” the apprentice glowered. He cracked his knuckles. “Give it a good pull.”

Rehman swallowed, eyeing scarred knuckles. Then he gripped the sword in determined hands and heaved with all his rather unimpressive might. He fell backwards, just like the blacksmith apprentice had. The ground smacked him in the back, driving the air from his lungs in a painful gasp. He lay stunned, barely aware of something gripped in his hand.

A hush fell across the crowd. Rehman stared in confusion at the apprentice’s paling face. Rehman sat up on his elbows, surveying the crowd through bleary vision. Men, women, and children gaped at him.

Why’s everyone looking at me? he wondered. He raised his right arm to rub at his sore back when he realized what he held.

By Heljina’s Song, I drew it. He held the silver blade in his hand, the edge rippling like gentle waves. Disbelief punched his gut. This can’t be happening. His thoughts whirled.

The world spun around him.

I can’t be the one chosen to defeat Zarketh. I’m just an acolyte.

Rehman gazed up at the statue of Xella, the maiden who’d drawn the golden sword five hundred years ago. The heroine was last seen walking into the Tomb to drive Zarketh back into his slumber. She stood proud, holding the golden sword, Felikia’s Blade, up high, her youthful face full of confident determination. She’d been a warrior, trained from birth in the arts of the sword.

I can’t even hold a broom right. How can I defeat the Lord of Earthquakes and save mankind?

“I am a dead man.”

Rehman fainted, the rippled blade still clutched in his hand.

* * *

Xella pushed through the men standing defeated around the Kurokin, her leather boots squishing upon the grass trampled into mud. The blue stone rested in an empty field near the rude village that the laborers dwelled in. There were grand plans to build a temple to the Sky Goddess near the holy Kurokin.

She didn’t care about any of that. As her father had always predicted, the world was ending, and someone needed to save it. None of the laborers or the men of her tribe had succeeded in drawing forth either of the swords. Now, they could no longer deny her the chance.

“Get back to your sheep, girl,” spat a leathery-faced man, three of his front teeth missing.

She ignored him. She was used to being shunned. They’d proclaimed her father a blasphemer, and his supposed sins against Heljina stained her, too. She reached the sky-blue stone, the warmth of the Kurokin taking the chill out of the autumn night. Two swords were thrust into the stone—one gold and one silver.

And twice shall come about the Song’s end,

With malice and hatred shall Zarketh awaken.

Two shall be chosen, separated by time.

Down in darkness will freedom be given,

Through death shall history transcend.

The words of the prophecy echoed in her head. Her father had believed the words and been ridiculed by these very men. “The song will never stop!” the tribe had declared. “Never.”

It had.

No longer did sweet melodies whisper on the wind. Instead, the ground rumbled beneath their feet. Zarketh stirred. Xella stopped before the large boulder, the Holy Tear shed by the Sky Goddess. Xella grasped the gold sword, Felikia’s Blade, and drew it forth with ease.

The mutters died.

The blade was long, both edges serrated with upturned teeth, as if the blade had been a single tongue of flame frozen in steel. The hilt was ornate, gold, a sunburst worked into the quillons. She surveyed at the crowd—the men who’d hounded her father to suicide and her mother to starvation.

They looked away.

“I’ll save you anyways,” she whispered, gall burning the back of her throat.

Her journey to the Tomb took the rest of the night; no one followed her—they were all full of shame and cowardice. Clear skies allowed Bedko to light the grassy hills with his silver countenance. The ground’s trembling grew more frequent as she crossed the grassland in her sheepskin trousers.

She lived on the plains, herding her sheep with her dog, Usti. She’d left him with the flock. Someone will claim Usti and my sheep if I don’t come back. They’ll be taken care of. Her feet strode across the plain with the confidence her heart lacked. She could walk these fields blindfolded. She knew the terrain intimately.

She knew to never travel in this direction.

A single, dead hill rose up at the center of a valley, a boil upon the earth. Nothing grew on the mound. The grassy plain ended at the base of the hill—the tomb of a slumbering god. When humans were created, Zarketh had grown jealous of the attention his wife, the Sky Goddess, had lavished upon them. He’d caused the ground to quake, toppling mountains to bury men and opening chasms to swallow them up. So Heljina had begun her Song, singing on the winds and keeping him asleep until two champions would arise, separated by centuries, to defeat him.

That part never made sense to Xella.

The hill’s earth was cold and clammy, staining her hands black whenever she slipped and had to catch herself. Behind her, Felikia brightened the horizon with the new day’s birth. The dark soil seemed to drink in the morning light, darkening instead of brightening. She reached the summit of the dead hill, a single spire of black stone thrust upward at its crown. An uneven opening had been cut into the spike, large enough for three men to walk abreast. A cold, stale air burst out of the hole in successive gusts.

Fear gripped her. She looked behind her, almost blinded by the rising sun. A figure stood at the edge of the hill, almost lost in the bright sunlight. Her heart beat faster. She raised her hands to shield her eyes and see who’d followed her.

No one. Just a trick of the light. She was always alone.

“I’ll save you anyways,” she whispered bitterly. “It’s what Father would have wanted.”

Xella faced death’s entrance and swallowed her fear. She surrendered to the chains of obligations pulling her into the darkness.

* * *

Rehman was breathing hard when he reached the summit of the dead hill, all his friends and family waiting for him. Everyone wanted to accompany him. He was the hero. He’d drawn the Sword of the Moon, Bedko’s Blade. Every girl he knew had kissed him for luck and every man had shaken his hand.

He desperately wished that anyone else had drawn the blade.

“I’ll just mess it up,” he’d complained to his mother.

“Nonsense,” she’d airily replied. “I always knew you’d accomplish greatness.”

His father had squeezed his shoulder. “I’m proud of you. You will not be forgotten.”

Everyone thinks I’m going to die. And why not? The great warrior Xella failed to return. What chance do I have?

“None,” he muttered as everyone watched him walk towards the uneven hole carved into the upthrust spire—the Tomb of the Sleeping God.

He wanted to run, wanted to throw the silvery sword away. He couldn’t. He had to save the world. Everyone’s expectations were chains about him, dragging him to the Tomb. His fear rooted him to the earth, trying to fight the pull towards the dark hole. The sun set behind the spire. Dying. Dead. Darkness fell.

Did Xella feel this same fear? Did she know she was going to walk into this hole and never return?

He pictured her standing at the entrance. A tall, slim girl, the Sword of the Sun held in her hand. He could almost see her peering into the dark portal, her black hair tied back with ragged strip of wool, form dressed in rugged leathers. She turned back, taking one last look at the world she was about to leave. He almost laughed; his imagination of her was plainer than her statue, not as graceful or beautiful, and certainly not as curvy. Just an average girl.

“What are you waiting for?” whispered Dorrim.

The image of Xella vanished. Swallowing, the sword gripped in his hand, Rehman took a single step towards the opening. Everyone stared at him, full of hope. He was supposed to save them. Rehman wanted to laugh. I can’t even sweep the temple right.

The chains pulled; another step.

I’m going to die.

A third step. All those eyes staring at him, ratcheting the chain tighter and pulling him towards the darkness. I have to die so everyone can live. My parents, my little sister, Dorrim and Vellin, my cousins, and aunts and uncles. The entirety of mankind depends on me.

“Skies above,” he whispered. “We’re all doomed.”

The portal loomed larger as if it had yawned open to swallow him. Cold air wafted out of the dark opening in short gusts that rustled his coat. It came in regular intervals, like something was . . . breathing. Rehman swallowed. The exhalations of a god washed over him. He trembled, his stomach twisting into knots like ropes of sausages.

He closed his eyes and stepped into darkness.

Everything went silent—the cheers of his friends and family, the beating of his heart. Deathly silent. He opened his eyes; the sword glowed silver, illuminating a tunnel that spiraled down into shadows. The rocks were dark, damp, and Zarketh’s breath washed over him.

Rehman looked back. There was a solid wall of sheer, inky darkness.

“Skies above,” he whispered.

No choice. He went down.

The tunnel seemed to spiral downward for eternity. Nothing changed. Always the same, uneven ground; jagged walls dripped with filth; spikes, like sharp teeth, hung down from the ceiling. He walked down a never-ending gullet, swallowed by Zarketh. When he grew thirsty, he drank from his waterskin. He had six of the heavy bladders in his pack, along with several days’ worth of tough, dried, and very salty jerky. When he tired, he slept, and felt even more exhausted and sore when he woke up.

His pack grew lighter. He discarded waterskin after waterskin, his food devoured. He kept walking. Am I dead? A corpse shuffling downward forever? The aches of his body faded, his throat grew less parched, and his stomach ceased to rumble.

“I’ve descended beyond life,” he’d mutter. “Isn’t that right, sword?”

The sword didn’t answer. It never did. It just shined its pale, silver light. When he rested, Rehman would stare at his reflection in the wavy blade. His eyes were sunken, his fat face had grown hollow, and his lips had become cracked lines.

“Withering away, hey, sword?” He laughed, shrill and cackling. “You never talk back. What a dull companion you are.” He stood up, bracing himself on the moist wall. “Well, I should probably keep walking. It’s what you do when you’re damned. You walk and walk and—”

He froze. The tunnel opened up. He’d finally reached the bottom. Something lay grimy white on the ground.

A skull.

“What do we have here?” he asked Bedko’s blade, cocking his head in curiosity. Before the journey down, this skull would have bothered him. Now it was something different from slimy rocks. It was novel.

He reached down and picked it up with his free hand. Clumps of muddy detritus slid off as he shook it. The skull was about the size of a large dog’s, but the mouth . . .”

“Skies above!”

He dropped it.

The jaws were fused together and its snout was elongated, sweeping out into a crescent blade—an axehead.

* * *

Xella blinked; something different lay ahead.

For days, she’d descended the tunnel, her body slowly growing leaner, more gaunt. She hardly recognized the pale face reflected in the flame-like blade of the Sword of the Sun. Her black hair was a tangled, grimy mess from the moist dirt caking the walls, and her cheeks were sunken hollows.

And the loneliness . . . She thought she knew isolation. She didn’t even have her flock or Usti for company. And though she’d been shunned by her tribe, they were something. But this endless walk down into the grave taught her the true meaning of solitude: hopelessness.

But finally, there was something new and different. The tunnel leveled and opened wide. She moved faster, laughing aloud. She rushed out into the wide room, throwing her arms out and spinning about. She could barely see the spike-filled ceiling above or the walls out to either side.

It felt like freedom.

Something scraped in the darkness. She froze.

“Is someone there?” she shouted.

“. . . s . . . omone . . . the . . .” Her voice echoed back, hollow and faint.

“Please, don’t be afraid!” Xella cried out.

The scraping grew louder. She whirled, looking for the source. Something moved in the shadows. A beast. Maybe the size of a sheepdog. Usti followed me! she thought with desperate longing. But that didn’t seem right. Hope ignored doubt.

“Here, boy!” she called.

“. . . ere . . . oy . . .”

“Come he—” Her words strangled in her throat. It wasn’t a dog. It was hairless, black skin stretched tight over bones. And its head . . . “Demon!”

It lunged, slashing at her with its axehead mouth. Xella swung her sword, shadows dancing as the glowing weapon arced through the air. Her blade cut the demon’s body. The corpse landed with a rattle, like it was nothing more than a sack of old bones. The head bounced across the floor, before coming to a rest at the tunnel’s entrance.

“Felikia’s fire!” she cursed.

A low, scraping sound came from behind her. Then a second. And a third.

And a fourth.

* * *

Bones lay scattered all over the cave, grimy white with scraps of black, moldy leather clinging like filth. Rehman kicked another axehead skull over with disgust. A clean cut had sheared through the back of the skull.

“Xella did this,” Rehman told his sword.

He could almost see her, dancing around the cave, her golden blade flashing. The axehead demons must have attacked her from all sides. She was gaunt like him, her long, black hair a tangled, filthy mess swirling behind her. She moved with the grace of a maiden dancing in Felikia’s honor, stepping light, her dirty face so alive. Rehman stood in the cave’s center, entranced by his imagination, turning to follow her as she sprinted, attacked, dodged, and tumbled.

Xella swung and sliced through his imagination of the demons—their bodies the size of a large hound, with bony limbs tipped with sharp, curved claws. Half of a corpse landed at Rehman’s feet, right where a pile of bones lay. His imagination was so real, so vivid. His heart beat faster. For the first time in what felt like an eternity, he felt alive. He cheered when her sword felled another demon, and winced when she narrowly avoided a sweeping slice from an axehead.

“Get him!” he shouted, his voice echoing in the cavern. “Yeah! Kill them, Xella!”

Sweat beaded his forehead. He held his sword up high, waving her on. Three axeheads cornered her. She faced them, her face flushed, red, alive. They leaped. Her golden blade swung, slamming through the first demon’s shoulder. She pivoted, the demon falling into a pile of moldy bones, and dodged the next monster’s leap.

“You can do it!” Rehman cheered.

She cut the second one down, then dashed across the cave. She passed through Rehman in a flash of warmth. The last demon followed. She spun around and slammed her sword down at the flying beast. Axehead met sword edge. He could almost hear the ring of steel on bone as her sword sheared through the beast. It fell in pieces around her.

“She did it, sword!” Drunk exhilaration filled him. It didn’t seem to matter to Rehman that this all was in his head. His hallucination was so real, he thought he could reach out and touch her.

Xella relaxed, bending over and grasping her knees as she struggled to catch her breath. She didn’t see the last axehead stalking behind her.

“Behind you!” he shouted. She didn’t hear him. She wasn’t real, just his imagination running wild after days, maybe weeks, of mindless boredom.

The demon stalked closer and closer; it crouched. Its crescent snout gleamed in the golden light from her sword. He didn’t think. Fear guided him, and he swung his silver blade at the beast.

The thing leaped, axehead streaking towards Xella’s unprotected back.

Bedko’s Blade bit into leathery flesh, the shock jarring his arm. His stroke passed through the demon, driving its body towards the ground in ragged pieces; they bounced and rolled to a stop at two piles of bones.

He stared at the bones in disbelief. “I reached into the past . . .” he whispered. “How?”

Xella turned and gaped at the severed body.

This can’t be happening. I can’t actually have killed the beast. Those bones have been there for five hundred years.

Xella’s dark eyes widened as she saw him. She spoke, but no sound reached his ears. She reached out; longing painted on her face. Her fingers were slim, feminine, filled with a desperate need for contact. Unconsciously, his own hand rose up, their fingers merged, the past reflecting before him as impossible to touch as his image in a pool of water.

She wavered and vanished.

* * *

The grimy man stared at her, reaching out to touch her outstretched fingers. His face was sunken, his skin hung loose, and his filthy clothes hung off his emaciated frame. His hair was short, dark, as tangled as a bird’s nest. He may have been handsome, but it was hard to tell beneath the streaks of dirt.

“I’m not alone,” she whispered. “You drew the second sword!”

Their reflections came together and. . . She passed through him. He vanished.

“No!”

She collapsed over the corpse the apparition had slain. Isolation crushed her, as oppressive as the weight of all the stone above her, imprisoning her in darkness. Ragged sobs shook her body.

“Please, no! I can’t be alone again!”

After a while, the tears stopped. Hope had died within her. There was nothing left for her to do but walk.

* * *

I affected the past.

Over and over, that thought wormed through is mind.

I affected the past.

Rehman stumbled on. After the axehead chamber, the tunnel narrowed again. It descended, but not as steeply, curving like the undulations of a serpent. I affected the past. I saved Xella. He drew strength from that thought. It breathed life back into him.

He almost felt like whistling. “I saved Xella, sword.”

The sword remained unimpressed.

Rehman shook his head. “Come on, sword. I saved her.”

“It was my edge that slew the demon,” Rehman answered, using a deeper voice to pretend the sword was speaking.

“I swung you,” he retorted back in his normal voice.

“Technicality.”

“A technicality I’m more than willing to cling to because . . .” Rehman paused, throwing his arms wide. “I saved Xella!”

The tunnel widened abruptly ahead into a vast sea of darkness. It appeared the tunnel ended in nothingness. Rehman approached cautiously, his left hand trailing against the wall and his right clutching Bedko’s silver-glowing blade.

It wasn’t the end of the tunnel, merely a cliff. Some great chasm, wider than his light could reach across, had split the tunnel in twain. When he looked down, he saw nothing but the rock’s face disappearing into darkness.

“How am I supposed to climb this?” he asked the sword.

He studied the cliff face, noting it consisted of the same dark rock as the tunnel, full of crevasses and cracks for purchase, but covered in damp filth. And its depth . . . The bottom could just be out of sight of his light, or could be miles below. Fear beat in his breast.

“I can’t do this,” he complained.

“What choice do you have?” he pretended the sword asked back.

Light blossomed below, golden as the sun. Xella appeared, climbing down this cliff. She was far below, little more than a dark form with a brilliant sword strapped to her back. Hope burned inside Rehman. She had the courage to do it, so why not him?

“What choice do I have?”

* * *

Xella slumped against the cliff’s base, exhausted. Depressed.

Forever cursed to be alone.

If she still had tears left in her, she would have flooded the Tomb and drowned the sleeping god. But she was dry; a desert of despair filled her. She clutched Felikia’s Blade in her hand, staring at its shining surface.

Maybe I’ll just stay here and die . . . Let all those who called Father a blasphemer be damned! They can save their own cursed hides!

Silver light bathed her, mixing with her sword’s golden aura. It was soft, rippling like light dancing on the surface of a pond. She looked up. The stranger was just above her head, climbing awkwardly down. He had Bedko’s Blade secured in a makeshift harness. Hope grew inside her. She fought it down, reminding herself that it was just an apparition.

An apparition that saved my life.

He wavered, rippling, and his light was gone.

“See,” she whispered. “There’s no hope. I’m all alone . . .”

The silver light burst into existence beside her. The man sat slumped against the cliff wall. He turned and smiled at her, nodding his head. Exhaustion melted from his face as his lips moved, but she heard no sound.

