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    USURPERS 1. The Beast: Bound by a Spell

    USURPERS
    Written by: M. Lawson Humble

    1. The Beast: Bound by a Spell


    The beast lay face down on the cold, ancient stones. Vibrating with the ever-present primal energy that had coursed through the veins of the Mountain of Snakes since time immemorial, the stones throbbed like a laboring heartbeat beneath his pounding head. Blood pooled and overflowed out of his bruised mouth from the swollen and inflamed pulpy housing of his cracked canine. The beast’s flat, crooked nose, which had been broken many times over throughout his brutal life was broken once again, and shameful salty tears streamed down from his wild yellow eyes, diluting the thick, crimson lifeblood that was fated to soon dry and form a matted crust on the stinking louse-infested orange-brown fur surrounding his hard face.

    “Get up,” commanded the alchemist. When the beast did not reply, the alchemist laughed quietly, turned his back on his slave, and walked away disgusted, into the depths of the dark, gloomy, and evil mountain. But then, he stopped suddenly and called back over his shoulder. The laugh was gone from his voice. “Lie there if you wish,” he said in a high voice dripping with poison,” but see that you do not fail me again…” He paused. “Fool.” The tapping of his staff then receded until it was no more than an echo of echoes.

    The beast heard neither the command, the rebuke, nor the fading clank of the staff over the violent ringing in his ears. He lay unmoving for many moments, cursing the alchemist, cursing his fate, cursing the cruel gods of his tribe, cursing his tribe. They turned him out- his own kind. Among monsters, he was a monster. More beast than man. A killer. A murderer. They paid the price for their arrogance though. The chief. His wives- sons. Everyone. Pleading elders. Mewling infants. They all lived their last moments in pain and regret for casting out Raqquill. Raqquill the Beast, they called him. But no longer. No longer. No one still lived who knew his true name.

    The beast extended his long, heavy, powerful arms, pushing up on his cracked and calloused fur-covered knuckles. He rubbed the swirling stars from his eyes and smeared the blood and tears into his hair. There was a yawning wound across the bald, vividly-colored, but creased and scarred flesh of his face. At first, the wound had vomited a steady waterfall of blood, but now it was beginning to blacken and clot.

    “No matter,” growled the beast aloud to himself. “I have endured worse.” He spat on the stones between his bare, clawed, prehensile feet and cursed. “And I will endure more.”

    Hunched over and stumbling unsteadily, the beast then shook his head furiously, trying to dislodge the unwelcome thoughts and memories that were now forming in his brain. But his will was not strong. The memories came.

    …………………

    After the murder of his tribe by his own hands, the alchemist, then only a man, found the beast wandering feral through the shadows of the tall trees in the forgotten forests of the Lonesome Lands.

    “Join me,” said the alchemist in a voice that could not be ignored as he emerged before the beast from the cover of low, moist fog one gray morning. “For I have heard tales of your vicious nature and have followed the trail of gore, death, and sadness that you leave in your terrible wake. “Join me,” he repeated, “and I will give to you your heart’s desire. Join me, for I am in need of warriors to fight by my side. I am called to the blood-drenched shores of the Berserker Islands, and I will not go alone.”

    “I…” snarled the beast, “am no warrior.” He pulled his lips back, baring his long, sharp teeth in a smile that was not a smile. He crouched low to the mossy ground, and the muscles in his proportionally short, but incredibly powerful legs tensed, preparing for a lunge that would allow him to eviscerate the bold stranger who smelled of incense, crumbling books, and lies.

    “Fine,” agreed the alchemist. He never broke eye contact and did not cower as he spoke. Though he did not say so, the beast was impressed. “You say you are no warrior. I agree. Truth be told,” he shrugged, “I can find warriors enough. I need something… more. I need you. In your amoral ferocity, you are… unique. Again I ask you: Will you join me? What is your heart’s desire? Simply state to me your wish, and our pact will be sealed.”

    Puffs of billowing steam and sprays of yellow snot rushed from the beast’s wide nostrils as he exhaled and growled with strange sounds that could scarcely be described as language, “My desire?” he rumbled with contempt. “New death. Fresh meat. Cracked splinters of bones in my teeth and the taste of marrow upon my tongue. Those things I desire, stranger.” His eyes narrowed. “And those things I see before me.”

    The beast pounced. The alchemist laughed as the beast- the outcast- the killer smashed into an invisible barrier that protected him like a cocoon.

    “But you see, my stinking slave,” laughed the alchemist again, “our bargain has been struck. You have expressed your desire to me, so therefore you are mine.”

    For nearly a day, the beast howled with a hate that was terrible to behold as he clawed, slashed, and bit into the barrier that surrounded the alchemist. The barrier did not yield. But the beast did. Finally, with two broken arms, heaving in agony and frustration, the beast collapsed.

    When next he woke, the beast found himself healed and rested, nestled within a bed of straw in a filthy, moveable rusty cage. He was not caged for long though. Upon waking, the beast was immediately released onto a raging battlefield. Confused, deafened by the screams of the dying, and blinded by the flash of swords, axes, and the crackling, colorful luminescence of beautiful but deadly blaster-fire, the beast pressed into the temples of his throbbing head with his long, nimble fingers and gnashed his glistening teeth, working up a foul-tasting froth in his black-lipped mouth. He roared. He roared and heroic warriors trembled. He roared again, and all went red.

    As the alchemist looked on from far away in the safety of his chariot, he smiled with approval. He realized that the scales had been tipped in no small part due to the unleashed hate and brutal skill demonstrated by his new slave.

    After an hour, the battle was unequivocally won. The alchemist’s end of the bargain had been honored. The beast realized his heart’s desire a thousand times over that gruesome day. And from then on, the outcast with a forgotten name- the unhappy, blood-soaked creature was forever bound to the clever and malevolent alchemist.

    …………………

    “Bound by a spell,” sighed the beast after the insistent memory had played itself out. “Were we still in the wild, with him stripped of his magic and his false tongue, things would have been different. Yes. Long ago would my teeth have ripped the lies form his throat. Long ago would I have feasted on the rotten meat of his diseased body.”

