By Stephen J. Herron
His feet hurt. Blisters upon blisters, the tattered remains of his Legionaire’s boots offered almost no protection any more against the broken dusty ground.
Weeks of walking, trying to keep under cover during the blasting sunlit days and trying not to freeze when the strange new stars stared down uncaring from the night sky, had taken their toll upon everything he owned.
There had been other travelers with him, but they had given up over the last few days. The temptation of a rover village-boat had been too much. The last of his rag-tag group had chosen the relative sanity of the grounded river vessel over the uncertainty of looking for a place that, in all likelihood, had been destroyed more than a year ago, during the Night of Fire.
Marlanus couldn’t give up. He’d lost everything except the hope that his home would still exist, in some form. Even if it was just a scorched mark on the ground, that would at least be closure. He wondered, briefly, what he’d do if nothing was left. Would he just end his life, in the same way that he’d seen dozens do when the despair had been too much? Such a waste, he knew, deep in his soul. With all the death and destruction, for a person to choose death was an insult to those who had died. Marlanus knew that he had to survive.
Two men stepped out from behind a shattered heap of rocks just ahead. Each had a splintered wooden club with rusty iron nails beaten and bent around the end, a halo of pain. Their eyes were mad and desperate, their skin cut and lacerated with disease and starvation.
Drawing his Legionnaire’s sword with a sigh, Marlanus realized that two more precious lives were about to be ended, when so few remained.
His memories of the Night of Fire still haunted his thoughts. A soft rain had been falling upon the camp. It sat on the edge of the town of Helane, a quiet Cushulain settlement in the heartland. Helane had been the home of a young woman named Sonda, and on that evening, she’d been visiting with him. The sun had set, with an unusual yet beautiful red glow on the eastern. Sonda’s urgent kisses drove them both to his tent.
Before they could retire, the sky had ignited, and the screaming had started. In a way, it had never really ended, not inside his mind.
A blasting hot wind roared across the farmland and plains, and the camp was whipped into chaos. The patrol’s sergeant, a High Magister, incanted a spell to protect the soldiers, but something went wrong. He began to howl in agony and his skin seemed to fracture as bright white light erupted from inside his body. In moments, he was a pillar of ashes that was blown into nothingness by the harsh, forge-hot winds.
Marlanus grabbed Sonda’s hand, and pulled her to cover behind some larger rocks. The ground shuddered and began to fracture around them. Two soldiers fell into a huge crack, their cries lost in the screams of the air and the earth. A great gout of flame belched forth from that wound, and the stench of burning flesh pervaded the air.
Sonda’s grip upon his hand tightened, and then her hand was gone as she was ripped away from him by something unseen. He shielded his eyes, calling her name and trying to see where she’d gone. All he could make out was a spire of rock where there had once been nothing, leaping high into the night. Atop the crooked finger of stone, a figure had been impaled, her arms and legs twitching in final frantic movements.
Marlanus reached out and touched the pillar, his hands came away wet with blood ...
He looked at his blood-covered hands, mesmerized by the glistening dark liquid, before shaking his mind free of memories.
The sunlight was bright and hard, and the two bodies of the broken-minded bandits lay before him. They had fallen to his practiced blade work in moments, and the only emotion Marlanus had felt had been pity.
As always, his next thought was of what he could take from the bodies. He picked them clean of those items that he had use for – leather belts, metal fastenings and the nails on their clubs. He checked their boots next, but neither pair would fit him. Still, they might be tradable.
After a few minutes, he found two hide bags hidden nearby, with a wineskin half-full of stinking water and some pathetic trinkets.
Marlanus went back to the bodies, and quickly examined them. He was relieved to see that whatever diseases they’d had were probably the result of malnutrition, and that he was probably still alright. Lucky, perhaps ... luck had seen him through this far.He moved back a few hundred feet into the shade and sat down, sipping slowly at the foul water, so as not to vomit and waste more liquid.
All he had to do now was wait for some animals to come along to scavenge on the corpses. Perhaps he’d eat well this day.