“Hello,” she said back, returning his smile.

She felt suddenly shy, like it was a festival and she was meeting a new boy from a distant tribe. Her heart drummed in her chest while warmth flushed through her. Xella reached out, knowing he wasn’t real, but needing to see, to feel, for herself. She brushed his shoulder; her finger passed through his reflection, tingling with life.

Who was he? Where did he come from? Was he dead? But he has Bedko’s Blade, and I left that sword thrust into the Kurokin. Did he come after me? His clothes were strange, not sheepskin leathers, but fashioned from some other material made with a fine weave. There were curious, round fasteners made of bone holding his clothes together instead of rawhide lacings.

Am I seeing tomorrow? Was this soft man the second champion spoken of in the prophecy? The one who would follow after me? But who he was didn’t matter. Only what he meant: she wasn’t alone. Her eyes closed; she was so tired. She leaned her head towards him. Her face tingled. She smiled, knowing his reflection touched hers.

Sleep came.

* * *

Rehman awoke alone.

He felt rested for the first time since venturing into the Tomb. He sat for a moment, the pulsing breath of the slumbering god washing over him. She’d seen him . . . And he’d seen her. He didn’t understand how the past was reflecting on the present, but it lifted his spirits. She was so strong and capable, and her strength rubbed off on him.

He stood up, stretched his sore back, and pressed on.

The terrain at the bottom of the cliff was a flat, wide-open forest—well, that’s the best way I can describe it—of rock spikes jutting up from the floor. Rehman wound his way through the spikes, using Zarketh’s breath to navigate. So long as the stale air blew against his face, he had to be drawing closer.

As he walked, Xella would flicker into being. Golden light would blossom, sometimes ahead, occasionally behind, but usually to his right or left. They didn’t walk quite the same path, choosing different routes to navigate the “forest.” She wouldn’t appear for long, often mere heartbeats. Long enough for them to meet the other’s gazes, nod their heads, and then she’d flicker away.

Every time she appeared, it filled Rehman with new vigor. Xella had survived this oppressive place and succeeded in defeating Zarketh. So could he.

The forest of spikes ended at another towering cliff face pierced by a huge, unevenly carved opening lined with spikes. For a moment, Xella appeared at the entrance, golden light painting the opening. He smiled at her; she beckoned him to follow.

* * *

Seeing Tomorrow, as Xella dubbed the apparition, flicker into existence as she threaded her way through the spikes kept her hopeful. He had a boyish grin plastered on his face every time he saw her, spurring her to keep walking.

The spikes ended at a sheer cliff that seemed identical to the one she’d climbed down, except a single, yawning opening pierced this wall. She studied the dark opening for minutes, maybe hours. Xella had come to savor the freedom of the spike valley where the ceiling was so high up it lay out of the reach of her light. She could almost pretend she was walking through a really dark night. That illusion was shattered, now; she trembled at the thought of reentering the oppressive closeness of another tunnel.

Silver light blossomed. Tomorrow was back. Strength rushed into her. She wasn’t alone. Xella motioned him to follow and stepped into the tunnel. His light died, but she knew he was following. Maybe not for tens or hundreds of years, but he walked the same, oppressive trail she did.

This tunnel spiraled in a tight, steep pattern. She feared another eternity-long descent like the first one. However, in what felt like only an hour, it flattened and widened into a large room. Relief flooded her. Open! The ceiling was well out of reach of her hands.

Just like the axehead room.

She tensed, scanning the room, straining to hear.

Silver light blossomed; Tomorrow manifested.

Fear twisted his face. His silver sword was swinging in a clumsy arc. A horrible, multi-legged thing leaped at him. Its body was black, bloated, and covered in thick, spiny hair. The demon almost resembled a spider, but no spider grew to the size of a large dog. And no spider’s legs ended in grasping hands with long, thin fingers.

Ichor spurted purple, splashing Tomorrow as his blade cut the thing in half. It fell to the ground, then wavered and vanished. His mouth was wide open. He screamed, terror filling his eyes. He swung his sword in a wide circle, batting a second spider away. More and more appeared around her, crawling on the walls and ceiling, scurrying on the floor. One passed right through her, leaving behind numbing cold.

“Watch out!” she shouted, forgetting he couldn’t hear her. He didn’t even notice her.

He fought, desperately slicing and thrusting his sword. Every time he killed one, its body vanished. She felt so helpless. She wanted to aid him. One leaped and landed on Tomorrow’s back, slamming him to the ground. The abominations swarmed him. Clutching hands seized him. One grabbed his throat, the fingers so long they wrapped around his entire neck, and squeezed.

“No!” she shouted. “You can’t take him! I can’t be alone!”

He saved me! The memory blazed in her mind; the axehead lying dead, slain by him. This has to work!

She swung her blade.

* * *

The spider’s clammy hand squeezed the life out of Rehman.

His vision grew fuzzy and black. He struggled to escape, but other spiders pinned him to the rough cave floor. Spindly hands grasped his arms, his legs, his torso, and his neck. Their grips were iron manacles, crushing him. I knew I’d fail. Why did the sword pick me?

Xella appeared, Felikia’s Blade burning with golden light and arcing swiftly down. It sliced through the demon. Cold ichor spilled across Rehman’s chest. The spider choking him fell dead. She swung again, severing three limbs on another. His sword arm came free. He stabbed and kicked and sliced. With Xella’s aid, he scrambled to his feet.

“I can do this!” he shouted, exhilaration flooding into him. Xella was with him. Together, they could defeat them.

More came skittering across the ceiling and dropped down at him. Rehman swung, parting a bloated body and raining more stinking, purple ichor on him. Xella danced past him, her glowing sword flashing from the past, killing demons in the present.

“Yeah!” he roared, brandishing Bedko’s Blade. “Which one of you spiders wants to get swatted next?”

Nothing moved. He blinked; they were all dead, hacked to pieces. Xella grinned at him, nodding her approval. Then she wavered and vanished. He exhaled, the excitement bleeding off of him. He struggled to wipe the ichor off his face. It tasted foul, bitter, and smelled far worse.

Through death shall history transcend.

The prophecy echoed in his head as he pressed on. “Is that’s what happening, sword? Is the past’s reflection merging with the present’s?”

The sword didn’t answer. It never did.

“You’re no help.”

Past the spider’s lair, the path narrowed, but went straight for a time, until it widened into another huge gallery. Only instead of leading to a cliff, the path skirted along a rock wall, with a huge drop on the right. The path was narrower than his feet were long.

“Well, Xella crossed this. So can I.”

He had to press his back against the rock’s face, sliding his feet sideways, his toes dangling over the lip. A bit of rock broke free, tumbling and echoing loudly as it bounced deeper, and deeper, and deeper until the sounds just faded away. He never heard that final, resounding crash of it hitting the bottom.

“Skies above!” he shivered, and looked up. “This is just like cleaning the temple’s roof, sword. Don’t look over the side and keep focusing on something else. It’s not so bad that way.”

Xella manifested, standing in thin air before him. He blinked as she stopped her leisurely stroll to look at him, a curious expression on her face. How can she float? He looked at her feet. A rocky surface surrounded them, fuzzing into haze after a few fingerswidth.

The ledge he perched on was jagged, crumbling. “The cliff’s edge has collapsed since you walked this path, Xella.”

She watched him, shaking her head, a playful smile on her face as he shuffled along.

“I’m so glad I can amuse you,” he muttered, fear squeezing his heart. “I guess this means you didn’t have to cross this way. Great.”

He shuffled. His foot slipped. His stomach lurched as his right hand tried to grip the wall and his left arm pinwheeled. He teetered over the edge, about to fall forever like the rock.

Xella caught him and shoved Rehman back. Warmth burst through him. She pressed him up against the wall, her body pulsing against his in a steady, rhythmic beat. A heart’s beat. He panted, staring into her dark eyes. Her lips were so close to his. A sudden desire gripped him. He leaned in to kiss her.

She vanished.

* * *

Tomorrow was with her more and more often. She could still feel the lingering warmth of his body when she’d pressed against him. She didn’t understand what had happened, but his foot had vanished through the floor, and it had looked like he was about to fall. She’d reacted and . . . touched him.

She wasn’t alone.

Time had lost any sort of meaning. Did they walk for hours between rests? Or was it days, or weeks, or only minutes? When they grew tired, they would lean against the same wall, just inches and centuries apart. When Xella woke up, he would be watching her, and she couldn’t help smiling winsomely at him. He was always talking, and she wished to hear his voice. She imagined it high-pitched and full of boyish enthusiasm.

The tunnel widened into another room, spikes teething the ceiling. Tomorrow was with her, his sword gripped tight in his hand as he scanned the room. She stood at his back, looking the other way. What sort of horrors dwelled here? And when would they attack?

Nothing came. They moved cautiously across the room, watching and listening. He moved strangely, like he was stepping over something. Fear tightened her stomach. He must be stepping over the corpses of demons that hadn’t yet died for her.

A great, rumbling groan echoed through the room. A strong breath of wind rushed past her. She flinched. Tomorrow didn’t react until he noticed her, then he looked around, bewildered. The groan returned, louder, almost a physical force that rattled her bones.

And it rattled the Tomb.

Xella was thrown off her feet, the ground writhing beneath her, and landed heavily on her side. Her sword slid away, still glowing, and bounced wildly across the floor. Tomorrow stood in shock, staring at her. He didn’t move. The ground heaved and rippled about his feet, yet he stood unaffected. With a splintering crash, a spike fell from the ceiling. It impacted the ground, bursting into rubble and spraying her face with sharp rocks.

“Skies above!” she screamed, and tossed about on the ground.

More spikes crashed down. She rolled onto her back, getting caught in a small crevasse. Above her, a stony fang torqued as even the ceiling shook. Her eyes widened in horror. I need to move! Felikia’s flames, I need to move!

Tomorrow grabbed her. As he hauled her away, a warmth flushed through her. The spike crashed down where she’d lain a heartbeat ago, leaving behind a mound of rubble. Another violent shake bounced her out of his grip and rolled her across the floor. He followed and yanked her clear of another plummeting fang.

It was like he knew where they would fall.

* * *

Xella slipped out of his hands, bounced by the shaking that he could only witness but not experience. She landed amid the ruins of a spike, her body passing right through the rubble. For her, the spike hadn’t fallen.

Yet.

He lunged, grabbed her, and pulled her clear.

Rehman dropped his sword, his other hand seizing her, and he pulled her upright, wrapping his arms around her. She clung to him, her body quaking in his arms as he struggled to hold on to her. She squeezed him tight. Silent screams ripped from her lips.

“I won’t let you go!” he shouted, his words echoing through the quiet cave.

She peered into his eyes. Some of her fear retreated.

“You saved me!” Rehman yelled. “I’ll save you!”

She was grimy, haggard, terrified—and beautiful. He kissed her. Her lips were warm, sweet. The pulsing between them grew faster, matching his racing heart. He’d kissed a girl or two before, but it had not been like this. There had not been this . . . energy. Life flowed between them, driving back the death haunting the Tomb. Her eyes squeezed shut and her tension melted away, banished by—

She was gone. He stumbled forward; arms wrapped around empty air.

* * *

Xella stood transfixed.

Her lips still burned with Tomorrow’s kiss. He’d vanished, but the warmth remained. A giddy, excited energy burst inside her. She’d never been kissed before. Every boy had shunned her when they had learned of her father’s supposed blasphemy.

She twirled in the cave, laughing. There was life in this dark, oppressive prison. And it burned with energy. She tripped on a piece of rubble, stumbled, and blinked. The quaking had stopped while they’d kissed. She strode with a bounce to her step to where the Sword of the Sun lay, glowing with its yellow light.

Tomorrow appeared at the mouth of the cave. He waited for her, smiling like a pleased boy. She blushed; his eyes . . . appreciated her. She joined him, her hand immediately reaching out to touch him. She passed right through him, leaving behind a pleasant tingle. Disappointment stabbed her. She wanted to touch him again, but she’d settle for just being with him.

The quakes grew more frequent. A great snort of wind and a rumble would always precede them. Sometimes it happened to Xella, and sometimes to Tomorrow. Fear would clench her as she watched him stumble and bounce around. She’d try to hold him, to keep him from being crushed by falling spikes or toppling off narrow ledges.

When the quaking struck her time, terror gripped Xella. She’d cling to him, letting Tomorrow protect her. She felt helpless as she was tossed about, and protected when he grabbed her and yanked her to safety.

They were drawing closer, their histories bleeding together more and more. He was almost never gone and even when the Tomb wasn’t shaking, she could sometimes touch him. She would be walking and her hand would brush his and, for a moment, it would feel solid, real . . . Then she’d pass right through him.

A loud wheeze began to suffuse Zarketh’s breathing. They grew ever closer to the god. Whatever she had to do, she was glad Tomorrow was with her. They kept trudging deeper into death. Sometimes, she wondered if she hadn’t actually died the moment she’d stepped into the Tomb. It must have been weeks since she’d eaten or drank anything.

Other demons attacked. Slithering serpents with two heads and no eyes; large insects with thick shells and pincered hands that scurried sideways; furry beasts that walked on their arms and attacked with short, nimble legs. A cavalcade of nightmares.

They defeated them together.

* * *

The path ended at an inky wall of darkness. The sleeping god’s breath rushed past Rehman like a stiff breeze, rustling his clothing and grimy hair. He rubbed his chin. Frowning, he noticed that his face was bare. He should have had a full beard, but not even a whisker had sprouted.

Time didn’t matter down here.

“Well, this is it, Xella,” he whispered.

“It is,” she answered.

He jumped, staring at her, wondering if his ears had deceived him.

“I guess I’ve caught up to tomorrow,” she smiled.

He nodded; his mind went blank and his mouth felt dry.

“What’s your name?” she asked. “I can’t keep calling you Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” he croaked.

She laughed. It was rich, sweet, and did not belong in the Tomb. A shivering quake ran through the ground. They both stumbled, catching a hold of each other. The pulsing warmth was gone, replaced by the feel of actual flesh, stringy muscles, and hard bones.

The shaking stopped. Maybe Zarketh only rolled over.

“It’s Rehman,” he answered.

“I’m . . .”

“Xella,” he answered. “There’s a statue of you in front of the Kurokin.”

She blinked. “A . . . statue?”

“You’re a heroine. You saved the world. Your statue stands at the center of the temple grounds. People sing praises to you every year.”

She mouthed his words, awe widening her dark eyes. “How many tomorrows are you from?”

“Five hundred years.”

“Felikia’s flames,” she muttered. “And I’m famous? Do I get showered with gifts?”

He hesitated. How can I tell her the truth? Neither of us are leaving.

Xella’s face fell. “I don’t return?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She forced a smile. “I think we died the moment we entered the Tomb.”

“Then why do I feel so alive right now?”

“Hope? Love? Intangibles that are beyond death?” She shrugged, “I don’t know.”

Love. Rehman wondered if he loved her. She’d come to mean everything to him, but what else did he have to cling to in this Tomb? She smiled at him; that made his heart beat faster. She leaned in and gave him a simple kiss on the lips.

“It’s time,” she whispered; the heat of her lips lingering on his.

He nodded, facing the darkness. They would have to pass through it. He could do it; Xella was with him.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she whispered. “It’s great not to be alone.”

She took his hand, so alive, and they stepped into darkness and death.

* * *

Cold plunged through Xella. The only warmth was Rehman’s hand clutching hers. Light exploded, gold and silver, pushing back the darkness and the cold. Their swords shone so bright, almost blinding. Hers with all the fierceness of the sun, his with all the gentleness of the moon. Rehman squeezed her hand.

She squeezed back.

Their light formed a bubble against the darkness that pressed against them from all sides. Every time Zarketh exhaled, his breath slammed against their light, trying to snuff them out. Xella held her blade up, willing it to shine brighter. She finally had someone, and she would fight to be with Rehman for as long as possible. Maybe they would die down here, but she wanted to savor every heartbeat of his presence she could. She poured her emotions into the sword: the joy of his companionship, the hope for the world above, and the love she’d discovered in the darkest pits.

“I am the world’s love!” she shouted at Zarketh’s oppression.

The darkness recoiled.

“The world’s hope!” Rehman roared.

Their light exploded out, banishing the sea of ink. It withdrew like a receding flood, leaving behind slimy, black rocks and spikes jutting across the broken ground. They stood in a wide cavern. Zarketh’s breath washed over them, and the ground shook with a rhythmic pounding, a pulse vibrating through her bones.

Ahead, darkness glowed black.

“Bedko’s water!” Rehman gasped. “What is that?”

Xella did not have the words to describe it. A black light pulsed ahead in time to the vibrations rippling through the ground. It was the darkest, blackest thing she’d ever seen. And yet it shone with some sort of . . . unlight. Her mind grappled with it, twisting about as she struggled to comprehend it. She was like a blind person being described the color blue.

This dark light was beyond her imagination.

VERMIN

The word groaned through the ground. She didn’t so much as hear the single word as feel it vibrating through her bones. A deep, black malevolence filled the grating vibration, chilling Xella’s blood. A god spoke to her.

SCRATCHING CLAWING DIGGING

Demons skittered out of holes in the ground, loped past spikes, or crawled across the ceiling. Axeheads, spiders, two-headed snakes. All the demons they’d fought. All the deformed and twisted mockeries of the life who dwelled free beneath the skies.

WHY DO YOU DWELL ABOVE UNGRATEFUL DISGUSTING VERMIN

“Run!” Rehman shouted. “We can’t fight this many!”

They ran to the pulsing, unlight, blades slashing and felling any abhorrent demons that threw themselves into their path. The cavern quaked, spikes dropped from the ceiling, cracks split across the cavern’s floor. They scrambled, leaped, stumbled, and kept running.

The unlight grew brighter as they neared. A massive, stone heart beat upon the cavern floor, grinding as it contracted and expelled the god’s breath. The beating stone was manacled to the ground by slimy ligaments of rotting, dead flesh.