    “Move,” snapped a feminine voice, as deep and as dark as night. A shadow passed by the beast like a breeze in the dimmed corridor. “Your stench nauseates me.”

    The beast did nothing but grunt as the woman- the witch hurried by without a backward glance. She could smell him, true, and she never failed to voice her revulsion, but he could smell her as well. She smelled sweet. A potent mix of lavender, leather, and sweat. And although hairless for the most part, with her strange soft skin a sickly cast of yellow, she attracted him. She was never far from his mind. But he was cursed to never act upon his desires. The alchemist had deemed it necessary to magically forbid him from ever touching her. The witch knew this. And in her boundless cruelty- a quality that further endeared her to him, she ceaselessly taunted him with seductive sway of her unbelievable form. The beast rumbled low in animal hunger, but eventually tore his gaze from the temptress-witch. He lumbered on.

    Further down, as the corridor widened, through an open door, the searing light of a brightly illuminated workshop flooded the dank corridor, casting its glow onto the slimy, wet stone walls that closed in around the beast like an unwanted embrace. Shunning the darkness, he entered into the light and attempted to engage those who also resided against their own will, deep within the bowels of the ancient Mountain of Snakes. “Kronis. Trydor,” he ventured as his eyes adjusted.

    “What do you want, filthy… savage?” asked Trydor without looking up, for his full attention was focused upon the cybernetic arm of the man known as Kronis. Trydor wielded a nuclear-fusion powered soldering gun, and was reattaching a battle-damaged component with surgical delicacy to the artificial arm of his fellow warrior. “Stop squirming, Kronis,” he whispered impatiently in exasperation through clenched teeth, “or we’re all dead.”

    A metallic whirr accompanied the cyborg’s words as he replied, “I can’t help it.” He grunted. “Gods! His smell… Go! Go, baboon… Leave before I leap from this table and skin you. Then I will wear your flesh and fur as a cloak. Although…” He laughed. The sound was the sound of gears grinding. “I will be sure to wash it first. Several times, I should think.” Despite himself, Trydor chuckled. “Or Maybe I’ll twitch my arm and blow us all up so I don’t have to look at your ugly face any more.”

    The beast snarled, cursing himself for expecting if not kindness, at least an acknowledgement of shared sadness- a nod of understanding. “I should have known better,” he thought. “I belong nowhere. These two will never accept me. Nor…” he reflected, “nor would I wish them to.” The expression in his yellow eyes grew harder and the bright blue and white coloring on his face deepened. “They are both nothing but meat and metal to me.” The beast grew larger and stood up straighter in his anger. He repeated his thought aloud. “You are both nothing but meat and metal to me! Were I in my jungle home—“

    “But you’re not, monkey,” said Trydor, standing up. Despite his small stature in relation to the beast, Trydor radiated confidence, and his presence demanded attention. “You’re here. In my workshop. My workshop.” Trydor retrieved his sword from a hook on the wall and wrapped his deft fingers around its emerald hilt.

    “Can I move now?” asked Kronis.

    If Trydor still possessed his natural humanoid eyes, he would have rolled them. “Yeah. You can get up. And as payment for my services, you can help me show the monkey the door.”

    Kronis sprung from the sterile table. Heavy metal boots upon polished metal floor resonated harshly as the mad cyborg found his feet and stepped forward. He tested his cybernetic arm. As usual, the work of Trydor was flawless. Kronis smiled and pointed a gunmetal blade that was now forever a part of his body between the eyes of the beast as he said, “We heard you, you know? The boss beat you raw again, didn’t he?” The beast did not reply. “What did you do this time? Huh?” Again, the beast held his tongue. The cyborg laughed for an uncomfortably long time. “Gods. The sight of you must sicken the boss. Sure sickens me. And,” he smiled a metal smile, “I’m a pretty sick guy.”

    “Go now, beast,” said Trydor with an arrogant, condescending grin, casually testing the perfect balance of his perfect blade. “You’re no match for us.”

    The beast shook his matted head. “Bound by a spell. Neutered by magic,” he snarled with hate. “Were this not my fate, you both would now lie dying at my feet spilling guts and oil.” But before the machinist and the madman could reply, the beast turned clumsily and took his leave. Cruel laughter followed him as he lumbered out into the corridor and further down into the darkness.

    After a time, completely by chance, the beast came to the edge of a vast subeternian lake. The lake was connected, by way of a maze of lightless underground waterways far beneath the Mountain of Snakes, to the boundless Sea of Rakash- the sea that ceaselessly crashed with indifferent elemental fury onto the abused rocky shores of their war-torn planet.

    The beast crouched and plunged his arm into the brackish water. Foul excreted oil oozed from his fur and pooled, resting and shimmering like a rainbow circle around his arm on the surface of the stagnant black lake. The beast stopped breathing. He was as still as a stone. And then he struck. Underwater, his claws pierced the scaly flesh of his prey. The beast extracted his arm and examined his catch. The creature was small and it gasped in desperation as its lungs filled with its own blood and the stale air of the cold cavern. It frantically kicked its frog-like legs and flailed its nearly-translucent webbed arms in a hopeless attempt to free itself.

    The beast took no joy as he crammed the squirming creature, bulging eyes, long serpentine tail and all, into his mouth. He chewed several times before his meal stopped moving and died. He then swallowed and sucked the blood and bile from the soaked fur that covered his furry fingers.
    And then, the beast was thrown onto his hunched back as the water in the lake came alive and seemed to explode. He was blinded by the salt and the slimy strips of seaweed and rotten muck that slapped him in the face.

    In a language unknown to the beast, a voice screamed, filling the cavern. Although the language was unintelligible, its tone was unmistakable and the beast knew to whom it belonged. The servant-king of the deep- he, who like them all, was bound by the spells and the lies of the alchemist- the frog.