VERMIN FREE TO SCURRY BENEATH The ENDLESS BLUE

HATE

“Free?” Xella whispered. “Skies above.”

Pity stirred in Xella’s heart. Zarketh was trapped beneath the rocks, buried in this tomb. All that weight of all that earth above crushing down, oppressing him. Imprisoning him. He hates us because we’re free. Humans roam beneath the sky. Beneath his wife.

KILL YOU ALL

BURY YOU BENEATH MOUNTAINS

OPEN UP THE GROUND AND SWALLOW YOU

HATE VERMIN HATE

Xella and Rehman reached the beating rock, the heart of a dying god. Demons raced towards them, mere moments from tearing them limb from limb. She wanted to do something for the suffering god, but what could she do? All she had was a sword and no time to think of anything else, to do anything else.

“I’m sorry,” Xella whispered to the suffering god. “But we have no choice.” He had to die. I can’t let those ungrateful bastards be destroyed.

Together they raised their swords and stabbed.

* * *

The demons raced in from every direction. Rehman raised the Sword of the Moon as Xella raised the Sword of the Sun, tips pointing down at the beating, black rock. This is how we die. Saving the world. He stabbed. His sword sank into the stone as if it was water.

Light exploded around him: silver, gold, black.

He reached for Xella, grasped her hand as the world folded. Everything became . . . more. Geometries Rehman did not even have the words to begin to describe filled his universe. Things bent, folded, or twisted into impossible shapes. He felt stretched, compressed, inflated. Everything merged, becoming a single point of existence, and yet everything also expanded, filling every fingerwidth of creation.

They were everywhere and nowhere.

Then Rehman bounced back into being, stumbling and falling onto his backside amid soft, wonderful, and so very alive grass. It was dark, a soft twilight bathing the world with a blue glow. Xella laughed beside him, stretched out on her back, luxuriating in the fragrant grass. Above, a black disk hung in the sky, ringed by blue fire.

“What is that?” Xella whispered.

Rehman recognized it. “A joining,” he answered. “Felikia’s Sun and Bedko’s Moon merging together.”

Daylight exploded as the moon and sun separated.

Before them lay Zarketh’s beating heart. Rehman’s eyes widened. No, it was the Kurokin with both blades embedded into it. He stood up, looking around carefully. Everything looked . . . familiar. The land had almost the same general features of the temple grounds, only more pronounced, unaffected by human will. There was the rise that Bedko’s temple would one day sit upon, and there was the slope that would lead down to the market and his parent’s dry goods store.

The wind gusted. Heljina’s beautiful song chorused on the breeze, filling Rehman up with its perfect harmony. Xella laughed and stood facing the wind, letting it blow her grimy, bedraggled hair.

“She’s happy!” Xella shouted. “Can’t you feel it? We reunited them.”

“What?” Rehman asked, confused. “Who?”

“Heljina! The Kurokin is Zarketh’s heart. We didn’t kill the god, we set him free!” Her smile almost glowed. It was infectious.

Rehman walked to the holy stone, staring at it. In his mind, he pictured it beating furiously, swelling here, contracting there. He touched it, and felt the blue stone’s warmth and its rhythm of gentle pulses—a god at peace. He and Xella had traveled into the past, stopping Zarketh before his depression could doom the world in the future. One day, maybe five hundred years from now, Xella would draw her sword and then he’d draw his, and they’d do it all over again. And again.

His brain hurt just thinking about it.

Xella threw her arms around him and kissed him. That helped to stop his mind from aching.

“What do we do now?” he asked her after their lips parted. He enjoyed the feel of her warmth in his arms, her life.

“Whatever we want. We passed through death. We’re free, Rehman.”

Free. He mouthed the words, savoring them. “Have you ever wondered what’s over those mountains?”

She grinned. “Let’s find out.”

The END

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Weekly Free Short Story: Mutilated

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Mutilated

The scrabbling of claws on stone was his only warning.

Kan dropped his jewelchine torch, the red beam dancing through the air as he whirled. The sleeping girl—her head resting on his shoulder, her body held to his chest—gasped awake at the violent turn.

Steel rasped on leather as his right hand drew his resonance sword. He activated the jewel machine in the weapon’s hilt by rote. A hum, barely perceptible over the girl’s surprised shout, reverberated through the air. The emerald in the jewelchine sang with one of the Seven Harmonious Tones, the Earth Tone of Bazim, and channeled the echoes of creation into the sword’s steel.

The pulse of Kan’s blood pumping through his veins remained steady as the mastiff lunged out of the darkness.

Only the glint of diamonds gave Kan any warning and a target to attack. He thrust just below the glimmer of the mastiff’s eyes and rammed the straight, thin resonance blade down the massive hound’s gullet. The black-furred form crashed into Kan, impaled on three feet of steel.

The girl screamed in fright as the big man recoiled under the impact, his sword penetrating deeper into the hound’s innards. His footing lost, Kan didn’t fight to stay upright. He fell backward, cradling the girl to his chest as he sliced his sword upward.

The resonance blade, humming with the power of its emerald machine, had an edge that could cut normal steel like butter. It sliced through the hound’s spine and skull before cutting through the obsidian jewelchine that had replaced the mutilated mastiff’s brain.

Kan’s left side crashed through the scraggly twigs of a saltbush, the girl crying out in shock. He grunted as he landed hard onto the dry, desert ground. The mastiff, bigger than any breed he’d ever seen, fell upon him, its dead weight crushing his legs.

“Harmonious tones,” he cursed, the pulse of his blood as steady as ever, unchanging despite the pain spreading across his back from his fall.

Already, the topaz jewelchines soothed the hurt.

“Kan,” the girl, Alamekia, gasped, her scrawny, ebony face contorted in fear. She was almost all bones, starvation stretching skin taunt across the features of her skull, replacing the normal round features of a Shattered Islander with pitiful sorrow. “What is that?”

“Mutilation,” snarled Kan, kicking the jewelchine automaton off his legs.

He’d seen other beasts mutilated by the University, but hounds were a new depravity. The ancients had long known of the resonance of the Seven Harmonious Tones and the one Dark Discord with natural gemstones, a different stone tuned to a different Tone. But the discovery that they could be manipulated via metallic wiring and harnessed to power machines had transformed society. Gold wires worked best, but even cheap tin could conduct the power. Called jewelchines, these devices tapped into the echoes of the eight spirits who’d created everything. Each year, scholars across the world discovered new and diverse uses.

Some were even beautiful.

“Can you walk?” he asked the girl cradled still in his arm.

The girl nodded her head, her eyes wide. Red light painted half her face. The discarded jewelchine torch, a slender tube of leather with a colored lens at one end and a diamond jewelchine inside radiating light, survived impacting hard ground. She trembled on his arms. He felt the frantic beat of her heart through his heavy shirt. Kan, distantly, could remember that same frantic beat in his chest when the typhoon had ravaged his village as a boy no older than her.

“Good, move behind me and—”

He threw the girl to his left. She crashed into a saltbush with a shriek as the second mastiff bounded out of the darkness. The beast’s eyes betrayed its attack with silver-white flashes. The air in the desert was clear. The stars and moon provided a modicum of light to see by and to glint off the diamond jewelchines embedded in the creature’s eyes.

Kan swung his sword as the hound leaped at him, expecting the mastiff to crash into his chest, teeth savaging his throat. But the beast landed a few feet short of Kan in a dangerous crouch, its body illuminated by the discarded torch’s focused beam. Short, coarse fur covered its twisted frame. Nodules bulged beneath the skin, creating fierce bumps across the beast’s hide. Its mouth opened. Metal glinted in its gullet. A barrel.

Kan smelled the oily scent of refined naphtha.

“The Seven Harmonies!” He rolled to his right as fire burst from the hound’s mouth.

A sheet of orange flame rippled the air. Light blossomed. Heat seared Kan’s face. He grunted, rolling faster. The bush he’d thrown the girl into, though not touched, caught fire. The dry brush blazed into a bonfire.

They put a Tone-deaf firebelcher in the beast’s stomach?

The horrors of the University always shocked Kan, though they shouldn’t have. His depravity knew no depths. Kan’s body was a mutilated display of the bushy-eyebrowed man’s work. Kan’s wide-legged trousers and long-sleeved shirt hid the evidence from view. His broad-shouldered and deep-chested frame resulted from the University’s cruelty. He stood two or more heads taller than any he knew, making him seem a foreigner despite his dusky olive skin.

The end of his alpaca cloak smoldered as he gained his feet. Fiery death chased him. His pulse remained steady. He missed that frantic beating of his heart, the surge of cold danger through the veins, that feeling of life instead of the dull, rhythmic pulsing that circulated blood through his body.

The hound twisted its head, mouth open, fur burning around its muzzle from the firebelcher’s heat. Kan raced at a speed the fastest runner would envy, circling the beast before darting in for his attack. He dashed past the gout of flame, the heat billowing around him. His sword hummed in his hand. He prayed to the Harmonious Seven, but not their Dark Brother.

His cloak burst into flames. Heat soaked through his trousers. His skin cooked, the topaz jewelchines embedded in his flesh soothing away the pain as he closed the distance. The hound twisted, moving its bulk to bring its fire directly upon Kan.

His sword hissed down.

He severed the beast’s head from its body, cutting spine, wires, and the barrel of the firebelcher. The flames snuffed out as the beast’s head fell to the ground. Its body remained upright for five steady beats, blood and oily naphtha bubbling from the severed neck. Then it, too, slumped to the ground; the control signal from the obsidian jewelchine in the automaton’s head severed.

“What is that, Kan?” the girl asked as he ripped off his burning cloak. She moved forward on her hands and feet, crawling almost like a lizard. A scratch bled on her cheek, shiny in the roaring light of the blazing brush. “There are wires sticking out of its neck. And that smell.” Her small nose wrinkled.

“Refined naphtha,” he grunted, turning to face the direction from which the hounds had come.

Irritation stabbed through him. They’d been so close to the draw that led up the cliff. For two days, he’d carried the girl across the desert, moving from supply cache to supply cache. The precious water stored in them had allowed the pair to survive the soaring heat of the day. He’d rescued her from the slave caravan, saved her from the mutilation of his knives.

Flashes of pain, of screaming agony, wracked all of him while the delicate face of the bushy-eyebrowed man peered down at Kan. Those eyebrows were wispy snow, though not from age. His eyes smiled as he brought his knife down and cut.

The memories almost overwhelmed Kan.

“Are you hurt?” he growled to the girl, his eyes scanning the bejeweled night sky. He sheathed his resonance sword and drew his pistol from a leather holster on his hip loaded with a clip of three small darts.

“Fine,” the girl answered, still crouched by the dead mastiff. “Why would anyone make it breathe fire?”

“Because he could do it.”

There.

In the darkness over the desert, a shape occulted starlight as it drifted through the sky. A condor, swelled to immense size, carried the control officer. Jewelchine automatons had no mind, their brains replaced by an obsidian machine which channeled the Dark Discord and were controlled by harmonies broadcast by the officer—the fruits of the University’s work.

The University of Harmonic Research created monstrosities with their knowledge, soldiers for their client. The process was bloody and utilized the forbidden obsidian jewelchines, tapping into foul Nizzig’s discord. Most of the “subjects” did not survive. Caravans of children, on the verge of pubescence, were driven across to the University. To him. Out there, in the heart of the desert, agony lay. Granite buildings, baked by day, rose over the largest concentration of black iron in the world. Only with foul black iron could Nizzig’s discord be channeled into machines, violating nature with grotesqueries.

The Path and its Guides, founded by the Tinker, sought to rescue those poor children from their fates.

Kan and his fellow Guides knew the Depression. They scouted it, lived in it, planned their routes, learned how to avoid the patrols, all so they could rescue what few children they could when the caravans were at their most vulnerable. Kan had saved twenty-seven children. Of the Guides, he was the most successful. None had survived half as many Paths as him.

Trails could be erased from sight while paths walked across hard stone would leave no trace, but these new hounds changed everything. How could you hide from the keen nose of a hound? Ten other Guides were with him on the raid. Did they live?

Kan pushed questions from his mind and raised his pistol. At this distance, the odds of hitting the control officer were low if he were stationary. But if Kan killed the Tone-deaf bastard, any other automatons sweeping towards them would stand idle, lacking the control harmonics.

Then he would have twenty-eight successes.

Kan fired all three shots in rapid succession, his arm steady, his eyes aiming down the metal barrel, lining up the front sight with the two rear. The weapon hissed as the heliodor jewelchine channeled the harmonics of the Tone of Wind. Air propelled the slender, steel darts at high speed. They streaked through the night.

And missed.

Kan yanked the clip from the wooden handle of the pistol and fished the spare from his belt. He had six more shots. He had to eliminate the officer. If there were more automatons out of in the dark, they could see them even without the blazing fire. They would chase Kan and the girl up the draw, firing dartcasters and projectield launchers. The climb was treacherous enough without dodging attacks.

“Did you get him?” the girl asked, peering into the dark as she knelt, her bony face painted with fierce oranges and black shadows.

The hiss cut off his answer. The metal dart buried into Kan’s chest over his heart. A wet crunch and grating crack echoed as the projectile slammed through his ribs. The shock threw him back. He landed on the ground with a grunt, blood welling through his brown shirt.

“Kan!” she gasped, pressing low to the ground. The girl knew how to survive.

“I’m fine.” He grasped the steel dart. It was as thin as a finger bone. He grunted as he yanked it out. More blood flowed, but the topaz jewelchines soothed the wound. Already, it closed.

“That hit you in the heart.” Awe strained the girl’s words. “That kills. I’s seen it.”

“I don’t have a heart.” The words were reflexive. He thrust his pistol into her hands. She would escape. “There is a draw that climbs the cliff. Amo Ponthia will meet you at the top. She’ll take you the rest of the way on the Path.”

The girl didn’t argue. Survivors never did. The children who were new slaves, still holding out hope that they would again see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cried and sniveled. Alamekia darted away at a crouch as Kan rose, his left hand held out before him, fingers splayed in warding. He drew his sword with the right.

If I had a heart, it would be beating in terror and telling me to flee.

The moment he stood, the hisses came. Falling onto his back had dropped him out of the automatons’ line of sight. But now, at least two dartcasters fired at him, shooting larger projectiles and with more accuracy than his pistol.

They struck the curved dome of the amethyst energy projected from his left hand. The jewelchine embedded in his palm, the wires running between his fingers and connecting with the network of gold and black iron threads that wormed beneath his skin like a second set of veins and arteries, activated at a thought. It resonated with the Tone of Protection. The darts crashed into the curved shield’s harmony, and deflected. One hissed over his head, creasing through his blond hair.

Kan’s eyes stared at the dark shape in the sky. What are you thinking up there?

Only one of the University’s mutilations should possess Kan’s embedded shield.

The final dart hissed out of the darkness and crashed into his shield. The ricochet buried it in the dirt by his right foot. His breath quickened as he listened above the hum of his shield and the crackle of the burning brush for the automatons’ approach.

The diamonds in their eyes betrayed them.

Five pairs glinted red in the darkness. Kan took a deep breath, visualizing his enemy. They spread wide, preparing to come at him from five different angles. They would be swift, brutal. Their attacks aimed to kill him as fast as possible. Scenarios whirled through his mind. His hand tightened on the leather wrapped hilt of his resonance blade, the hum reassuring.

He tensed, ready to act.

The ball glinted firelight as it arced out of the darkness. Kan cursed, burying his eyes into the crook of his elbow. It landed at his feet with a dull thud and rolled against his boot. The light’s brilliance warmed his skin as the pulstun’s diamond released its built up energy. It bled through the skin of his arms and his eyelids. For a moment, his radius and ulna appeared as dark shadows amid red-glowing flesh.

He dropped his arm as the automatons attacked, his vision spared from the stunning blast while their jewelchine eyes were unaffected. These ones were humans, though it was difficult to tell if they were male or female after the changes to their bodies. They’d grown as big as Kan, dressed in gray uniforms, their faces a mix of dusky olives, browns, and one ebony; slaves brought from the corners of Democh and its neighbors. Each held their own resonance sword, hums buzzing through the air. Two were newly mutilated. Instead of heads covered by hair or even smooth skin, they had domed cranial plates of obsidian replacing the top halves of their skulls, their skin growing unevenly to cover it.

The sight of his almost future always stirred horror through Kan. He imagined having a heart fluttering as he gazed at them moving in for the kill.

He had to move faster. His only advantage was his intact brain.

With a grunt, Kan darted towards the automaton to his right, his legs enhanced by the network of emerald and helidor jewelchines which strengthened and quickened his limbs. His blade hissed in a quick arc. It took the automaton a moment to react to the blurring charge. Kan’s blade sang, a hard, vicious swipe.

The automaton’s head parted from its body in a spray of blood. Severed wires protruded from the cut. The body stood rigid for a heartbeat longer before collapsing with the head. Kan already moved, using the momentum to turn his body and meet a slashing sword. He parried.

The other four were on him, resonance blades swinging. Sweat broke out on Kan’s forehead as he whipped his blade back and forth. His left hand thrust forward, his purple shield pulsing into life to deflect their weapons. When sword met sword, the air hummed with vibration, emerald jewelchines flaring with verdant light. Violet waves rippled across his shield with every impact.

He retreated, stepping over the slain automaton. The world slowed as he fought, all his focus bent on keeping those four blades from finding his flesh. They would kill him as fast as he’d killed the first. He couldn’t stay still. He couldn’t let them surround him. He had to be liquid, always moving, embracing the Tone of Water. Adaptation was his only chance, changing, flowing with circumstance, surrendering to necessity.

Waiting for his opening.

Only a handful of heartbeats after the clash began, he spotted it. The automatons had funneled too close together as they’d followed his retreat. None of the four had paid much attention to the others, too focused on their orders: kill. Their shoulders bumped together, hindering their swings for a moment.

Kan didn’t think. He acted.

His sword took an older automaton, a dartcaster slung over its shoulder, in the upper thigh. The enhanced blade cut with ease through the thing’s leg and then bit deep into its torso. Despite the flowing blood, Kan knew it didn’t live. How could it when it had no mind? It was a husk. A weapon.

This was mercy.

The automaton folded up and collapsed mid-swing, its blade missing wide. Kan kept moving, stabbing downward at where its heart would be. His resonance sword pierced the thing’s ribcage with ease and then cracked through the ruby jewelchine, carefully shaped to pump blood through its body. The gem burst. Scarlet light flared through the crimson bubbling out of the wound.

The automaton went limp. Damaging the heart jewelchine or the brain jewelchine were the only ways to kill one swiftly. Blood loss wasn’t quick enough. They would feel no pain, and their network of topaz jewelchines would, given time, heal any wounds.

Pain flared in Kan’s left arm as he darted past his enemies. The tip of a resonance sword grazed him. The nick sliced through his thick shirt and two inches of muscle. But it missed any wires. Already, the pain soothed as his flesh healed. He turned, facing the three remaining automatons. They fanned out, ignoring their dead. Their eyes glinted bright.

A new model, crimson flickering on its obsidian cranial plate, lunged fast, the enhanced body moving swifter than a normal human. Kan deflected with his shield, his left hand angled to let its blade stab past him. At the same instant, he lunged a stop-thrust at the heart of the other new automaton charging in.

His attack was too fast for the thing to bring up its own palm to shield. It was standard for the automatons to have amethyst jewelchines buried in both palms. His sword knifed for the thing’s heart jewelchine, hissing through the air.

The purple shield blossoming across the automaton’s chest shocked Kan.

His sword struck the protective energy. The curve of the shield sent his blade sliding up and to the left, thrusting over the automaton’s shoulder. Kan gaped. The thing had an amethyst jewelchine buried in its chest as well as its palms. A new improvement devised by him.

“Harmonious tones,” Kan grunted, his footing ruined by the surprise. He stumbled past the automaton.

As he did, the enemy blade hissed. It sliced deep into Kan’s left side, his flesh providing almost no resistance. The sword reached a foot or more into him, severing the network of wires running on the outside of his skin and damaging organs. Blood streamed down his side, soaking into his shirt and trousers. His leg buckled as he struggled to regain his footing.

No soothing energy flowed to the wound. His left hand felt at his side, brushed the severed gold and black iron wires protruding from his wound, disrupting the left half of his network of jewelchines. He tripped over the severed automaton’s leg and fell on his face to the ground. Dirt stuck to the spreading blood as he rolled onto his back. The third automaton, an older model, pivoted smoothly, drawing back its sword to ram the point into Kan’s chest.

He raised his left hand between him and his attacker and tried to generate his shield. Nothing. Too many control wires were severed on the left side, disconnecting the obsidian jewelchines that gave him direct control over his protection.

At least the girl has a chance.

Knowing it was futile, he acted. He let go of his sword and raised his right arm, fingers splayed wide. Kan would fight against his cruelties to his last breath.

The darts hissed out of the darkness and crashed into the lunging automaton’s head. Sparks flew as the first pierced skin and struck the obsidian cranial plate beneath, leaving a long, bleeding gash across its forehead. The second scored the cheek; a flap of bloody skin fell dangling. The third took it in the eye, driving deep. A flash of white light burst from the cavity, the diamond jewelchine disrupted. The automaton flinched enough at the attack, conflicting instructions jarring through its obsidian jewelchine. Its downward thrust slammed into the desert floor inches from Kan’s side.

His right hand pointed at the automaton’s chest. He triggered the jewelchine buried in his palm.

He didn’t conjure a shield.

The beam of pure sunlight didn’t so much as fire from his hand as appear. A long shaft blazed out over the dark desert, searing through the chest of the automaton. It lasted not even a heartbeat and left behind a burning afterimage across Kan’s vision.

The Tinker had made his own adjustments to Kan.

Molten ruby poured out of the hole bored through the automaton’s chest and ignited its gray uniform. It collapsed into a smoldering heap, limbs twitching.

“How did you do that?” the girl asked, holding his pistol and crouching by the burning bush, eyes owl-wide.

Kan didn’t answer. He’d held the lightbeam back for emergencies. The jewelchine took days to store the Tone of Light, and its accuracy failed outside of a hundred or so feet. It was hard to aim precisely. His arm lacked the proper sights of a pistol or dartcaster. He hadn’t even considered using it on the officer flying on the condor.

The officer was closer now, watching the fight from safety of the air.

Kan put that out of his thoughts. He still had two more automatons to deal with. He grabbed his resonance blade. Despite the blood pouring from his side, he forced himself to stand. He did not have much life left.

“What are you?” the girl asked.

I thought you were a survivor. “Run!”

The girl ignored him.

The automatons came at him fast. His shield now useless, Kan teetered as he drew his resonance dagger with his left hand. Life drained out of him, soaking his trousers to his boots. He was dying, and his damned jewelchine heart pulsed at the same steady rhythm, uncaring. His vision fuzzed.

He parried the first blow with sluggish movements. The impact of swords jarred down his blade. He almost dropped his weapon, his fingers growing weak. The right side of his body was still strong, the jewelchines working, but the left’s network failed. His left leg dragged as he moved back, pressed by the automatons’ attacks.

“You have to run!” he spat.

The girl shook her head. Her scrawny hand picked up a fallen resonance sword. She held it in such a clumsy grip. She had no idea how to stand properly, how to fight with it. But she let out a fierce scream, her face almost demonic in the roaring light. All the years of torment, of fear, of hopelessness burst from her as she swung at the nearest automaton.

And cut through its back.

It staggered, turning and taking a clumsy swipe at the girl. Blood sheeted down the automaton’s back. Her cut had flayed it open, exposing part of the spine, severing dozens of wires. Its swipe caught her sword, knocking it from her hand. It drew back to strike again but lost its balance and fell backward into its partner, tangling their limbs.

Kan acted, swiped. His sword sang. The movement burned his side. He grit his teeth, fighting waves of dizziness that threatened to drown him with insensibility.

The wounded automaton’s head parted from its shoulders.

Kan’s breath exploded from him. He bent over, gasping, heaving. His lungs were natural, and they flagged. The world spun around him as he faced the last automaton, now untangled from the dead one. The girl scurried on hands and knees to grab her fallen blade. The automaton drew back its sword, and swung at Kan.

He parried.

His grip was too loose on his weapon, his fingers numbed by blood loss. The attack slapped his sword from his hand. It spun through the air before knifing into the hard-packed desert clay. Kan gripped his dagger as the automaton drew back one final time, readying the blow that would kill him.

He threw the resonance dagger with a thrusting-like motion, almost an underhanded toss. The weapon soared point first across the few intervening feet. Stone cracked as it punched through the automaton’s obsidian cranial plate and into its jewelchine brain. Dark unlight bled out around the blade as the thing spasmed. Every muscle in its body twitched. Without any direction, it stood rigid. Off-balance, it toppled to the ground.

“You did it,” Alamekia cheered, holding up her sword like a great prize, waving it over her head.

“Not . . . over . . .” he spat, turning, searching the sky. He wanted to collapse, to surrender to the agony. But now he needed to be like the Tone of Earth. To be strong. To resist. To draw on the harmony of foundation, stability.

“But . . . you got them.”

The condor soared closer. The officer would have weapons, and he’d have outfitted the mutilated, giant bird with either greatcasters that could shred Kan’s body with rapid-fire darts or with other exotic weapons from his perverse imagination.

With effort, Kan bent down and snagged the dartcaster slung over the shoulder of a dead automaton. He jerked hard with his right arm, still strengthened by emeralds, and ripped the weapon’s leather strap. He grunted, raised the long-barreled musket, and aimed into the dark.

His pistol had missed. It was a close range weapon. The dartcaster was not.

A flash of yellow light, a weapon fired by the officer, gave Kan his target. Without flinching, without knowing what hurtled out of the darkness at him, he pulled the trigger. Yellow light flashed out the end of the barrel, the dartcaster’s helidor propelling the thin, metal missiles into the starry sky.

A shape fell from the condor as a net crashed to the ground at Kan’s feet. The tangled wires flared with amethyst light, a purple shield engulfing the piled mess. He grunted, staring down at the projectield that had missed him. The weapon was designed to capture and restrain. The projectield’s net would entwine about the target, then its shield would trigger, engulfing the person in a cocoon from which they could not escape.

His grunt turned into a groan as he toppled backward. The condor was harmless without the rider’s control, falling into a circling pattern. It was over. He stared up at the brilliant stars, a sea just out of reach. The light from the burning bushes dwindled. The girl appeared over him, her eyes shiny.

“No,” she whispered. “No!”

He grabbed her wrist with his shaky left hand, pulling her palm to his bleeding side. He should be dead already. “Feel!” He jammed her hand into his wounds, dragging her fingers along the smooth cut. “Wires. Feel?”

She nodded her head.

“Join them. Have to . . . reattach.”

“Reattach?” Her tone sounded dubious, her forehead furrowing.

“Please . . .” His breathing hurt. His entire left side was numbing fire. His topaz jewelchines worked to replenish the blood flowing out of his side, but it wasn’t enough. The chill spread through his body.

“How?”

“Twist.” Every labored word hurt. “They’ll . . . stay together.” Hopefully.

Alamekia grabbed his wires, not caring about the blood. She’d performed dirty work before. Kan grit his teeth, grunting through the pain as she brought the wires closer and closer. There was slack in the wires, allowing his body to move and flex without tearing them. He felt the wires worming beneath his skin. A pair of gold touched. Healing flashed through his left side, twitching his body, and then it stopped. Tongue thrust through shrunken lips, she tugged again.

“Careful,” he groaned. “Gold . . . delicate . . .”

“Trying,” she muttered, almost an accusation. “Stop moving.”

He tried. It was hard.

The wires brushed again. He spasmed as she braided them together. She let it go, felt through his wound, found another wire, and joined the severed ends. Black iron, part of the control network. The forbidden metal hummed as the wires brushed. Power shocked through him. A purple shield flared from his left hand.

The girl squeaked in fright, flinching away as he clenched his hand, gaining control of the jewelchine again. The black iron networked directly into his body’s natural control system. Your nerves, the Tinker had called them. Natural wires spreading throughout your body. How your brain bosses your body about. But that brain’s too smart. Not good at obeying. It’s why you don’t listen and concentrate like I tell you.

His vision fuzzed. The soothing energy from the topaz jewelchines radiated through his left side. Flesh and organs knitted together. The blood flow stemmed as Alamekia worked around the wound, tying more black iron and gold wires together, repairing his mutilated body. Kan closed his eyes, drifting through dreams.

He screamed in agony, thrashing on the table. His bones throbbed and ground together. They ached like growing pains increased hundredfold. Thousandfold. He watched him as he writhed, eyes blurry with agony. He choked on the glass tube shoved down his throat, a white paste dripping through it to his ravenous stomach.

Always hungry. Always in pain.

Very good growth,” the bushy-eyebrowed man said to the Tinker. “Another one that will live.”

Another one,” the Tinker said, slanted eyes soft. A comforting hand on his forehead. “A fighter.”

Already a man’s growth.” There was an almost child-like glee in his voice. “The new technique is showing results.”

Indeed.”

The pain surged. They cut into him. They threaded wires across his body. Bloody wounds healed as he thrashed, skin growing over hard gems. He felt so big, immense, a giant. He was naked, his head moving, staring down his body at the thick, ropy muscles of his limbs, his chest deep, only smooth flesh at his groin.

He drifted through pain for six months. An eternity of agony. He started a child, he ended an adult.

Have to go,” the Tinker said, unbuckling the straps. “They’re doing it tonight, my boy. Tonight. You’ll never come back from that one.”

Sunlight warmed Kan’s face as he opened his eyes. He blinked. The girl stirred, rising. Her cheek was smeared with dry blood coated in bits of dust and debris. She rubbed her eyes then scurried to him, shaking her head.

“You’re alive.”

“I’m alive,” he said, feeling his side. It was coated in drying blood. Some flaked off while globs stuck to his hand like gunk. He felt no wound, not even a scar. More blood cracked as he moved his legs, flakes of powdery rust falling away.

“What are you?” she asked, touching him. She traced the wires running like a second set of veins beneath his skin, pushing beneath his torn shirt to brush a hard nodule—a topaz jewelchine.

“Mutilated,” he grunted, pushing her hand away. “Let’s go.”

“Go?”

He looked up at the escarpment looming above them, a jutting pillar of black rock thrusting out near the rim. “Up there. Amo Ponthia is waiting for us. She’ll take you farther.”

“Take me where?”

Kan shrugged. “Safety.”

“You don’t know?” Eyes widened, shocked.

He shook his head. “Can’t betray what I don’t know.”

He stood. His stomach growled, but his limbs were strong, all the jewelchines working throughout is body. Hands flexed. Powdered blood fell from ruined clothing like dust. He found his cloak; the bottom edge was charred.

“I don’t think you’re mutilated,” she said, staring up at him with such innocence in her eyes.

Did I ever have that look? Phantom pain tightened his chest. His body remembered having a heart. He would never have a child of his own staring up at him like that. All he could do was rescue them.

“You’re not like them.” She spat at the nearest corpse. The automatons lay still, their bodies pale now. Flies buzzed along the shattered eye of the one she’d shot.

“Mostly like them.” He scooped her thin body up into his arms. She was like air, almost weightless. He trudged towards the narrow, hidden draw that wound up to the top of the cliff.

She shook her head. “You’re like a hero.”

He grunted.

“I said like a hero. A hero wouldn’t have needed me to fix his wires. Heroes don’t take wounds.”

“So what am I?”

“I don’t know. Special.” She beamed at him. A sunrise over planted fields. “An almost hero. But you’re too strong to be mutilated. And you’re not ugly.” And then she hugged him, her thin arms entwined about his neck. Her face pressed into his chest. He cradled her, the pain increasing in his phantom heart as he felt hers’ rapid beat.

Climbing the escapement had never been easier for Kan, even carrying the girl, even going slow to avoid snapping his repaired wires. They could break again. He would have to see the Tinker, have them replaced. He hated that he needed them.

It took half the day to climb up the steep path. The rocks were loose. Avalanches cascaded down behind them, stones clattering and clashing as they bounced down to the Depression’s floor. He pondered the hounds as he climbed. They changed things for the Guides. Saving what few children they could would be even harder.

If I was a hero, I would save you all.

He reached the top. Amo Ponthia waited, wrapped in a cloak that almost blended in with the scrub lands of the hills which surrounded the Depression. Only her slanted eyes were visible behind the wool veil that covered her hair and face. Her eyes tightened at the sight of his bloody clothing. But she didn’t say a word.

The girl clung to his neck when he tried to pry her away. She let out a whimper, shaking her head. “No.”

“You’ll be safe with her,” Kan said, his voice gentle. “She will guide you to safety.”

“I want you to guide me!”

“I have to keep protecting you. Make sure they follow a different trail.”

Her eyes were wide. “Really?”

He nodded his head. “I’ll lead them away while Amo Ponthia takes you to your new home.”

“You will be happy, child,” Amo Ponthia said.

Kan hoped that was true. The girl was a survivor. He had no idea what happened to the children after he delivered them to the next leg of the Path, to the next Guide who’d lead them away from the Democh Empire’s cruelty. He’d saved one child today out of hundreds.

Twenty-eight out of thousands.

It wasn’t enough, but what more could he do?

He watched Amo Ponthia and the girl walk off into the hills, heat’s shimmers washing them out until they were dancing, watery blurs. He would hide their trail for two miles, then head off in another direction from the top of the draw, leaving an obvious path. He wondered what she would find. Where she would live. If she would ever smile again.

Alamekia was as safe as he could make her. In two months, there would be another caravan. Another chance to save a child. He set about his work. He would be looking for his lost automatons. Kan could afford no mistakes.

As he worked, he pictured Alamekia in a small farm following her new father through the muddy fields as the seeds were planted, a smile on her face, her limbs full and healthy. A tear fell down his cheek.

Mourning what could never be.

The END

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Free Weekly Story: Reflections of Eternity

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Reflections of Eternity

Rehman leaned against the statue of the great heroine Xella, wineskin in hand. He took a deep swig, the wine cheap and sour, but he was drunk enough not to care. The world was ending. Heljina’s song had quieted. The ground shook as Zarketh stirred, so the quality of his wine hardly mattered at all. A silent breeze—even drunk, it was strange not to hear the Goddess’s beautiful harmony upon the wind—ruffled his sky-blue acolyte robes.

He took another long drink.

Despite the fact that the world was about to end, it was like a festival on the temple grounds. All the temples were bedecked in their finery, from Heljina’s own, painted blue like the sky, to the temples dedicated to her daughter and son, Golden Felikia and Silver Bedko, and all the lesser shrines in between. All of the activity was centered round the Kurokin Stone. Every would-be hero and braggart for miles around had come to draw Bedko’s Blade from the sky-blue rock—to throw his or her life away to save the world. Rehman and his fellow acolytes had watched, and mocked, oaf after muscle-bound oaf heave and strain and groan until, cursing, they’d stumbled away, faces dripping with sweat.

After the third wineskin, Rehman and his fellow acolytes found the absurdity hilarious. He wasn’t too concerned about the world ending. Five hundred years ago, Heljina’s Song to her slumbering husband had also stilled. The brave Xella, whose statue he so unceremoniously leaned against, had drawn the first sword from the Kurokin, entered the Tomb, and never returned. The world hadn’t ended, so she must have accomplished something.

And if one of these moon-drunk idiots pulled the sword, Rehman was confident they’d do the same.

“Look at that one,” Dorrim laughed, taking the wineskin and pointing at the Kurokin stone.

At the stone. a burly man, perhaps a blacksmith’s apprentice, grunted like a rutting bull as he struggled to pull the silvered blade from the heart of the blue stone. The man’s face grew a bright red, his forearm muscles bulging, but the sword refused to yield.