    The frog who walked like a man crashed into the beast, pounding him with fists covered with scales as hard as bone and as sharp as the teeth of the purple land sharks. The beast tried in vain to grab ahold of the frog, but his enemy- his fellow warrior was far too slippery. And of course, in unfairness, the beast was magically forbidden to use his awesome full strength against those whom the alchemist singled out. His only option- the only option that would allow the beast to cling to his cruel, brutal life was in shameful retreat. The beast worked his feet into the heaving chest of the green frog and kicked hard. The servant-king flew through the stale air and smacked onto the surface of the lake and sunk slowly in a daze.
    “But the frog will return,” groaned the beast aloud. “In seconds… a minute if I am fortunate…”

    Holding his mashed face in his palm, the beast rose and stumbled from the bank of the subeternian lake and ran for his miserable, worthless life. Only after he had covered many miles, sinking ever deeper into the depths of the Mountain of Snakes did he allow himself the luxury of collapse.
    As he sat in the dark, he moaned in agony and cursed himself for a coward. He howled into the nothingness and sobbed, full of revulsion for the pitiful creature that he was forced to become. “Raqquill the Beast would never flee from a frog!” he wailed as he cried in frustration. “A frog!” But this was now his reality. Bound by a spell. Tricked by an alchemist. Slave to a liar. Mocked by those whose fate he shared. The lowest of the low. Less than nothing.

    “And if you regained your full strength?” asked a voice from within his aching head. “If I removed the spell of weakness, what then?”
    The beast stood suddenly, his massive body flooded with wild adrenaline. In eagerness, he cracked his head upon a low, overhanging rock. He fell to his knees, scraping his flesh and spilling his blood on the ground. “Who are you?”

    “No one.” The voice was as harsh as stones scraping. “Answer my question.”

    Not knowing what else to do, the beast answered truthfully. “I… I would kill them all.”

    “Good,” laughed the rock-voice. A snorting inhalation accompanied the humorless laugh. “Starting with whom?”
    “The alchemist,” replied the beast, this time without hesitation.

    Unbelievable forgotten power then flooded into the exhausted limbs of the beast. His chest expanded and his heart pumped the strong beat of war-drums in his ears.

    “Then go. Kill.”

    End of Part One.


    USURPERS


    Written by: M. Lawson Humble


    2. The Madman: Kill Switch



    “Kronis!” shouted the machinist. “Kronis! Stay with me, damn you!”


    The machinist dragged the bloodied warrior by the leg up a steel ramp and into the belly of a waiting transport. He sat beside the broken cybernetic man for many excruciating hours as the transport made its way through hostile territory toward the Mountain of Snakes.


    The cybernetic man- the mad warrior- Kronis continuously screamed metallic and wheezed gear-grinding wheezes as they travelled. “What… happened? Trydor?” he grunted in a rare, though frantic moment of clarity. “It… hurts…”


    The machinist frowned, examining his fellow warrior’s state with his own wondrous artificial eyes. “Sword,” he said simply. “Power Sword. He nearly took off your arm.”


    “Which… arm?”


    “The big one. The useful one.”


    “Why… why does my chest… hurt?”


    “The cat. His cat. Nearly ate you. But…” Trydor’s visor spun around with a whirr and a hiss of compressed air, allowing him to examine Kronis’ remaining organic internal organs. “It spit you out. Couldn’t chew through the metal.”


    “He… he got me though, didn’t he?”


    Trydor nodded. “Ripped you to shreds. You’ll live, but I’ll have to replace that lung. And…” He paused, examining deeper. “Maybe your stomach. It’s been breached as well. You’ll be poisoned by your own waste if I don’t drain you and close you back up soon.” The machinist mused quietly aloud to himself. “Although you may just need a patch. Doubtful though.” Kronis screamed again and the machinist looked down into his pleading, mad eyes. “Don’t worry. We’re almost there. Stay with me.”


    They arrived at the Mountain of Snakes and Kronis was swiftly moved to the sterile, well-lit workshop of the machinist.


    “Leave us,” said Trydor to the large, barely-sentient, lumbering oafs who carried the compact, but deceivingly heavy mad warrior. They dropped him unceremoniously upon a table and obeyed the machinist, grunting and cursing in strange, savage languages all the while.


    The metal and meat body of Kronis then began to twitch and jerk with great violence. Trydor tightened thick leather straps around his wrist and legs. For the big arm, he used metal clamps. But still, with violent spasms, Kronis strained against them, threatening to break free.


    “I… can’t… stop…” spat out Kronis as he seized.


    “Then I must shut you down,” said Trydor in an emotionless monotone. He frowned. “Events are progressing at an unexpected and… alarming rate. I have no other choice.”


    “So… bad. It hurts! So bad! Just… do… it!”


    “When I have achieved success- when the operation is complete,” said the machinist with confidence, “I will bring you back online.” Trydor then forcefully stabbed an eight inch long needle into the madman’s neck and quickly pushed down the plunger of the syringe. He left the needle in for a moment, and then pulled it out. He threw the syringe away and started placing several polished, sharp instruments with great care on a white cloth that covered a stainless steel tray beside the cold, stainless steel table. “And one more thing,” he said. The spark in the eyes of Kronis began to fade as the machinist flipped oily switches and turned bloody dials within a pried-open cavity in his fellow warrior’s gory chest. “You may experience some unpleasant visions. Dreams. This anesthesia I’m using is beyond powerful.” He paused. “And it is not known for its… desirable side effects.”


    Kronis did not hear. He sighed and his body deflated as the metal jaw that was connected to his putrid, rotten face parted, revealing his filed, gray teeth and his segmented copper tongue. And then, as the machinist operated, Kronis dreamed. He dreamed and remembered.



    …………………



    A voice laughed and Kronis bit his tongue as his face was smashed into the electrified bars of his new prison home. The guards opened the door and threw him in. Blood poured from his mouth. He spit out a tooth and opened his eyes. The evil laugh- the manic cackle continued, louder this time.