“Doesn’t he know only the promised one can pull the sword?” weaselly-faced Vellin chortled.

“His muscles have squeezed out all his brains,” Rehman joked.

The apprentice blacksmith heaved and strained with all his might to rip the sword out. So great was his effort, that when his hands slipped from the silver grip of the sword, he fell back, landing like a sack of his turnips on his backside. Perhaps if Rehman had been just a little more sober, he would not have laughed so hard, but he was now on his fifth wineskin and his head swam with drink.

A shadow fell across Rehman as he grasped his knees, his sides aching with laughter. Dorrim gave him a sharp nudge in the ribs. He looked up; the apprentice towered over him.

“Worthy try!” Rehman exclaimed, failing to notice the angry shame flushing the apprentice’s face. “If only big arms and small wits were enough, then the sword would have been pulled already.”

The apprentice grinned dangerously at Rehman and seized his wrist with an iron grip. “Let’s see how you fare, little acolyte.”

“What?” Rehman protested as the apprentice dragged him forward, the man’s hands as tight as a jailer’s fetters. “Hey, wait!”

“Let’s see if a flabby body and a sharp tongue work any better!”

The hulking youth flung Rehman forward. He fell, hands braced before him, against the hard surface of the Kurokin. The blue boulder, the size of a large carriage, was warm beneath his touch. It pulsed with a slow, steady rhythm.

Beat, beat.

Pause.

Beat, beat.

Pause.

The Goddess’s hand had plunged most of the blade into the stone, leaving only the silver hilt and quillons—which swept downwards, forming a crescent guard—exposed.

“Draw,” the hulk ordered.

“Fine,” Rehman muttered. He grasped the sword and gave a half-hearted pull. “Well, guess I’m not the one.”

“You didn’t even try,” the apprentice glowered. He cracked his knuckles. “Give it a good pull.”

Rehman swallowed, eyeing scarred knuckles. Then he gripped the sword in determined hands and heaved with all his rather unimpressive might. He fell backwards, just like the blacksmith apprentice had. The ground smacked him in the back, driving the air from his lungs in a painful gasp. He lay stunned, barely aware of something gripped in his hand.

A hush fell across the crowd. Rehman stared in confusion at the apprentice’s paling face. Rehman sat up on his elbows, surveying the crowd through bleary vision. Men, women, and children gaped at him.

Why’s everyone looking at me? he wondered. He raised his right arm to rub at his sore back when he realized what he held.

By Heljina’s Song, I drew it. He held the silver blade in his hand, the edge rippling like gentle waves. Disbelief punched his gut. This can’t be happening. His thoughts whirled.

The world spun around him.

I can’t be the one chosen to defeat Zarketh. I’m just an acolyte.

Rehman gazed up at the statue of Xella, the maiden who’d drawn the golden sword five hundred years ago. The heroine was last seen walking into the Tomb to drive Zarketh back into his slumber. She stood proud, holding the golden sword, Felikia’s Blade, up high, her youthful face full of confident determination. She’d been a warrior, trained from birth in the arts of the sword.

I can’t even hold a broom right. How can I defeat the Lord of Earthquakes and save mankind?

“I am a dead man.”

Rehman fainted, the rippled blade still clutched in his hand.

* * *

Xella pushed through the men standing defeated around the Kurokin, her leather boots squishing upon the grass trampled into mud. The blue stone rested in an empty field near the rude village that the laborers dwelled in. There were grand plans to build a temple to the Sky Goddess near the holy Kurokin.

She didn’t care about any of that. As her father had always predicted, the world was ending, and someone needed to save it. None of the laborers or the men of her tribe had succeeded in drawing forth either of the swords. Now, they could no longer deny her the chance.

“Get back to your sheep, girl,” spat a leathery-faced man, three of his front teeth missing.

She ignored him. She was used to being shunned. They’d proclaimed her father a blasphemer, and his supposed sins against Heljina stained her, too. She reached the sky-blue stone, the warmth of the Kurokin taking the chill out of the autumn night. Two swords were thrust into the stone—one gold and one silver.

And twice shall come about the Song’s end,

With malice and hatred shall Zarketh awaken.

Two shall be chosen, separated by time.

Down in darkness will freedom be given,

Through death shall history transcend.

The words of the prophecy echoed in her head. Her father had believed the words and been ridiculed by these very men. “The song will never stop!” the tribe had declared. “Never.”

It had.

No longer did sweet melodies whisper on the wind. Instead, the ground rumbled beneath their feet. Zarketh stirred. Xella stopped before the large boulder, the Holy Tear shed by the Sky Goddess. Xella grasped the gold sword, Felikia’s Blade, and drew it forth with ease.

The mutters died.

The blade was long, both edges serrated with upturned teeth, as if the blade had been a single tongue of flame frozen in steel. The hilt was ornate, gold, a sunburst worked into the quillons. She surveyed at the crowd—the men who’d hounded her father to suicide and her mother to starvation.

They looked away.

“I’ll save you anyways,” she whispered, gall burning the back of her throat.

Her journey to the Tomb took the rest of the night; no one followed her—they were all full of shame and cowardice. Clear skies allowed Bedko to light the grassy hills with his silver countenance. The ground’s trembling grew more frequent as she crossed the grassland in her sheepskin trousers.

She lived on the plains, herding her sheep with her dog, Usti. She’d left him with the flock. Someone will claim Usti and my sheep if I don’t come back. They’ll be taken care of. Her feet strode across the plain with the confidence her heart lacked. She could walk these fields blindfolded. She knew the terrain intimately.

She knew to never travel in this direction.

A single, dead hill rose up at the center of a valley, a boil upon the earth. Nothing grew on the mound. The grassy plain ended at the base of the hill—the tomb of a slumbering god. When humans were created, Zarketh had grown jealous of the attention his wife, the Sky Goddess, had lavished upon them. He’d caused the ground to quake, toppling mountains to bury men and opening chasms to swallow them up. So Heljina had begun her Song, singing on the winds and keeping him asleep until two champions would arise, separated by centuries, to defeat him.

That part never made sense to Xella.

The hill’s earth was cold and clammy, staining her hands black whenever she slipped and had to catch herself. Behind her, Felikia brightened the horizon with the new day’s birth. The dark soil seemed to drink in the morning light, darkening instead of brightening. She reached the summit of the dead hill, a single spire of black stone thrust upward at its crown. An uneven opening had been cut into the spike, large enough for three men to walk abreast. A cold, stale air burst out of the hole in successive gusts.

Fear gripped her. She looked behind her, almost blinded by the rising sun. A figure stood at the edge of the hill, almost lost in the bright sunlight. Her heart beat faster. She raised her hands to shield her eyes and see who’d followed her.

No one. Just a trick of the light. She was always alone.

“I’ll save you anyways,” she whispered bitterly. “It’s what Father would have wanted.”

Xella faced death’s entrance and swallowed her fear. She surrendered to the chains of obligations pulling her into the darkness.

* * *

Rehman was breathing hard when he reached the summit of the dead hill, all his friends and family waiting for him. Everyone wanted to accompany him. He was the hero. He’d drawn the Sword of the Moon, Bedko’s Blade. Every girl he knew had kissed him for luck and every man had shaken his hand.

He desperately wished that anyone else had drawn the blade.

“I’ll just mess it up,” he’d complained to his mother.

“Nonsense,” she’d airily replied. “I always knew you’d accomplish greatness.”

His father had squeezed his shoulder. “I’m proud of you. You will not be forgotten.”

Everyone thinks I’m going to die. And why not? The great warrior Xella failed to return. What chance do I have?

“None,” he muttered as everyone watched him walk towards the uneven hole carved into the upthrust spire—the Tomb of the Sleeping God.

He wanted to run, wanted to throw the silvery sword away. He couldn’t. He had to save the world. Everyone’s expectations were chains about him, dragging him to the Tomb. His fear rooted him to the earth, trying to fight the pull towards the dark hole. The sun set behind the spire. Dying. Dead. Darkness fell.

Did Xella feel this same fear? Did she know she was going to walk into this hole and never return?

He pictured her standing at the entrance. A tall, slim girl, the Sword of the Sun held in her hand. He could almost see her peering into the dark portal, her black hair tied back with ragged strip of wool, form dressed in rugged leathers. She turned back, taking one last look at the world she was about to leave. He almost laughed; his imagination of her was plainer than her statue, not as graceful or beautiful, and certainly not as curvy. Just an average girl.

“What are you waiting for?” whispered Dorrim.

The image of Xella vanished. Swallowing, the sword gripped in his hand, Rehman took a single step towards the opening. Everyone stared at him, full of hope. He was supposed to save them. Rehman wanted to laugh. I can’t even sweep the temple right.

The chains pulled; another step.

I’m going to die.

A third step. All those eyes staring at him, ratcheting the chain tighter and pulling him towards the darkness. I have to die so everyone can live. My parents, my little sister, Dorrim and Vellin, my cousins, and aunts and uncles. The entirety of mankind depends on me.

“Skies above,” he whispered. “We’re all doomed.”

The portal loomed larger as if it had yawned open to swallow him. Cold air wafted out of the dark opening in short gusts that rustled his coat. It came in regular intervals, like something was . . . breathing. Rehman swallowed. The exhalations of a god washed over him. He trembled, his stomach twisting into knots like ropes of sausages.

He closed his eyes and stepped into darkness.

Everything went silent—the cheers of his friends and family, the beating of his heart. Deathly silent. He opened his eyes; the sword glowed silver, illuminating a tunnel that spiraled down into shadows. The rocks were dark, damp, and Zarketh’s breath washed over him.

Rehman looked back. There was a solid wall of sheer, inky darkness.

“Skies above,” he whispered.

No choice. He went down.

The tunnel seemed to spiral downward for eternity. Nothing changed. Always the same, uneven ground; jagged walls dripped with filth; spikes, like sharp teeth, hung down from the ceiling. He walked down a never-ending gullet, swallowed by Zarketh. When he grew thirsty, he drank from his waterskin. He had six of the heavy bladders in his pack, along with several days’ worth of tough, dried, and very salty jerky. When he tired, he slept, and felt even more exhausted and sore when he woke up.

His pack grew lighter. He discarded waterskin after waterskin, his food devoured. He kept walking. Am I dead? A corpse shuffling downward forever? The aches of his body faded, his throat grew less parched, and his stomach ceased to rumble.

“I’ve descended beyond life,” he’d mutter. “Isn’t that right, sword?”

The sword didn’t answer. It never did. It just shined its pale, silver light. When he rested, Rehman would stare at his reflection in the wavy blade. His eyes were sunken, his fat face had grown hollow, and his lips had become cracked lines.

“Withering away, hey, sword?” He laughed, shrill and cackling. “You never talk back. What a dull companion you are.” He stood up, bracing himself on the moist wall. “Well, I should probably keep walking. It’s what you do when you’re damned. You walk and walk and—”

He froze. The tunnel opened up. He’d finally reached the bottom. Something lay grimy white on the ground.

A skull.

“What do we have here?” he asked Bedko’s blade, cocking his head in curiosity. Before the journey down, this skull would have bothered him. Now it was something different from slimy rocks. It was novel.

He reached down and picked it up with his free hand. Clumps of muddy detritus slid off as he shook it. The skull was about the size of a large dog’s, but the mouth . . .”

“Skies above!”

He dropped it.

The jaws were fused together and its snout was elongated, sweeping out into a crescent blade—an axehead.

* * *

Xella blinked; something different lay ahead.

For days, she’d descended the tunnel, her body slowly growing leaner, more gaunt. She hardly recognized the pale face reflected in the flame-like blade of the Sword of the Sun. Her black hair was a tangled, grimy mess from the moist dirt caking the walls, and her cheeks were sunken hollows.

And the loneliness . . . She thought she knew isolation. She didn’t even have her flock or Usti for company. And though she’d been shunned by her tribe, they were something. But this endless walk down into the grave taught her the true meaning of solitude: hopelessness.

But finally, there was something new and different. The tunnel leveled and opened wide. She moved faster, laughing aloud. She rushed out into the wide room, throwing her arms out and spinning about. She could barely see the spike-filled ceiling above or the walls out to either side.

It felt like freedom.

Something scraped in the darkness. She froze.

“Is someone there?” she shouted.

“. . . s . . . omone . . . the . . .” Her voice echoed back, hollow and faint.

“Please, don’t be afraid!” Xella cried out.

The scraping grew louder. She whirled, looking for the source. Something moved in the shadows. A beast. Maybe the size of a sheepdog. Usti followed me! she thought with desperate longing. But that didn’t seem right. Hope ignored doubt.

“Here, boy!” she called.

“. . . ere . . . oy . . .”

“Come he—” Her words strangled in her throat. It wasn’t a dog. It was hairless, black skin stretched tight over bones. And its head . . . “Demon!”

It lunged, slashing at her with its axehead mouth. Xella swung her sword, shadows dancing as the glowing weapon arced through the air. Her blade cut the demon’s body. The corpse landed with a rattle, like it was nothing more than a sack of old bones. The head bounced across the floor, before coming to a rest at the tunnel’s entrance.

“Felikia’s fire!” she cursed.

A low, scraping sound came from behind her. Then a second. And a third.

And a fourth.

* * *

Bones lay scattered all over the cave, grimy white with scraps of black, moldy leather clinging like filth. Rehman kicked another axehead skull over with disgust. A clean cut had sheared through the back of the skull.

“Xella did this,” Rehman told his sword.

He could almost see her, dancing around the cave, her golden blade flashing. The axehead demons must have attacked her from all sides. She was gaunt like him, her long, black hair a tangled, filthy mess swirling behind her. She moved with the grace of a maiden dancing in Felikia’s honor, stepping light, her dirty face so alive. Rehman stood in the cave’s center, entranced by his imagination, turning to follow her as she sprinted, attacked, dodged, and tumbled.

Xella swung and sliced through his imagination of the demons—their bodies the size of a large hound, with bony limbs tipped with sharp, curved claws. Half of a corpse landed at Rehman’s feet, right where a pile of bones lay. His imagination was so real, so vivid. His heart beat faster. For the first time in what felt like an eternity, he felt alive. He cheered when her sword felled another demon, and winced when she narrowly avoided a sweeping slice from an axehead.

“Get him!” he shouted, his voice echoing in the cavern. “Yeah! Kill them, Xella!”

Sweat beaded his forehead. He held his sword up high, waving her on. Three axeheads cornered her. She faced them, her face flushed, red, alive. They leaped. Her golden blade swung, slamming through the first demon’s shoulder. She pivoted, the demon falling into a pile of moldy bones, and dodged the next monster’s leap.

“You can do it!” Rehman cheered.

She cut the second one down, then dashed across the cave. She passed through Rehman in a flash of warmth. The last demon followed. She spun around and slammed her sword down at the flying beast. Axehead met sword edge. He could almost hear the ring of steel on bone as her sword sheared through the beast. It fell in pieces around her.

“She did it, sword!” Drunk exhilaration filled him. It didn’t seem to matter to Rehman that this all was in his head. His hallucination was so real, he thought he could reach out and touch her.

Xella relaxed, bending over and grasping her knees as she struggled to catch her breath. She didn’t see the last axehead stalking behind her.

“Behind you!” he shouted. She didn’t hear him. She wasn’t real, just his imagination running wild after days, maybe weeks, of mindless boredom.

The demon stalked closer and closer; it crouched. Its crescent snout gleamed in the golden light from her sword. He didn’t think. Fear guided him, and he swung his silver blade at the beast.

The thing leaped, axehead streaking towards Xella’s unprotected back.

Bedko’s Blade bit into leathery flesh, the shock jarring his arm. His stroke passed through the demon, driving its body towards the ground in ragged pieces; they bounced and rolled to a stop at two piles of bones.

He stared at the bones in disbelief. “I reached into the past . . .” he whispered. “How?”

Xella turned and gaped at the severed body.

This can’t be happening. I can’t actually have killed the beast. Those bones have been there for five hundred years.

Xella’s dark eyes widened as she saw him. She spoke, but no sound reached his ears. She reached out; longing painted on her face. Her fingers were slim, feminine, filled with a desperate need for contact. Unconsciously, his own hand rose up, their fingers merged, the past reflecting before him as impossible to touch as his image in a pool of water.

She wavered and vanished.

* * *

The grimy man stared at her, reaching out to touch her outstretched fingers. His face was sunken, his skin hung loose, and his filthy clothes hung off his emaciated frame. His hair was short, dark, as tangled as a bird’s nest. He may have been handsome, but it was hard to tell beneath the streaks of dirt.

“I’m not alone,” she whispered. “You drew the second sword!”

Their reflections came together and. . . She passed through him. He vanished.

“No!”

She collapsed over the corpse the apparition had slain. Isolation crushed her, as oppressive as the weight of all the stone above her, imprisoning her in darkness. Ragged sobs shook her body.

“Please, no! I can’t be alone again!”

After a while, the tears stopped. Hope had died within her. There was nothing left for her to do but walk.

* * *

I affected the past.

Over and over, that thought wormed through is mind.

I affected the past.

Rehman stumbled on. After the axehead chamber, the tunnel narrowed again. It descended, but not as steeply, curving like the undulations of a serpent. I affected the past. I saved Xella. He drew strength from that thought. It breathed life back into him.

He almost felt like whistling. “I saved Xella, sword.”

The sword remained unimpressed.

Rehman shook his head. “Come on, sword. I saved her.”

“It was my edge that slew the demon,” Rehman answered, using a deeper voice to pretend the sword was speaking.

“I swung you,” he retorted back in his normal voice.

“Technicality.”

“A technicality I’m more than willing to cling to because . . .” Rehman paused, throwing his arms wide. “I saved Xella!”

The tunnel widened abruptly ahead into a vast sea of darkness. It appeared the tunnel ended in nothingness. Rehman approached cautiously, his left hand trailing against the wall and his right clutching Bedko’s silver-glowing blade.

It wasn’t the end of the tunnel, merely a cliff. Some great chasm, wider than his light could reach across, had split the tunnel in twain. When he looked down, he saw nothing but the rock’s face disappearing into darkness.

“How am I supposed to climb this?” he asked the sword.

He studied the cliff face, noting it consisted of the same dark rock as the tunnel, full of crevasses and cracks for purchase, but covered in damp filth. And its depth . . . The bottom could just be out of sight of his light, or could be miles below. Fear beat in his breast.

“I can’t do this,” he complained.

“What choice do you have?” he pretended the sword asked back.

Light blossomed below, golden as the sun. Xella appeared, climbing down this cliff. She was far below, little more than a dark form with a brilliant sword strapped to her back. Hope burned inside Rehman. She had the courage to do it, so why not him?

“What choice do I have?”

* * *

Xella slumped against the cliff’s base, exhausted. Depressed.

Forever cursed to be alone.

If she still had tears left in her, she would have flooded the Tomb and drowned the sleeping god. But she was dry; a desert of despair filled her. She clutched Felikia’s Blade in her hand, staring at its shining surface.

Maybe I’ll just stay here and die . . . Let all those who called Father a blasphemer be damned! They can save their own cursed hides!

Silver light bathed her, mixing with her sword’s golden aura. It was soft, rippling like light dancing on the surface of a pond. She looked up. The stranger was just above her head, climbing awkwardly down. He had Bedko’s Blade secured in a makeshift harness. Hope grew inside her. She fought it down, reminding herself that it was just an apparition.

An apparition that saved my life.

He wavered, rippling, and his light was gone.

“See,” she whispered. “There’s no hope. I’m all alone . . .”

The silver light burst into existence beside her. The man sat slumped against the cliff wall. He turned and smiled at her, nodding his head. Exhaustion melted from his face as his lips moved, but she heard no sound.

“Hello,” she said back, returning his smile.

She felt suddenly shy, like it was a festival and she was meeting a new boy from a distant tribe. Her heart drummed in her chest while warmth flushed through her. Xella reached out, knowing he wasn’t real, but needing to see, to feel, for herself. She brushed his shoulder; her finger passed through his reflection, tingling with life.

Who was he? Where did he come from? Was he dead? But he has Bedko’s Blade, and I left that sword thrust into the Kurokin. Did he come after me? His clothes were strange, not sheepskin leathers, but fashioned from some other material made with a fine weave. There were curious, round fasteners made of bone holding his clothes together instead of rawhide lacings.

Am I seeing tomorrow? Was this soft man the second champion spoken of in the prophecy? The one who would follow after me? But who he was didn’t matter. Only what he meant: she wasn’t alone. Her eyes closed; she was so tired. She leaned her head towards him. Her face tingled. She smiled, knowing his reflection touched hers.

Sleep came.

* * *

Rehman awoke alone.

He felt rested for the first time since venturing into the Tomb. He sat for a moment, the pulsing breath of the slumbering god washing over him. She’d seen him . . . And he’d seen her. He didn’t understand how the past was reflecting on the present, but it lifted his spirits. She was so strong and capable, and her strength rubbed off on him.

He stood up, stretched his sore back, and pressed on.

The terrain at the bottom of the cliff was a flat, wide-open forest—well, that’s the best way I can describe it—of rock spikes jutting up from the floor. Rehman wound his way through the spikes, using Zarketh’s breath to navigate. So long as the stale air blew against his face, he had to be drawing closer.

As he walked, Xella would flicker into being. Golden light would blossom, sometimes ahead, occasionally behind, but usually to his right or left. They didn’t walk quite the same path, choosing different routes to navigate the “forest.” She wouldn’t appear for long, often mere heartbeats. Long enough for them to meet the other’s gazes, nod their heads, and then she’d flicker away.

Every time she appeared, it filled Rehman with new vigor. Xella had survived this oppressive place and succeeded in defeating Zarketh. So could he.

The forest of spikes ended at another towering cliff face pierced by a huge, unevenly carved opening lined with spikes. For a moment, Xella appeared at the entrance, golden light painting the opening. He smiled at her; she beckoned him to follow.

* * *

Seeing Tomorrow, as Xella dubbed the apparition, flicker into existence as she threaded her way through the spikes kept her hopeful. He had a boyish grin plastered on his face every time he saw her, spurring her to keep walking.

The spikes ended at a sheer cliff that seemed identical to the one she’d climbed down, except a single, yawning opening pierced this wall. She studied the dark opening for minutes, maybe hours. Xella had come to savor the freedom of the spike valley where the ceiling was so high up it lay out of the reach of her light. She could almost pretend she was walking through a really dark night. That illusion was shattered, now; she trembled at the thought of reentering the oppressive closeness of another tunnel.

Silver light blossomed. Tomorrow was back. Strength rushed into her. She wasn’t alone. Xella motioned him to follow and stepped into the tunnel. His light died, but she knew he was following. Maybe not for tens or hundreds of years, but he walked the same, oppressive trail she did.

This tunnel spiraled in a tight, steep pattern. She feared another eternity-long descent like the first one. However, in what felt like only an hour, it flattened and widened into a large room. Relief flooded her. Open! The ceiling was well out of reach of her hands.

Just like the axehead room.

She tensed, scanning the room, straining to hear.

Silver light blossomed; Tomorrow manifested.

Fear twisted his face. His silver sword was swinging in a clumsy arc. A horrible, multi-legged thing leaped at him. Its body was black, bloated, and covered in thick, spiny hair. The demon almost resembled a spider, but no spider grew to the size of a large dog. And no spider’s legs ended in grasping hands with long, thin fingers.

Ichor spurted purple, splashing Tomorrow as his blade cut the thing in half. It fell to the ground, then wavered and vanished. His mouth was wide open. He screamed, terror filling his eyes. He swung his sword in a wide circle, batting a second spider away. More and more appeared around her, crawling on the walls and ceiling, scurrying on the floor. One passed right through her, leaving behind numbing cold.

“Watch out!” she shouted, forgetting he couldn’t hear her. He didn’t even notice her.

He fought, desperately slicing and thrusting his sword. Every time he killed one, its body vanished. She felt so helpless. She wanted to aid him. One leaped and landed on Tomorrow’s back, slamming him to the ground. The abominations swarmed him. Clutching hands seized him. One grabbed his throat, the fingers so long they wrapped around his entire neck, and squeezed.

“No!” she shouted. “You can’t take him! I can’t be alone!”

He saved me! The memory blazed in her mind; the axehead lying dead, slain by him. This has to work!

She swung her blade.

* * *

The spider’s clammy hand squeezed the life out of Rehman.

His vision grew fuzzy and black. He struggled to escape, but other spiders pinned him to the rough cave floor. Spindly hands grasped his arms, his legs, his torso, and his neck. Their grips were iron manacles, crushing him. I knew I’d fail. Why did the sword pick me?

Xella appeared, Felikia’s Blade burning with golden light and arcing swiftly down. It sliced through the demon. Cold ichor spilled across Rehman’s chest. The spider choking him fell dead. She swung again, severing three limbs on another. His sword arm came free. He stabbed and kicked and sliced. With Xella’s aid, he scrambled to his feet.

“I can do this!” he shouted, exhilaration flooding into him. Xella was with him. Together, they could defeat them.

More came skittering across the ceiling and dropped down at him. Rehman swung, parting a bloated body and raining more stinking, purple ichor on him. Xella danced past him, her glowing sword flashing from the past, killing demons in the present.

“Yeah!” he roared, brandishing Bedko’s Blade. “Which one of you spiders wants to get swatted next?”

Nothing moved. He blinked; they were all dead, hacked to pieces. Xella grinned at him, nodding her approval. Then she wavered and vanished. He exhaled, the excitement bleeding off of him. He struggled to wipe the ichor off his face. It tasted foul, bitter, and smelled far worse.

Through death shall history transcend.

The prophecy echoed in his head as he pressed on. “Is that’s what happening, sword? Is the past’s reflection merging with the present’s?”

The sword didn’t answer. It never did.

“You’re no help.”

Past the spider’s lair, the path narrowed, but went straight for a time, until it widened into another huge gallery. Only instead of leading to a cliff, the path skirted along a rock wall, with a huge drop on the right. The path was narrower than his feet were long.

“Well, Xella crossed this. So can I.”

He had to press his back against the rock’s face, sliding his feet sideways, his toes dangling over the lip. A bit of rock broke free, tumbling and echoing loudly as it bounced deeper, and deeper, and deeper until the sounds just faded away. He never heard that final, resounding crash of it hitting the bottom.

“Skies above!” he shivered, and looked up. “This is just like cleaning the temple’s roof, sword. Don’t look over the side and keep focusing on something else. It’s not so bad that way.”

Xella manifested, standing in thin air before him. He blinked as she stopped her leisurely stroll to look at him, a curious expression on her face. How can she float? He looked at her feet. A rocky surface surrounded them, fuzzing into haze after a few fingerswidth.

The ledge he perched on was jagged, crumbling. “The cliff’s edge has collapsed since you walked this path, Xella.”

She watched him, shaking her head, a playful smile on her face as he shuffled along.

“I’m so glad I can amuse you,” he muttered, fear squeezing his heart. “I guess this means you didn’t have to cross this way. Great.”

He shuffled. His foot slipped. His stomach lurched as his right hand tried to grip the wall and his left arm pinwheeled. He teetered over the edge, about to fall forever like the rock.

Xella caught him and shoved Rehman back. Warmth burst through him. She pressed him up against the wall, her body pulsing against his in a steady, rhythmic beat. A heart’s beat. He panted, staring into her dark eyes. Her lips were so close to his. A sudden desire gripped him. He leaned in to kiss her.

She vanished.

* * *

Tomorrow was with her more and more often. She could still feel the lingering warmth of his body when she’d pressed against him. She didn’t understand what had happened, but his foot had vanished through the floor, and it had looked like he was about to fall. She’d reacted and . . . touched him.

She wasn’t alone.

Time had lost any sort of meaning. Did they walk for hours between rests? Or was it days, or weeks, or only minutes? When they grew tired, they would lean against the same wall, just inches and centuries apart. When Xella woke up, he would be watching her, and she couldn’t help smiling winsomely at him. He was always talking, and she wished to hear his voice. She imagined it high-pitched and full of boyish enthusiasm.

The tunnel widened into another room, spikes teething the ceiling. Tomorrow was with her, his sword gripped tight in his hand as he scanned the room. She stood at his back, looking the other way. What sort of horrors dwelled here? And when would they attack?

Nothing came. They moved cautiously across the room, watching and listening. He moved strangely, like he was stepping over something. Fear tightened her stomach. He must be stepping over the corpses of demons that hadn’t yet died for her.

A great, rumbling groan echoed through the room. A strong breath of wind rushed past her. She flinched. Tomorrow didn’t react until he noticed her, then he looked around, bewildered. The groan returned, louder, almost a physical force that rattled her bones.

And it rattled the Tomb.

Xella was thrown off her feet, the ground writhing beneath her, and landed heavily on her side. Her sword slid away, still glowing, and bounced wildly across the floor. Tomorrow stood in shock, staring at her. He didn’t move. The ground heaved and rippled about his feet, yet he stood unaffected. With a splintering crash, a spike fell from the ceiling. It impacted the ground, bursting into rubble and spraying her face with sharp rocks.

“Skies above!” she screamed, and tossed about on the ground.

More spikes crashed down. She rolled onto her back, getting caught in a small crevasse. Above her, a stony fang torqued as even the ceiling shook. Her eyes widened in horror. I need to move! Felikia’s flames, I need to move!

Tomorrow grabbed her. As he hauled her away, a warmth flushed through her. The spike crashed down where she’d lain a heartbeat ago, leaving behind a mound of rubble. Another violent shake bounced her out of his grip and rolled her across the floor. He followed and yanked her clear of another plummeting fang.

It was like he knew where they would fall.

* * *

Xella slipped out of his hands, bounced by the shaking that he could only witness but not experience. She landed amid the ruins of a spike, her body passing right through the rubble. For her, the spike hadn’t fallen.

Yet.

He lunged, grabbed her, and pulled her clear.

Rehman dropped his sword, his other hand seizing her, and he pulled her upright, wrapping his arms around her. She clung to him, her body quaking in his arms as he struggled to hold on to her. She squeezed him tight. Silent screams ripped from her lips.

“I won’t let you go!” he shouted, his words echoing through the quiet cave.

She peered into his eyes. Some of her fear retreated.

“You saved me!” Rehman yelled. “I’ll save you!”

She was grimy, haggard, terrified—and beautiful. He kissed her. Her lips were warm, sweet. The pulsing between them grew faster, matching his racing heart. He’d kissed a girl or two before, but it had not been like this. There had not been this . . . energy. Life flowed between them, driving back the death haunting the Tomb. Her eyes squeezed shut and her tension melted away, banished by—

She was gone. He stumbled forward; arms wrapped around empty air.

* * *

Xella stood transfixed.

Her lips still burned with Tomorrow’s kiss. He’d vanished, but the warmth remained. A giddy, excited energy burst inside her. She’d never been kissed before. Every boy had shunned her when they had learned of her father’s supposed blasphemy.

She twirled in the cave, laughing. There was life in this dark, oppressive prison. And it burned with energy. She tripped on a piece of rubble, stumbled, and blinked. The quaking had stopped while they’d kissed. She strode with a bounce to her step to where the Sword of the Sun lay, glowing with its yellow light.

Tomorrow appeared at the mouth of the cave. He waited for her, smiling like a pleased boy. She blushed; his eyes . . . appreciated her. She joined him, her hand immediately reaching out to touch him. She passed right through him, leaving behind a pleasant tingle. Disappointment stabbed her. She wanted to touch him again, but she’d settle for just being with him.

The quakes grew more frequent. A great snort of wind and a rumble would always precede them. Sometimes it happened to Xella, and sometimes to Tomorrow. Fear would clench her as she watched him stumble and bounce around. She’d try to hold him, to keep him from being crushed by falling spikes or toppling off narrow ledges.

When the quaking struck her time, terror gripped Xella. She’d cling to him, letting Tomorrow protect her. She felt helpless as she was tossed about, and protected when he grabbed her and yanked her to safety.

They were drawing closer, their histories bleeding together more and more. He was almost never gone and even when the Tomb wasn’t shaking, she could sometimes touch him. She would be walking and her hand would brush his and, for a moment, it would feel solid, real . . . Then she’d pass right through him.

A loud wheeze began to suffuse Zarketh’s breathing. They grew ever closer to the god. Whatever she had to do, she was glad Tomorrow was with her. They kept trudging deeper into death. Sometimes, she wondered if she hadn’t actually died the moment she’d stepped into the Tomb. It must have been weeks since she’d eaten or drank anything.

Other demons attacked. Slithering serpents with two heads and no eyes; large insects with thick shells and pincered hands that scurried sideways; furry beasts that walked on their arms and attacked with short, nimble legs. A cavalcade of nightmares.

They defeated them together.

* * *

The path ended at an inky wall of darkness. The sleeping god’s breath rushed past Rehman like a stiff breeze, rustling his clothing and grimy hair. He rubbed his chin. Frowning, he noticed that his face was bare. He should have had a full beard, but not even a whisker had sprouted.

Time didn’t matter down here.

“Well, this is it, Xella,” he whispered.

“It is,” she answered.

He jumped, staring at her, wondering if his ears had deceived him.

“I guess I’ve caught up to tomorrow,” she smiled.

He nodded; his mind went blank and his mouth felt dry.

“What’s your name?” she asked. “I can’t keep calling you Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” he croaked.

She laughed. It was rich, sweet, and did not belong in the Tomb. A shivering quake ran through the ground. They both stumbled, catching a hold of each other. The pulsing warmth was gone, replaced by the feel of actual flesh, stringy muscles, and hard bones.

The shaking stopped. Maybe Zarketh only rolled over.

“It’s Rehman,” he answered.

“I’m . . .”

“Xella,” he answered. “There’s a statue of you in front of the Kurokin.”

She blinked. “A . . . statue?”

“You’re a heroine. You saved the world. Your statue stands at the center of the temple grounds. People sing praises to you every year.”

She mouthed his words, awe widening her dark eyes. “How many tomorrows are you from?”

“Five hundred years.”

“Felikia’s flames,” she muttered. “And I’m famous? Do I get showered with gifts?”

He hesitated. How can I tell her the truth? Neither of us are leaving.

Xella’s face fell. “I don’t return?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She forced a smile. “I think we died the moment we entered the Tomb.”

“Then why do I feel so alive right now?”

“Hope? Love? Intangibles that are beyond death?” She shrugged, “I don’t know.”

Love. Rehman wondered if he loved her. She’d come to mean everything to him, but what else did he have to cling to in this Tomb? She smiled at him; that made his heart beat faster. She leaned in and gave him a simple kiss on the lips.

“It’s time,” she whispered; the heat of her lips lingering on his.

He nodded, facing the darkness. They would have to pass through it. He could do it; Xella was with him.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she whispered. “It’s great not to be alone.”

She took his hand, so alive, and they stepped into darkness and death.

* * *

Cold plunged through Xella. The only warmth was Rehman’s hand clutching hers. Light exploded, gold and silver, pushing back the darkness and the cold. Their swords shone so bright, almost blinding. Hers with all the fierceness of the sun, his with all the gentleness of the moon. Rehman squeezed her hand.

She squeezed back.

Their light formed a bubble against the darkness that pressed against them from all sides. Every time Zarketh exhaled, his breath slammed against their light, trying to snuff them out. Xella held her blade up, willing it to shine brighter. She finally had someone, and she would fight to be with Rehman for as long as possible. Maybe they would die down here, but she wanted to savor every heartbeat of his presence she could. She poured her emotions into the sword: the joy of his companionship, the hope for the world above, and the love she’d discovered in the darkest pits.

“I am the world’s love!” she shouted at Zarketh’s oppression.

The darkness recoiled.