    “Welcome, my old friend. Welcome, Kronis! It is you, isn’t it?” The pitch of the cackle was unbearable.


    Kronis covered his ears with trembling hands while he struggled to find his feet. After a time, he succeeded. He stared at his new cellmate. The man who laughed was old. Crumpled in the corner of his small bunk, atop filthy linens, he appeared to be no more than a skeleton. His wasted body was covered with spotted, loose skin, roughly the same color as Kronis’ own- turquoise. The old man convulsed and his laugh soon turned into a horrible and strained coughing fit.


    “Karak,” sighed Kronis wearily, shaking his head. “What have I done to deserve such company?”


    The old man spat a green glob on the grated floor. Both men stared as the glob slid between the metal and into the cell below, plopping with a wet slap upon a sleeping inmate’s face. The inmate woke with a start and began screaming curses. When he realized that the disgusting surprise came from above, however, he held his tongue and nervously feigned sleep.


    “Grates on the floor?” asked Kronis.


    The old man shrugged a bony shrug. “We have no waste pots here. We are all stacked up,” he smiled a toothless smile, “and it pays to have a high cell.”


    “And ours?” Kronis looked up.


    “The highest.” Karak frowned and chuckled darkly. “But they starve us for the most part, so a waste pot would hardly be useful, don’t you think?” He began to giggle. Then cry.


    “You’re mad, Karak,” said Kronis slowly. You always were, but now…”
    “I am,” said the old man through his shameless tears, “but they fear me, do they not?”


    Kronis looked down at the inmate in the cell directly below them who pretended not to hear their conversation. “It appears so.”


    “Tell me, old friend…” Karak was done with tears and he hopped down from his bunk with surprising agility and stood facing Kronis. The old man was naked, save for a soiled, patchy fur loincloth and he looked as if a stray gust of wind could knock him over. He was as bald as a skull and his darting emerald eyes seemed to glow from within. His eyes were frighteningly alive. They were also runny, bulbous, and unquestionably insane. “Tell me,” he continued, “you asked what you had done to deserve my company.”


    A long, uncomfortable silence hung heavily between them. Finally, Kronis spoke. “Yeah?”


    “So… what did you do to deserve me? On the outside? What did you do?”


    “Oh.” Kronis sat down on his unused, but still-filthy bunk and replied while probing the wet electrical burns and swollen bruises on his gaunt, unattractive face with his fingers. “The usual. Assassination. Robbery… Cold-blooded murder.”


    Karak exhaled sadly. “How disappointing. How… commonplace.”


    “We can’t all be mad, Karak.”


    The unbearable shrieking cackle began again. “We shall see! We shall see! We shall see!”


    Kronis lay down with a groan and covered his ears again. He tried his best to endure as Karak repeated those three words with ever-increasing giddy insanity for what must have been hours. Finally, the old man collapsed where he stood, due to exhaustion, upon the cold, metal floor. Kronis uncovered his ears and noticed blood on his own palms.


    The silence was strange after the relentless cacophony. Kronis leaned over in his bunk and looked down into the darkness. The cells below stretched as far as he could see. A few pairs of desperate, fearful eyes glanced upward, catching his gaze, but they soon turned away. Or closed. All was quiet. Occasionally, the metal floor in a cell below would squeak as an inmate waked the short distance from one end of their cage to another, but otherwise, silence reigned.


    “At least I’m on the top. My fame and notoriety counted for something else besides getting me captured so easily, I guess.” Kronis’ grin turned into a grimace as the wet, slapping sounds of organic waste falling from cells below offended his bleeding ears. On rare occasion, sharp volleys of foul oaths cut through their echoing, metallic world, but before long, as before, all was silent.


    Days passed. Weeks. Without food and with precious little water, Kronis grew as thin as his cellmate. And though not nearly as mad, he was well on his way. But Kronis tried to keep hold of his sanity. Many times throughout the long, unbearable days and endless nights, Kronis looked out of the small porthole in his cell- no more than a few inches in diameter to the stars beyond. As their satellite prison orbited the hostile, volcanic planet below, much to his delight, the scenery always changed. This small thing came to mean the world to Kronis.


    But then, one day, after dozing for no more than a handful of minutes, Kronis woke to find the porthole sealed. Kronis held his tongue. He did not cry. He did not beg.


    “A tease,” teased mad Karak with a giggle that sounded like boiling water. “They do that trick to all the new… residents. Open the porthole. Close the porthole. Open the porthole. Close the porthole.”


    Kronis attempted to drown the words of his cellmate out by covering his ears, rocking back and forth, and screaming his own mantra over and over again. “Madness! Madness! Madness!”


    Many more days passed. And then, on a day that started out like all others, The Feast was upon them.


    “What is this?” asked Kronis to Karak.


    Plate after place of tempting food was pushed into their cell. Below them, prisoners cheered, cracking open casks of wine, bottles of beer and spirits, downing the contents in ravenous fury.


    “The Feast,” replied the old man. He was chewing on the plump, steaming leg muscle of some nameless beast, and his words flew from his mouth followed by a spray of hot grease and bits of pink flesh. “Once a month do we have The Feast. It’s cruel torture, to be sure, but few scarcely care. I certainly don’t. Now leave me alone. I want to enjoy this.”


    Kronis furrowed his heavy brow and sampled a bubbling pie, breaking the golden crust with his finger and poking it into the glorious gift. He removed it warily, sniffed it, and then licked the thick gravy from his finger. It was indeed glorious. He was powerless to resist. He ate the entire pie in seconds. Of course he vomited soon thereafter, but by then, like the others, he did not care. He began to eat again. They all continued to eat- all of the prisoners, gorging themselves, heedless of the inevitable consequences.


    And the consequences came. Hours later, drunken inmates, covered in the vile excretions of their neighbors, began to rage. They began to fight. They began to kill. That day, as was expected on every Feast Day, one half of the prison population died. On the very next day, fresh new inmates were introduced into the floating hell that was the Satellite Cellblock.