“The world’s hope!” Rehman roared.

Their light exploded out, banishing the sea of ink. It withdrew like a receding flood, leaving behind slimy, black rocks and spikes jutting across the broken ground. They stood in a wide cavern. Zarketh’s breath washed over them, and the ground shook with a rhythmic pounding, a pulse vibrating through her bones.

Ahead, darkness glowed black.

“Bedko’s water!” Rehman gasped. “What is that?”

Xella did not have the words to describe it. A black light pulsed ahead in time to the vibrations rippling through the ground. It was the darkest, blackest thing she’d ever seen. And yet it shone with some sort of . . . unlight. Her mind grappled with it, twisting about as she struggled to comprehend it. She was like a blind person being described the color blue.

This dark light was beyond her imagination.

VERMIN

The word groaned through the ground. She didn’t so much as hear the single word as feel it vibrating through her bones. A deep, black malevolence filled the grating vibration, chilling Xella’s blood. A god spoke to her.

SCRATCHING CLAWING DIGGING

Demons skittered out of holes in the ground, loped past spikes, or crawled across the ceiling. Axeheads, spiders, two-headed snakes. All the demons they’d fought. All the deformed and twisted mockeries of the life who dwelled free beneath the skies.

WHY DO YOU DWELL ABOVE UNGRATEFUL DISGUSTING VERMIN

“Run!” Rehman shouted. “We can’t fight this many!”

They ran to the pulsing, unlight, blades slashing and felling any abhorrent demons that threw themselves into their path. The cavern quaked, spikes dropped from the ceiling, cracks split across the cavern’s floor. They scrambled, leaped, stumbled, and kept running.

The unlight grew brighter as they neared. A massive, stone heart beat upon the cavern floor, grinding as it contracted and expelled the god’s breath. The beating stone was manacled to the ground by slimy ligaments of rotting, dead flesh.

VERMIN FREE TO SCURRY BENEATH The ENDLESS BLUE

HATE

“Free?” Xella whispered. “Skies above.”

Pity stirred in Xella’s heart. Zarketh was trapped beneath the rocks, buried in this tomb. All that weight of all that earth above crushing down, oppressing him. Imprisoning him. He hates us because we’re free. Humans roam beneath the sky. Beneath his wife.

KILL YOU ALL

BURY YOU BENEATH MOUNTAINS

OPEN UP THE GROUND AND SWALLOW YOU

HATE VERMIN HATE

Xella and Rehman reached the beating rock, the heart of a dying god. Demons raced towards them, mere moments from tearing them limb from limb. She wanted to do something for the suffering god, but what could she do? All she had was a sword and no time to think of anything else, to do anything else.

“I’m sorry,” Xella whispered to the suffering god. “But we have no choice.” He had to die. I can’t let those ungrateful bastards be destroyed.

Together they raised their swords and stabbed.

* * *

The demons raced in from every direction. Rehman raised the Sword of the Moon as Xella raised the Sword of the Sun, tips pointing down at the beating, black rock. This is how we die. Saving the world. He stabbed. His sword sank into the stone as if it was water.

Light exploded around him: silver, gold, black.

He reached for Xella, grasped her hand as the world folded. Everything became . . . more. Geometries Rehman did not even have the words to begin to describe filled his universe. Things bent, folded, or twisted into impossible shapes. He felt stretched, compressed, inflated. Everything merged, becoming a single point of existence, and yet everything also expanded, filling every fingerwidth of creation.

They were everywhere and nowhere.

Then Rehman bounced back into being, stumbling and falling onto his backside amid soft, wonderful, and so very alive grass. It was dark, a soft twilight bathing the world with a blue glow. Xella laughed beside him, stretched out on her back, luxuriating in the fragrant grass. Above, a black disk hung in the sky, ringed by blue fire.

“What is that?” Xella whispered.

Rehman recognized it. “A joining,” he answered. “Felikia’s Sun and Bedko’s Moon merging together.”

Daylight exploded as the moon and sun separated.

Before them lay Zarketh’s beating heart. Rehman’s eyes widened. No, it was the Kurokin with both blades embedded into it. He stood up, looking around carefully. Everything looked . . . familiar. The land had almost the same general features of the temple grounds, only more pronounced, unaffected by human will. There was the rise that Bedko’s temple would one day sit upon, and there was the slope that would lead down to the market and his parent’s dry goods store.

The wind gusted. Heljina’s beautiful song chorused on the breeze, filling Rehman up with its perfect harmony. Xella laughed and stood facing the wind, letting it blow her grimy, bedraggled hair.

“She’s happy!” Xella shouted. “Can’t you feel it? We reunited them.”

“What?” Rehman asked, confused. “Who?”

“Heljina! The Kurokin is Zarketh’s heart. We didn’t kill the god, we set him free!” Her smile almost glowed. It was infectious.

Rehman walked to the holy stone, staring at it. In his mind, he pictured it beating furiously, swelling here, contracting there. He touched it, and felt the blue stone’s warmth and its rhythm of gentle pulses—a god at peace. He and Xella had traveled into the past, stopping Zarketh before his depression could doom the world in the future. One day, maybe five hundred years from now, Xella would draw her sword and then he’d draw his, and they’d do it all over again. And again.

His brain hurt just thinking about it.

Xella threw her arms around him and kissed him. That helped to stop his mind from aching.

“What do we do now?” he asked her after their lips parted. He enjoyed the feel of her warmth in his arms, her life.

“Whatever we want. We passed through death. We’re free, Rehman.”

Free. He mouthed the words, savoring them. “Have you ever wondered what’s over those mountains?”

She grinned. “Let’s find out.”

The END

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The Assassin Remorse takes place in my Jewel Machine Universe!

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Weekly Free Story: Mutalated

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

Mutilated

The scrabbling of claws on stone was his only warning.

Kan dropped his jewelchine torch, the red beam dancing through the air as he whirled. The sleeping girl—her head resting on his shoulder, her body held to his chest—gasped awake at the violent turn.

Steel rasped on leather as his right hand drew his resonance sword. He activated the jewel machine in the weapon’s hilt by rote. A hum, barely perceptible over the girl’s surprised shout, reverberated through the air. The emerald in the jewelchine sang with one of the Seven Harmonious Tones, the Earth Tone of Bazim, and channeled the echoes of creation into the sword’s steel.

The pulse of Kan’s blood pumping through his veins remained steady as the mastiff lunged out of the darkness.

Only the glint of diamonds gave Kan any warning and a target to attack. He thrust just below the glimmer of the mastiff’s eyes and rammed the straight, thin resonance blade down the massive hound’s gullet. The black-furred form crashed into Kan, impaled on three feet of steel.

The girl screamed in fright as the big man recoiled under the impact, his sword penetrating deeper into the hound’s innards. His footing lost, Kan didn’t fight to stay upright. He fell backward, cradling the girl to his chest as he sliced his sword upward.

The resonance blade, humming with the power of its emerald machine, had an edge that could cut normal steel like butter. It sliced through the hound’s spine and skull before cutting through the obsidian jewelchine that had replaced the mutilated mastiff’s brain.

Kan’s left side crashed through the scraggly twigs of a saltbush, the girl crying out in shock. He grunted as he landed hard onto the dry, desert ground. The mastiff, bigger than any breed he’d ever seen, fell upon him, its dead weight crushing his legs.

“Harmonious tones,” he cursed, the pulse of his blood as steady as ever, unchanging despite the pain spreading across his back from his fall.

Already, the topaz jewelchines soothed the hurt.

“Kan,” the girl, Alamekia, gasped, her scrawny, ebony face contorted in fear. She was almost all bones, starvation stretching skin taunt across the features of her skull, replacing the normal round features of a Shattered Islander with pitiful sorrow. “What is that?”

“Mutilation,” snarled Kan, kicking the jewelchine automaton off his legs.

He’d seen other beasts mutilated by the University, but hounds were a new depravity. The ancients had long known of the resonance of the Seven Harmonious Tones and the one Dark Discord with natural gemstones, a different stone tuned to a different Tone. But the discovery that they could be manipulated via metallic wiring and harnessed to power machines had transformed society. Gold wires worked best, but even cheap tin could conduct the power. Called jewelchines, these devices tapped into the echoes of the eight spirits who’d created everything. Each year, scholars across the world discovered new and diverse uses.

Some were even beautiful.

“Can you walk?” he asked the girl cradled still in his arm.

The girl nodded her head, her eyes wide. Red light painted half her face. The discarded jewelchine torch, a slender tube of leather with a colored lens at one end and a diamond jewelchine inside radiating light, survived impacting hard ground. She trembled on his arms. He felt the frantic beat of her heart through his heavy shirt. Kan, distantly, could remember that same frantic beat in his chest when the typhoon had ravaged his village as a boy no older than her.

“Good, move behind me and—”

He threw the girl to his left. She crashed into a saltbush with a shriek as the second mastiff bounded out of the darkness. The beast’s eyes betrayed its attack with silver-white flashes. The air in the desert was clear. The stars and moon provided a modicum of light to see by and to glint off the diamond jewelchines embedded in the creature’s eyes.

Kan swung his sword as the hound leaped at him, expecting the mastiff to crash into his chest, teeth savaging his throat. But the beast landed a few feet short of Kan in a dangerous crouch, its body illuminated by the discarded torch’s focused beam. Short, coarse fur covered its twisted frame. Nodules bulged beneath the skin, creating fierce bumps across the beast’s hide. Its mouth opened. Metal glinted in its gullet. A barrel.

Kan smelled the oily scent of refined naphtha.

“The Seven Harmonies!” He rolled to his right as fire burst from the hound’s mouth.

A sheet of orange flame rippled the air. Light blossomed. Heat seared Kan’s face. He grunted, rolling faster. The bush he’d thrown the girl into, though not touched, caught fire. The dry brush blazed into a bonfire.

They put a Tone-deaf firebelcher in the beast’s stomach?

The horrors of the University always shocked Kan, though they shouldn’t have. His depravity knew no depths. Kan’s body was a mutilated display of the bushy-eyebrowed man’s work. Kan’s wide-legged trousers and long-sleeved shirt hid the evidence from view. His broad-shouldered and deep-chested frame resulted from the University’s cruelty. He stood two or more heads taller than any he knew, making him seem a foreigner despite his dusky olive skin.

The end of his alpaca cloak smoldered as he gained his feet. Fiery death chased him. His pulse remained steady. He missed that frantic beating of his heart, the surge of cold danger through the veins, that feeling of life instead of the dull, rhythmic pulsing that circulated blood through his body.

The hound twisted its head, mouth open, fur burning around its muzzle from the firebelcher’s heat. Kan raced at a speed the fastest runner would envy, circling the beast before darting in for his attack. He dashed past the gout of flame, the heat billowing around him. His sword hummed in his hand. He prayed to the Harmonious Seven, but not their Dark Brother.

His cloak burst into flames. Heat soaked through his trousers. His skin cooked, the topaz jewelchines embedded in his flesh soothing away the pain as he closed the distance. The hound twisted, moving its bulk to bring its fire directly upon Kan.

His sword hissed down.

He severed the beast’s head from its body, cutting spine, wires, and the barrel of the firebelcher. The flames snuffed out as the beast’s head fell to the ground. Its body remained upright for five steady beats, blood and oily naphtha bubbling from the severed neck. Then it, too, slumped to the ground; the control signal from the obsidian jewelchine in the automaton’s head severed.

“What is that, Kan?” the girl asked as he ripped off his burning cloak. She moved forward on her hands and feet, crawling almost like a lizard. A scratch bled on her cheek, shiny in the roaring light of the blazing brush. “There are wires sticking out of its neck. And that smell.” Her small nose wrinkled.

“Refined naphtha,” he grunted, turning to face the direction from which the hounds had come.

Irritation stabbed through him. They’d been so close to the draw that led up the cliff. For two days, he’d carried the girl across the desert, moving from supply cache to supply cache. The precious water stored in them had allowed the pair to survive the soaring heat of the day. He’d rescued her from the slave caravan, saved her from the mutilation of his knives.

Flashes of pain, of screaming agony, wracked all of him while the delicate face of the bushy-eyebrowed man peered down at Kan. Those eyebrows were wispy snow, though not from age. His eyes smiled as he brought his knife down and cut.

The memories almost overwhelmed Kan.

“Are you hurt?” he growled to the girl, his eyes scanning the bejeweled night sky. He sheathed his resonance sword and drew his pistol from a leather holster on his hip loaded with a clip of three small darts.

“Fine,” the girl answered, still crouched by the dead mastiff. “Why would anyone make it breathe fire?”

“Because he could do it.”

There.

In the darkness over the desert, a shape occulted starlight as it drifted through the sky. A condor, swelled to immense size, carried the control officer. Jewelchine automatons had no mind, their brains replaced by an obsidian machine which channeled the Dark Discord and were controlled by harmonies broadcast by the officer—the fruits of the University’s work.

The University of Harmonic Research created monstrosities with their knowledge, soldiers for their client. The process was bloody and utilized the forbidden obsidian jewelchines, tapping into foul Nizzig’s discord. Most of the “subjects” did not survive. Caravans of children, on the verge of pubescence, were driven across to the University. To him. Out there, in the heart of the desert, agony lay. Granite buildings, baked by day, rose over the largest concentration of black iron in the world. Only with foul black iron could Nizzig’s discord be channeled into machines, violating nature with grotesqueries.

The Path and its Guides, founded by the Tinker, sought to rescue those poor children from their fates.

Kan and his fellow Guides knew the Depression. They scouted it, lived in it, planned their routes, learned how to avoid the patrols, all so they could rescue what few children they could when the caravans were at their most vulnerable. Kan had saved twenty-seven children. Of the Guides, he was the most successful. None had survived half as many Paths as him.

Trails could be erased from sight while paths walked across hard stone would leave no trace, but these new hounds changed everything. How could you hide from the keen nose of a hound? Ten other Guides were with him on the raid. Did they live?

Kan pushed questions from his mind and raised his pistol. At this distance, the odds of hitting the control officer were low if he were stationary. But if Kan killed the Tone-deaf bastard, any other automatons sweeping towards them would stand idle, lacking the control harmonics.

Then he would have twenty-eight successes.

Kan fired all three shots in rapid succession, his arm steady, his eyes aiming down the metal barrel, lining up the front sight with the two rear. The weapon hissed as the heliodor jewelchine channeled the harmonics of the Tone of Wind. Air propelled the slender, steel darts at high speed. They streaked through the night.

And missed.

Kan yanked the clip from the wooden handle of the pistol and fished the spare from his belt. He had six more shots. He had to eliminate the officer. If there were more automatons out of in the dark, they could see them even without the blazing fire. They would chase Kan and the girl up the draw, firing dartcasters and projectield launchers. The climb was treacherous enough without dodging attacks.

“Did you get him?” the girl asked, peering into the dark as she knelt, her bony face painted with fierce oranges and black shadows.

The hiss cut off his answer. The metal dart buried into Kan’s chest over his heart. A wet crunch and grating crack echoed as the projectile slammed through his ribs. The shock threw him back. He landed on the ground with a grunt, blood welling through his brown shirt.

“Kan!” she gasped, pressing low to the ground. The girl knew how to survive.

“I’m fine.” He grasped the steel dart. It was as thin as a finger bone. He grunted as he yanked it out. More blood flowed, but the topaz jewelchines soothed the wound. Already, it closed.

“That hit you in the heart.” Awe strained the girl’s words. “That kills. I’s seen it.”

“I don’t have a heart.” The words were reflexive. He thrust his pistol into her hands. She would escape. “There is a draw that climbs the cliff. Amo Ponthia will meet you at the top. She’ll take you the rest of the way on the Path.”

The girl didn’t argue. Survivors never did. The children who were new slaves, still holding out hope that they would again see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cried and sniveled. Alamekia darted away at a crouch as Kan rose, his left hand held out before him, fingers splayed in warding. He drew his sword with the right.

If I had a heart, it would be beating in terror and telling me to flee.

The moment he stood, the hisses came. Falling onto his back had dropped him out of the automatons’ line of sight. But now, at least two dartcasters fired at him, shooting larger projectiles and with more accuracy than his pistol.

They struck the curved dome of the amethyst energy projected from his left hand. The jewelchine embedded in his palm, the wires running between his fingers and connecting with the network of gold and black iron threads that wormed beneath his skin like a second set of veins and arteries, activated at a thought. It resonated with the Tone of Protection. The darts crashed into the curved shield’s harmony, and deflected. One hissed over his head, creasing through his blond hair.

Kan’s eyes stared at the dark shape in the sky. What are you thinking up there?

Only one of the University’s mutilations should possess Kan’s embedded shield.

The final dart hissed out of the darkness and crashed into his shield. The ricochet buried it in the dirt by his right foot. His breath quickened as he listened above the hum of his shield and the crackle of the burning brush for the automatons’ approach.

The diamonds in their eyes betrayed them.

Five pairs glinted red in the darkness. Kan took a deep breath, visualizing his enemy. They spread wide, preparing to come at him from five different angles. They would be swift, brutal. Their attacks aimed to kill him as fast as possible. Scenarios whirled through his mind. His hand tightened on the leather wrapped hilt of his resonance blade, the hum reassuring.

He tensed, ready to act.

The ball glinted firelight as it arced out of the darkness. Kan cursed, burying his eyes into the crook of his elbow. It landed at his feet with a dull thud and rolled against his boot. The light’s brilliance warmed his skin as the pulstun’s diamond released its built up energy. It bled through the skin of his arms and his eyelids. For a moment, his radius and ulna appeared as dark shadows amid red-glowing flesh.

He dropped his arm as the automatons attacked, his vision spared from the stunning blast while their jewelchine eyes were unaffected. These ones were humans, though it was difficult to tell if they were male or female after the changes to their bodies. They’d grown as big as Kan, dressed in gray uniforms, their faces a mix of dusky olives, browns, and one ebony; slaves brought from the corners of Democh and its neighbors. Each held their own resonance sword, hums buzzing through the air. Two were newly mutilated. Instead of heads covered by hair or even smooth skin, they had domed cranial plates of obsidian replacing the top halves of their skulls, their skin growing unevenly to cover it.