    But neither Kronis nor Karak lost their lives on that Feast Day. Nor any other Feast Day thereafter, for Karak, although wiry and swift, was too mad, feeble, and simply too old to challenge Kronis. And Kronis, for his part, was still not yet mad enough.


    And then one day, he was.


    Starving, hopeless, and desperate, no longer aware of his surroundings, Kronis woke one eternal night in a fitful fever. He climbed onto the bunk of the old man and bit into the diseased flesh that covered Karak’s thin neck like a loose, spotted scarf, ripping open his throat. Karak immediately cried out in agony, and moaned wordlessly for a day, but soon, all sounds and all blood left his ruined body.


    In an irrational state of panic, Kronis spent a week on his belly, sharpening his blunt, gray teeth by gnawing on the metal floor. And filled with a sense of pride, when his project was completed, Kronis rose from the floor and clacked his jaw, testing the points of his new predatory teeth with his tongue, drawing his own blood. He was pleased. And he cried joyous tears of happiness while devouring the rancid meat that was once mad Karak.


    The electrified door to the cell opened a year later. Still unchanged and wearing the face of his birth, the alchemist stepped inside. His clever, suspicious eyes drank deep of the horrific sights laid bare before him. Instead of a look of disgust though, the expression that played about his handsome face was an expression of mild confusion. He spoke. “I have searched many dimensions to find one worthy of my company. In Eternia and Despondos, my search has bore fruit, yes, but rotten fruit, truth be told. But here, in Infinitia, to my great pleasure, I have discovered that none live who can match the …” he paused, searching for a word, “sheer… depravity of mad Karak. And my search has led me here. My search ends here. Long have I yearned to have words with mad Karak. But now, I find, “he paused again, looking at the pile of maggot-covered bones upon the steaming bunk before turning his eyes upon Kronis, “that you are not he.” Kronis clacked and snapped his teeth together, but did not reply. The alchemist pondered the man’s dead eyes. “Why did you eat him?” he asked.


    Kronis blinked several times, noticed the stranger, and began to cultivate a low laugh. He shrugged. “Why else? He tasted good.”


    “Come with me,” smiled the alchemist.


    As they stepped over the corpses of the guards outside of the cell, the alchemist stole one backward glance at the pile of bones. The sickly, greenish, artificial light that illuminated the cell shone down on the bones, giving them an eerie, glowing aura. “Such a waste,” he whispered.


    Kronis served the alchemist well. He was ruthless. Vicious. But he was also steady. Loyal.


    Until one day, he wasn’t.


    He paid for his betrayal though. The alchemist, with his evil magic and ingenious, sharp tools of torture, robbed Kronis of his legs, an arm, a hand, his tongue, and finally, his lower jaw. The latter, the alchemist ripped off with his own powerful, long-nailed hands.


    And due perhaps to the cruel skill of the alchemist, Kronis lived. Now nothing more than a lump of a creature, immobile, moaning in agony, and writhing in madness, he was imprisoned once again, deep within the Mountain of Snakes where the alchemist called home.


    And then, he was forgotten. For years, he was simply forgotten. Living on the slime that he awkwardly and inefficiently sucked off of the stone walls, Kronis dwelled in silence and in the dark. If he was not mad before, he certainly was now. Time stretched. Time stretched so thin that it ceased to have any meaning.


    But then, on a day that was not a day, or perhaps a night that was not a night, the comforting, familiar silence was broken by a bored, emotionless and clinical voice. It rang in the dark and came from beyond the tiny hole that was the entire world to Kronis. “You are needed,” it said. “Come with me.”


    Mad Kronis spent several minutes attempting to force his destroyed half-mouth to make a reply. Finally, a reply came. “I…” He spoke thickly and stupidly, for he had no tongue. “I… can’t muh. Muh. Mooove.”


    An annoyed sighing exhalation came from the man with the cold voice. The sigh accompanied the creak of the prison’s iron door. It opened, cracking a crust of rust that had formed around its hinges. The shards of rust fell slowly, like flakes of dangerous snow. "There we go,” said the man. “Pick him up. See that— Ah.” He sighed again as he took in the sight of the pitiful lump. “If I knew what work lay before me, I would never have agreed.” He turned away. “Bring him.”


    And within the hole, as Kronis blinked dumbly, a huge beast of shadow entered. After the shadowbeast picked up the immobile madman’s wasted, abused, and disgusting legless, armless and handless body, it followed the cold man with the cold voice. They soon entered a painfully illuminated workshop.


    “Who… you?” slobbered Kronis as he landed with a solid slap upon a sterile operating table.


    The man, who saw the world through a robotic rotating visor that covered what used to be his eyes, encircling his face like a masked helmet, answered without looking into the mad eyes of Kronis. “Be quiet. This will hurt, but you must remain awake. Scream if you like, but I will not relent.”


    Kronis did scream, and true to his word, the man did not relent.


    “Why… wuh… why now?”


    Again, the machinist answered without looking up. “The master of the mountain commands it. He is in need of new warriors. He must be desperate.


    “Must… muh. Must be. If he… whu. Wha. Wants me.”


    The man laughed without humor, and Kronis screamed as another deep incision spilled slick, diseased guts and rotten yellow fat upon the table, setting his nervous system afire.


    “Stay with me,” ordered the man. Kronis struggled and the machinist smiled, this time with a hint of warmth. “Good. Good. Maybe there is something to you after all.”


    Kronis smiled a panic-stricken smile, but then he began to scream. Bloody, bubbling froth erupted from his jawless, sharp-toothed mouth as his unwashed turquoise skin was peeled back, and his bones were painfully exposed and agonizingly fused with boiling, liquid metal to beautiful and fearsome cold, polished cybernetic components.


    This torture- this horror continued for nearly a day until finally, Kronis the criminal- Kronis the madman- Kronis the prisoner was recreated. Kronis the warrior was given a new left hand, two incredibly heavy, though powerful legs, and a new right arm that was equipped with never-before-seen advanced weapons technology. The wondrous arm brought a half-smile to the half-face of Kronis, even as he suffered, cursing and spitting, struggling through the awful agony of the eternal ordeal.


    But the eternal ordeal was nearly over. For now, the machinist revealed to Kronis his masterpiece. Dryly, he said, “This took me many months to complete. I have never before attempted to create something so… sophisticated. Beautiful.”


    “What… isss. It?”


    “A device. Essentially, a cybernetic head. Chances are, you won’t survive the grafting, but…” He tilted his own head and shrugged. “Only one way to find out.”


    The pain the madman had endured thus far was nothing compared to the inconceivable sensations that now swallowed him whole. But still, he remained conscious. He remained strong.


    The machinist cut into the skull of Kronis with a buzzing, ugly saw. The smell of burnt hair and cooking flesh perfectly complimented the wordless screams that threatened to bring down the very mountain itself.


    And then, after many more hours, the screams of a man became the screams of a machine.


    “What. What happened?” gasped Kronis, surprised by his own voice. Panting, with tears running down the emaciated hollows of his cheeks and into the strange red metal that now made up the bottom half of his face, he said, “I… can speak.”


    “Huh,” said the machinist with his back turned away from his patient as he held a laser-scalpel up to a blinding light, considering the sharpness of its edge. “The tongue of copper took. The body hasn’t rejected it. Yet,” he added.


    “My jaw.” Kronis clacked his self-sharpened top teeth against his new lower, jagged metal ones. He opened and closed his mouth, shaking his head from side to side. The sound of gears assaulted his new technologically enhanced senses. He cried aloud.


    “You’ll get used to it.” The man smiled a self-satisfied smile as he picked up stainless steel tray and showed Kronis his own reflection.


    Long moments passed before the madman slammed his teeth- both new and old together with a snap. “Nice. I owe you one. But… why is my face green?”


    The machinist sat the tray back down. “Rot. Your face rotted in that stinking hole. The rot was beginning to spread down your neck to the rest of your body, but I put a stop to it. Cosmetically though, the damage is done.”


    In truth, the face of the madman was a combination of pale, bloated, cream-colored flesh, and the green color of mold. The color of death.


    “So… Will I live?” asked Kronis.


    The man shrugged noncommittally. “Until the master is done with you.”


    Kronis gingerly stepped down from the table. He tested the weight and balance of his new body. “The master? Him? No…” he cycled through the wicked instruments of murder that emerged from his new cybernetic right arm and said in a black machine-voice, “I think I may need to pay him a little visit soon.”


    “Suit yourself. If you want to die, that’s up to you. My work is done.”


    “What do you mean?” asked Kronis as the machinist began to clean and organize his tools.


    “Kill switch. Implanted in your brain. Step out of line…”


    “Lights out,” growled the madman.


    “Lights out,” agreed the man.


    “Oh well.” Kronis smiled a metallic smile. “Oh well.” He laughed. Then he began to giggle. And howl.


    “Control your madness, dog!” snapped the machinist. “Control yourself or leave my workshop!”


    Kronis giggled quietly for a moment longer, gulped, inhaled luxuriously, and nodded. “Alright… alright.” The madman then noticed, for perhaps the first time, the strange artificial eyes that the man used to see. “Why do you wear that? What happened?” The machinist did not answer. “Fine. What’s your name, at least? I said I owe you, and so I owe you. Tell me who I owe… Please.”


    “Trydor,” replied Trydor. He turned to face the madman, appraising him as a scientific creation rather than a living creature.


    “I’m Kronis,” offered Kronis.


    “No. You are nothing.”



    …………………



    The rank smell of the beast had forced Kronis from his awful memory-dream.


    “Stop squirming, Kronis, or we’re all dead.”


    “I can’t help it. Gods! His smell… Go! Go, baboon… Leave before I leap from this table and skin you. Then I will wear your flesh and fur as a cloak. Although… I will be sure to wash it first. Several times, I should think. Or Maybe I’ll twitch my arm and blow us all up so I don’t have to look at your ugly face any more.”


    “I need to remember to close my door,” said Trydor after he and Kronis drove the beast from his workshop. They laughed.


    “So once again, you’ve saved my life,” said Kronis after a moment.


    Trydor hung up his sword and shrugged. His mind was elsewhere. Though he did not fear him, the beast troubled him. “What do you think he wanted?”


    “Who?”


    “The beast.”


    Now Kronis shrugged a metal shoulder. “Don’t ask me. Why do you care?”


    “I don’t. But he just seemed more… unstable than usual. I feel that way about all of us. Ask yourself: With all of us forced into service, trapped here, how long before someone snaps? How long before something gives?”


    Kronis did not answer, for at that moment, he fell to his knees, cracking the floor. His prolonged scream clipped out and turned to white noise.


    Trydor ran over and helped him up. “What is it?”


    Kronis rose. “The boss,” he exhaled. “I’m summoned.”


    “Be strong,” Trydor clapped his cybernetic creation on the back in a rare brotherly gesture, “my friend.”


    “Yeah,” replied the madman gloomily.


    Kronis walked form the welcoming, brightly-illuminated workshop out into the dreadful dark corridors that twisted, bore, and turned throughout the Mountain of Snakes. With heavy metal head hung low, and with his gaze trained on the feet that were not his, Kronis made his way to the throne room of the boss- the master of the mountain- the alchemist.


    Kronis entered the drafty cavern. The air that circled around was hot, and the echoes were strange in that place. Sometimes, noted Kronis with unease, echoes seemed to spring from no source.


    The alchemist was speaking to the witch. The madman was sane enough to know when to remain silent. He pressed his back against the stone wall and tried to melt into the deep shadows.


    The witch began to scream at the alchemist. Her silhouette moved with the jumping lights of the torches as she passionately cursed the master of the mountain. Or pleaded. Kronis wasn’t sure.


    But the alchemist remained unmoved and unmoving. He sat silently, with expressionless death-white face gleaming underneath the hood of his deep-purple royal cloak, upon his throne of the polished bones of heroes.