The sight of his almost future always stirred horror through Kan. He imagined having a heart fluttering as he gazed at them moving in for the kill.

He had to move faster. His only advantage was his intact brain.

With a grunt, Kan darted towards the automaton to his right, his legs enhanced by the network of emerald and helidor jewelchines which strengthened and quickened his limbs. His blade hissed in a quick arc. It took the automaton a moment to react to the blurring charge. Kan’s blade sang, a hard, vicious swipe.

The automaton’s head parted from its body in a spray of blood. Severed wires protruded from the cut. The body stood rigid for a heartbeat longer before collapsing with the head. Kan already moved, using the momentum to turn his body and meet a slashing sword. He parried.

The other four were on him, resonance blades swinging. Sweat broke out on Kan’s forehead as he whipped his blade back and forth. His left hand thrust forward, his purple shield pulsing into life to deflect their weapons. When sword met sword, the air hummed with vibration, emerald jewelchines flaring with verdant light. Violet waves rippled across his shield with every impact.

He retreated, stepping over the slain automaton. The world slowed as he fought, all his focus bent on keeping those four blades from finding his flesh. They would kill him as fast as he’d killed the first. He couldn’t stay still. He couldn’t let them surround him. He had to be liquid, always moving, embracing the Tone of Water. Adaptation was his only chance, changing, flowing with circumstance, surrendering to necessity.

Waiting for his opening.

Only a handful of heartbeats after the clash began, he spotted it. The automatons had funneled too close together as they’d followed his retreat. None of the four had paid much attention to the others, too focused on their orders: kill. Their shoulders bumped together, hindering their swings for a moment.

Kan didn’t think. He acted.

His sword took an older automaton, a dartcaster slung over its shoulder, in the upper thigh. The enhanced blade cut with ease through the thing’s leg and then bit deep into its torso. Despite the flowing blood, Kan knew it didn’t live. How could it when it had no mind? It was a husk. A weapon.

This was mercy.

The automaton folded up and collapsed mid-swing, its blade missing wide. Kan kept moving, stabbing downward at where its heart would be. His resonance sword pierced the thing’s ribcage with ease and then cracked through the ruby jewelchine, carefully shaped to pump blood through its body. The gem burst. Scarlet light flared through the crimson bubbling out of the wound.

The automaton went limp. Damaging the heart jewelchine or the brain jewelchine were the only ways to kill one swiftly. Blood loss wasn’t quick enough. They would feel no pain, and their network of topaz jewelchines would, given time, heal any wounds.

Pain flared in Kan’s left arm as he darted past his enemies. The tip of a resonance sword grazed him. The nick sliced through his thick shirt and two inches of muscle. But it missed any wires. Already, the pain soothed as his flesh healed. He turned, facing the three remaining automatons. They fanned out, ignoring their dead. Their eyes glinted bright.

A new model, crimson flickering on its obsidian cranial plate, lunged fast, the enhanced body moving swifter than a normal human. Kan deflected with his shield, his left hand angled to let its blade stab past him. At the same instant, he lunged a stop-thrust at the heart of the other new automaton charging in.

His attack was too fast for the thing to bring up its own palm to shield. It was standard for the automatons to have amethyst jewelchines buried in both palms. His sword knifed for the thing’s heart jewelchine, hissing through the air.

The purple shield blossoming across the automaton’s chest shocked Kan.

His sword struck the protective energy. The curve of the shield sent his blade sliding up and to the left, thrusting over the automaton’s shoulder. Kan gaped. The thing had an amethyst jewelchine buried in its chest as well as its palms. A new improvement devised by him.

“Harmonious tones,” Kan grunted, his footing ruined by the surprise. He stumbled past the automaton.

As he did, the enemy blade hissed. It sliced deep into Kan’s left side, his flesh providing almost no resistance. The sword reached a foot or more into him, severing the network of wires running on the outside of his skin and damaging organs. Blood streamed down his side, soaking into his shirt and trousers. His leg buckled as he struggled to regain his footing.

No soothing energy flowed to the wound. His left hand felt at his side, brushed the severed gold and black iron wires protruding from his wound, disrupting the left half of his network of jewelchines. He tripped over the severed automaton’s leg and fell on his face to the ground. Dirt stuck to the spreading blood as he rolled onto his back. The third automaton, an older model, pivoted smoothly, drawing back its sword to ram the point into Kan’s chest.

He raised his left hand between him and his attacker and tried to generate his shield. Nothing. Too many control wires were severed on the left side, disconnecting the obsidian jewelchines that gave him direct control over his protection.

At least the girl has a chance.

Knowing it was futile, he acted. He let go of his sword and raised his right arm, fingers splayed wide. Kan would fight against his cruelties to his last breath.

The darts hissed out of the darkness and crashed into the lunging automaton’s head. Sparks flew as the first pierced skin and struck the obsidian cranial plate beneath, leaving a long, bleeding gash across its forehead. The second scored the cheek; a flap of bloody skin fell dangling. The third took it in the eye, driving deep. A flash of white light burst from the cavity, the diamond jewelchine disrupted. The automaton flinched enough at the attack, conflicting instructions jarring through its obsidian jewelchine. Its downward thrust slammed into the desert floor inches from Kan’s side.

His right hand pointed at the automaton’s chest. He triggered the jewelchine buried in his palm.

He didn’t conjure a shield.

The beam of pure sunlight didn’t so much as fire from his hand as appear. A long shaft blazed out over the dark desert, searing through the chest of the automaton. It lasted not even a heartbeat and left behind a burning afterimage across Kan’s vision.

The Tinker had made his own adjustments to Kan.

Molten ruby poured out of the hole bored through the automaton’s chest and ignited its gray uniform. It collapsed into a smoldering heap, limbs twitching.

“How did you do that?” the girl asked, holding his pistol and crouching by the burning bush, eyes owl-wide.

Kan didn’t answer. He’d held the lightbeam back for emergencies. The jewelchine took days to store the Tone of Light, and its accuracy failed outside of a hundred or so feet. It was hard to aim precisely. His arm lacked the proper sights of a pistol or dartcaster. He hadn’t even considered using it on the officer flying on the condor.

The officer was closer now, watching the fight from safety of the air.

Kan put that out of his thoughts. He still had two more automatons to deal with. He grabbed his resonance blade. Despite the blood pouring from his side, he forced himself to stand. He did not have much life left.

“What are you?” the girl asked.

I thought you were a survivor. “Run!”

The girl ignored him.

The automatons came at him fast. His shield now useless, Kan teetered as he drew his resonance dagger with his left hand. Life drained out of him, soaking his trousers to his boots. He was dying, and his damned jewelchine heart pulsed at the same steady rhythm, uncaring. His vision fuzzed.

He parried the first blow with sluggish movements. The impact of swords jarred down his blade. He almost dropped his weapon, his fingers growing weak. The right side of his body was still strong, the jewelchines working, but the left’s network failed. His left leg dragged as he moved back, pressed by the automatons’ attacks.

“You have to run!” he spat.

The girl shook her head. Her scrawny hand picked up a fallen resonance sword. She held it in such a clumsy grip. She had no idea how to stand properly, how to fight with it. But she let out a fierce scream, her face almost demonic in the roaring light. All the years of torment, of fear, of hopelessness burst from her as she swung at the nearest automaton.

And cut through its back.

It staggered, turning and taking a clumsy swipe at the girl. Blood sheeted down the automaton’s back. Her cut had flayed it open, exposing part of the spine, severing dozens of wires. Its swipe caught her sword, knocking it from her hand. It drew back to strike again but lost its balance and fell backward into its partner, tangling their limbs.

Kan acted, swiped. His sword sang. The movement burned his side. He grit his teeth, fighting waves of dizziness that threatened to drown him with insensibility.

The wounded automaton’s head parted from its shoulders.

Kan’s breath exploded from him. He bent over, gasping, heaving. His lungs were natural, and they flagged. The world spun around him as he faced the last automaton, now untangled from the dead one. The girl scurried on hands and knees to grab her fallen blade. The automaton drew back its sword, and swung at Kan.

He parried.

His grip was too loose on his weapon, his fingers numbed by blood loss. The attack slapped his sword from his hand. It spun through the air before knifing into the hard-packed desert clay. Kan gripped his dagger as the automaton drew back one final time, readying the blow that would kill him.

He threw the resonance dagger with a thrusting-like motion, almost an underhanded toss. The weapon soared point first across the few intervening feet. Stone cracked as it punched through the automaton’s obsidian cranial plate and into its jewelchine brain. Dark unlight bled out around the blade as the thing spasmed. Every muscle in its body twitched. Without any direction, it stood rigid. Off-balance, it toppled to the ground.

“You did it,” Alamekia cheered, holding up her sword like a great prize, waving it over her head.

“Not . . . over . . .” he spat, turning, searching the sky. He wanted to collapse, to surrender to the agony. But now he needed to be like the Tone of Earth. To be strong. To resist. To draw on the harmony of foundation, stability.

“But . . . you got them.”

The condor soared closer. The officer would have weapons, and he’d have outfitted the mutilated, giant bird with either greatcasters that could shred Kan’s body with rapid-fire darts or with other exotic weapons from his perverse imagination.

With effort, Kan bent down and snagged the dartcaster slung over the shoulder of a dead automaton. He jerked hard with his right arm, still strengthened by emeralds, and ripped the weapon’s leather strap. He grunted, raised the long-barreled musket, and aimed into the dark.

His pistol had missed. It was a close range weapon. The dartcaster was not.

A flash of yellow light, a weapon fired by the officer, gave Kan his target. Without flinching, without knowing what hurtled out of the darkness at him, he pulled the trigger. Yellow light flashed out the end of the barrel, the dartcaster’s helidor propelling the thin, metal missiles into the starry sky.

A shape fell from the condor as a net crashed to the ground at Kan’s feet. The tangled wires flared with amethyst light, a purple shield engulfing the piled mess. He grunted, staring down at the projectield that had missed him. The weapon was designed to capture and restrain. The projectield’s net would entwine about the target, then its shield would trigger, engulfing the person in a cocoon from which they could not escape.

His grunt turned into a groan as he toppled backward. The condor was harmless without the rider’s control, falling into a circling pattern. It was over. He stared up at the brilliant stars, a sea just out of reach. The light from the burning bushes dwindled. The girl appeared over him, her eyes shiny.

“No,” she whispered. “No!”

He grabbed her wrist with his shaky left hand, pulling her palm to his bleeding side. He should be dead already. “Feel!” He jammed her hand into his wounds, dragging her fingers along the smooth cut. “Wires. Feel?”

She nodded her head.

“Join them. Have to . . . reattach.”

“Reattach?” Her tone sounded dubious, her forehead furrowing.

“Please . . .” His breathing hurt. His entire left side was numbing fire. His topaz jewelchines worked to replenish the blood flowing out of his side, but it wasn’t enough. The chill spread through his body.

“How?”

“Twist.” Every labored word hurt. “They’ll . . . stay together.” Hopefully.

Alamekia grabbed his wires, not caring about the blood. She’d performed dirty work before. Kan grit his teeth, grunting through the pain as she brought the wires closer and closer. There was slack in the wires, allowing his body to move and flex without tearing them. He felt the wires worming beneath his skin. A pair of gold touched. Healing flashed through his left side, twitching his body, and then it stopped. Tongue thrust through shrunken lips, she tugged again.

“Careful,” he groaned. “Gold . . . delicate . . .”

“Trying,” she muttered, almost an accusation. “Stop moving.”

He tried. It was hard.

The wires brushed again. He spasmed as she braided them together. She let it go, felt through his wound, found another wire, and joined the severed ends. Black iron, part of the control network. The forbidden metal hummed as the wires brushed. Power shocked through him. A purple shield flared from his left hand.

The girl squeaked in fright, flinching away as he clenched his hand, gaining control of the jewelchine again. The black iron networked directly into his body’s natural control system. Your nerves, the Tinker had called them. Natural wires spreading throughout your body. How your brain bosses your body about. But that brain’s too smart. Not good at obeying. It’s why you don’t listen and concentrate like I tell you.

His vision fuzzed. The soothing energy from the topaz jewelchines radiated through his left side. Flesh and organs knitted together. The blood flow stemmed as Alamekia worked around the wound, tying more black iron and gold wires together, repairing his mutilated body. Kan closed his eyes, drifting through dreams.

He screamed in agony, thrashing on the table. His bones throbbed and ground together. They ached like growing pains increased hundredfold. Thousandfold. He watched him as he writhed, eyes blurry with agony. He choked on the glass tube shoved down his throat, a white paste dripping through it to his ravenous stomach.

Always hungry. Always in pain.

Very good growth,” the bushy-eyebrowed man said to the Tinker. “Another one that will live.”

Another one,” the Tinker said, slanted eyes soft. A comforting hand on his forehead. “A fighter.”

Already a man’s growth.” There was an almost child-like glee in his voice. “The new technique is showing results.”

Indeed.”

The pain surged. They cut into him. They threaded wires across his body. Bloody wounds healed as he thrashed, skin growing over hard gems. He felt so big, immense, a giant. He was naked, his head moving, staring down his body at the thick, ropy muscles of his limbs, his chest deep, only smooth flesh at his groin.

He drifted through pain for six months. An eternity of agony. He started a child, he ended an adult.

Have to go,” the Tinker said, unbuckling the straps. “They’re doing it tonight, my boy. Tonight. You’ll never come back from that one.”

Sunlight warmed Kan’s face as he opened his eyes. He blinked. The girl stirred, rising. Her cheek was smeared with dry blood coated in bits of dust and debris. She rubbed her eyes then scurried to him, shaking her head.

“You’re alive.”

“I’m alive,” he said, feeling his side. It was coated in drying blood. Some flaked off while globs stuck to his hand like gunk. He felt no wound, not even a scar. More blood cracked as he moved his legs, flakes of powdery rust falling away.

“What are you?” she asked, touching him. She traced the wires running like a second set of veins beneath his skin, pushing beneath his torn shirt to brush a hard nodule—a topaz jewelchine.

“Mutilated,” he grunted, pushing her hand away. “Let’s go.”

“Go?”

He looked up at the escarpment looming above them, a jutting pillar of black rock thrusting out near the rim. “Up there. Amo Ponthia is waiting for us. She’ll take you farther.”

“Take me where?”

Kan shrugged. “Safety.”

“You don’t know?” Eyes widened, shocked.

He shook his head. “Can’t betray what I don’t know.”

He stood. His stomach growled, but his limbs were strong, all the jewelchines working throughout is body. Hands flexed. Powdered blood fell from ruined clothing like dust. He found his cloak; the bottom edge was charred.

“I don’t think you’re mutilated,” she said, staring up at him with such innocence in her eyes.

Did I ever have that look? Phantom pain tightened his chest. His body remembered having a heart. He would never have a child of his own staring up at him like that. All he could do was rescue them.

“You’re not like them.” She spat at the nearest corpse. The automatons lay still, their bodies pale now. Flies buzzed along the shattered eye of the one she’d shot.

“Mostly like them.” He scooped her thin body up into his arms. She was like air, almost weightless. He trudged towards the narrow, hidden draw that wound up to the top of the cliff.

She shook her head. “You’re like a hero.”

He grunted.

“I said like a hero. A hero wouldn’t have needed me to fix his wires. Heroes don’t take wounds.”

“So what am I?”

“I don’t know. Special.” She beamed at him. A sunrise over planted fields. “An almost hero. But you’re too strong to be mutilated. And you’re not ugly.” And then she hugged him, her thin arms entwined about his neck. Her face pressed into his chest. He cradled her, the pain increasing in his phantom heart as he felt hers’ rapid beat.

Climbing the escapement had never been easier for Kan, even carrying the girl, even going slow to avoid snapping his repaired wires. They could break again. He would have to see the Tinker, have them replaced. He hated that he needed them.

It took half the day to climb up the steep path. The rocks were loose. Avalanches cascaded down behind them, stones clattering and clashing as they bounced down to the Depression’s floor. He pondered the hounds as he climbed. They changed things for the Guides. Saving what few children they could would be even harder.

If I was a hero, I would save you all.

He reached the top. Amo Ponthia waited, wrapped in a cloak that almost blended in with the scrub lands of the hills which surrounded the Depression. Only her slanted eyes were visible behind the wool veil that covered her hair and face. Her eyes tightened at the sight of his bloody clothing. But she didn’t say a word.

The girl clung to his neck when he tried to pry her away. She let out a whimper, shaking her head. “No.”

“You’ll be safe with her,” Kan said, his voice gentle. “She will guide you to safety.”

“I want you to guide me!”

“I have to keep protecting you. Make sure they follow a different trail.”

Her eyes were wide. “Really?”

He nodded his head. “I’ll lead them away while Amo Ponthia takes you to your new home.”

“You will be happy, child,” Amo Ponthia said.

Kan hoped that was true. The girl was a survivor. He had no idea what happened to the children after he delivered them to the next leg of the Path, to the next Guide who’d lead them away from the Democh Empire’s cruelty. He’d saved one child today out of hundreds.

Twenty-eight out of thousands.

It wasn’t enough, but what more could he do?

He watched Amo Ponthia and the girl walk off into the hills, heat’s shimmers washing them out until they were dancing, watery blurs. He would hide their trail for two miles, then head off in another direction from the top of the draw, leaving an obvious path. He wondered what she would find. Where she would live. If she would ever smile again.

Alamekia was as safe as he could make her. In two months, there would be another caravan. Another chance to save a child. He set about his work. He would be looking for his lost automatons. Kan could afford no mistakes.

As he worked, he pictured Alamekia in a small farm following her new father through the muddy fields as the seeds were planted, a smile on her face, her limbs full and healthy. A tear fell down his cheek.

Mourning what could never be.

The END

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