    “Is she… crying?” asked the madman to himself. He strained to hear. Even with his enhanced senses, the echoes of the throne room washed out the words of their conversation. He did, however, hear her when she screamed.


    “…cruelty knows no bounds!” shrieked the witch. Then her voice was lost. Then it exploded again, like a volcano. “…why don’t you allow me to leave?”


    The witch stopped moving. She stood before the alchemist and, like a rag doll, suddenly collapsed onto all fours. “Yes,” thought Kronis. “She is crying.” Her racking sobs were punctuated by rasping intakes of breath that throbbed in the cavern like the beat of a heart. And then she was still. Silent. Her helm had fallen from her head, revealing the brilliant moon-silver color of her short-cropped, angular hair. In her desperate fury, she had torn and ripped her own outer dress. It fell from her soft yellow shoulders and hung around her small waist like a black flag, forsaken by the wind.


    Kronis did not breathe. Nor could he avert his eyes form the defeated and tragic half-silhouetted figure of the witch.


    And then, all sound retreated from the throne room- making way for the words of the alchemist. The words were loud and they resonated long. They hung in the swirling air and burrowed into the core of the madman’s metal and meat body.”


    “Leave. Me.”


    The witch cried angrily, “Say my name!”


    “No,” was the reply of the alchemist. Coldly, he added, “Witch.”


    And the witch left. She caught the eyes of Kronis as she ran from the throne of bones. She hastily pulled her torn dress up to her chest and shot him a look of exquisite hate before she was swallowed by the shadows.


    The madman inhaled deeply and slowly stepped forward.


    “You,” said the alchemist. “Stand before me.”


    Kronis obeyed. Upon one knee, with head bowed, he said in a metallic voice that masked his great fear, “Boss.”


    The alchemist stood suddenly and kicked Kronis in his rotten face with a blacked-clawed bare foot. Kronis flew backward and landed hard, twisting the wires and tendons in his neck. Before the cybernetic madman could blink, the alchemist stood over him, pressing down upon his chest with his other foot.


    And then, anxiety took hold. Kronis lost his tenuous grasp of reality. He screamed and cried in his harsh, gear-grinding voice like a baby as his body was flooded with raw panic. Disgusted, the alchemist began to stomp.


    Finally, Kronis ceased his undignified wailing and lay silent, ashamed, but still shaking and rattling in fear.


    “Have you finished?” asked the alchemist.


    Kronis nodded. “Yeah… Boss. Sorry. I… just can’t help it. Things get so… strange. From time to time. To time. To time. Reality… breaks. It—“


    “Get up.” Again, Kronis obeyed. “What happened out there?”


    “There? The… the battle?” The alchemist nodded slowly, never breaking eye contact. “We… we lost, Boss.”


    “I. Know. That. But how?”


    “The… the beast. He gave away our position.”


    “Of that, I am also aware. And he has been punished for his failure. But we’re not talking about him. Why did you fail?”


    “I… I…” The stuttering of Kronis sounded like the skipping of a record needle, thick with static. “I was fighting the ram… and then I turned… and the brother of the man-at-arms laid me low with that freakish hand of his.”


    “And?”


    “Then, well then, Boss, when I came to, most of my artificial systems were offline… and I stood to fight again…”


    “But?”


    “I could hardly stand, Boss. And then… Then he came.”


    “He.”


    “Yeah. And then,” Kronis made a slicing gesture across his body, starting from his neck to his stomach with his normal-sized robotic left hand, “Power Sword.”


    “Power Sword,” repeated the alchemist. He looked at the freshly sewn-up wounds on the bare turquoise chest of the mad warrior. “And am I to assume that his cat had his way with you as well?”


    “Uh…” replied Kronis. “Yeah. G… good thing I… uh… don’t taste very good, huh, Boss?”


    The alchemist sighed theatrically and rubbed the hollow sockets of where his beautiful, magnetic eyes once were. “Incompetence. I should have left you to die. I should have never allowed Trydor to repair you.”


    “S… sorry, Boss.”


    “You are, Kronis. You are indeed. How you ever found the courage- the guts to kill- to eat mad Karak, I’ll never know. You should have died in the Satellite Cellblock so long ago. Why did I free you? I should have snapped your neck the moment I laid eyes upon you.” The alchemist sighed again. “No matter. You stand before me now. Alive. But know this: I hold your worthless life in my hands.” He raised a hand and torchlight illuminated white skeletal fingers. “Displease me again, and I will shut you down.”


    “The… kill switch, Boss?”


    “The. Kill. Switch.”


    Kronis stood facing his master for many long moments, twitching his head nervously, while steam hissed from the vents of the hydraulic components of his deadly right arm. He then slammed his jaw together suddenly, and the madness that was never far below the surface of his natural and synthetic skin began to take hold. It was not fear that fueled the madness this time, though. It was anger. It was hate and bile. The madman breathed hard and slammed his jaw together once more.


    “Careful, Kronis,” warned the alchemist. “Careful.”


    “Are we done here?” The words dripped with oil and murder.


    The alchemist laughed his high, mirthless laugh. “No, Kronis. No.” He paused. “You are showing a bit of backbone now. I like that. Listen to me.” Kronis listened. “Just now, as I stand here, wasting time talking to you, my powers of knowing inform me that there is trouble brewing in my happy household. And guess what? Lucky you. I nominate you to deal with it.”


    “What trouble?”


    “Apparently, the frog has gone insane. Go. Go to the lake. Subdue him. Bring him to me.”


    “Or what?” The hateful tone remained in the voice of the madman.


    The alchemist laughed again. “Need I say it?”


    Kronis growled. His gears ground. “The kill switch,” he whispered.


    “The kill switch.”


    And then Kronis left the throne room.


    He dealt with the frog, returned swiftly to his master, threw the slimy creature at the foot of the throne, and exited the cavern without a word.


    The alchemist chuckled darkly to himself as he looked down upon the squirming, dehydrating body of the gasping frog.


    “I will kill him,” said Kronis aloud as he walked back through the lonely corridors of the Mountain of Snakes. “But I can’t. He’ll… turn me off before I get close enough to gut him… He—”


    “And what if your kill switch was disabled?” resonated a rocky voice in his head.


    Kronis stumbled. He did not know whether the voice was real, or if he was descending further into madness. Either way, he quickly decided, he did not care. He answered the disembodied voice. “Then I will kill him.”


    “I thought as such,” said the voice with a cruel snort. “Very well. It is disabled. Go. Kill.”



    End of Part Two.


    USURPERS


    Written by: M. Lawson Humble


    3. The Witch: Crushed by Sadness




    The witch sat in her lonely chambers, regretting the choices she had made that led her to this sad, loveless life. Willing to bear the silence no longer, using her dark powers, she began to create life. She had performed this incantation many times. Too many times. And although the results were always the same- crushing disappointment and death, she knew, after this time, if she ultimately failed, she would try again.


    “Come,” she said, summoning a small gray rat to her. “Come and be my daughter.” The rat obeyed and climbed into the black-nailed yellow-skinned palm of the lonely witch. Their eyes met. “Yes,” she said with a smile. “Yes. You will do.”


    The witch sat the rat back down upon the rough, cracked stones on the well-worn floor. The witch raised her thin, though well-defined arms to the ceiling and began to chant. A deep warmth- the heat of life ignited the very air itself and filled her chambers. At times like these- times of creation, the witch was fulfilled. Confident. Happy.


    The rat began to change. Its black eyes split open, making way for the large, watery vermillion eyes that pushed out from within its splitting, splintering skull. Its hair fell out and its skin stretched. The pitch of its terrible agonized squeaking slowly changed into the confused, urgent cries of an infant. The rat’s legs lengthened and its long-clawed toes turned into plump pink fingers and plump pink toes. And finally, surrounded by blood, wet skin, and singed rat hair, lay a perfect babe.


    The witch collapsed, exhausted, but elated. Her daughter was born. Her companion. Her friend. Her life. She walked over to the baby and picked her up. She was a small thing, but her cries were strong and lusty- her mother’s daughter.


    “Shall I name this one?” thought the witch. Although her every instinct screamed for her to not do such a thing again, she ignored her own wise counsel. “Illumina,” she whispered as she pressed the babe to her breast. My light. I name you after she who would have been very dear to you… were things otherwise. Illumina. My child.”


    Many months passed in happy seclusion as the witch and her daughter delighted in one another’s company. Illumina learned quickly, for she grew fast. In weeks, she could speak her mother’s name.


    And then, on one day, as they shared the witch’s bed, entwined in a tender embrace, warmed by the blazing fire in the hearth, comforted by the natural herbal smells that wafted lazily from the boiling cast iron cauldron hanging above the flames, Illumina spoke in a sweet musical voice full of joy and wonder. “Mother?” she asked. “Were you always as you are?”


    The witch pulled her daughter closer and said in a sleepy voice, “How so, sweet? What do you mean?”


    “Were you always old?”


    Laughing, the witch replied, “No. No, I was not always old. Once, I was like you. A girl.”


    “Tell me. Please?” The incredibly beautiful, long-lashed eyes of Illumina bore into the witch with frightening intensity, urging her mother to submit to her will.


    Pride swelled in the witch’s heart. “Of course, my sweet. How could I ever deny you?” Illumina smiled as her mother began. “I was born, my daughter, very much in the manner of your own birth, within the strong walls of an ancient castle that rose high above the battered, windswept plains of Zalesia on one side, and the unforgiving rocky shores that kissed the edge of the frigid Crystal Sea on the other.”



    …………………

    “Daughter,” said the man. “Evelyn. Come back to me.”


    The girl jerked awake with a start. “I… I’m sorry, father,” she murmured in a voice thick with sleep.


    Her father laughed his warm laugh. “Am I really so dry? Or is my voice such a comfort to you that you have no choice but to submit to slumber when I speak?”


    “I’m sorry. I was up late.”


    “And what were you doing, may I ask? What activity was so important that it ruined today’s lessons?”


    “Reading, father,” she answered obediently.


    The man nodded seriously. “Very well. You are forgiven. That is indeed a worthy pursuit. What, may I ask, were you reading?”


    “Legends. Prophecies. Tales of paths to powers.”


    “You are your father’s daughter, Evelyn. I thank the dark gods for that.” He smiled again. “Go. Go now.” He shooed her with fur-lined, black-gloved hands. “You’re free. Poisons and herb-lore can wait until tomorrow.”


    Evelyn smiled and stood to embrace her father. He entirely smothered her with his comforting bulk and toyed with her long, silver braid as she pressed into him. He had lovingly caressed her bound hair in this manner for as long as she could remember, and although this special gesture was small, it was incredibly meaningful to them both.


    The light of the day was searing and bright. Evelyn preferred the dark, for her pale yellow skin way very sensitive, but on occasion, she would don her black velvet cloak, trimmed with purple satin, pull up her hood against the biting wind and walk down the rocky path to the salty sea below.


    It was here where she daydreamed. Her dreams were simple. All she every wanted was everything. To be feared, loved, to live forever. To rule over all lesser beings who lived their tiny lives circling their tiny stars. To rule all dimensions. Simple. To share her divine light with them all. By force, if necessary. Simple. For that fate was her path. Chosen for her by her father. His entire life was to be spent preparing her for ascension. In fact, she was created for that very purpose. But this fate was not fated to be.


    The girl returned to the castle. “Father?” she called. “I have returned.” She searched out his favorite rooms- the study, the library, the laboratory, but he was not to be found. She grew uneasy and longed for his comforting embrace. Only in his presence did she feel complete, grounded, balanced.


    She searched the castle and the surrounding grounds for two days without sleep. There was no sign of him. He was simply gone. She never saw him again.


    Time passed, and Evelyn grew. Alone, she grew. Alone, she flowered into womanhood. And in her solitude, her heart grew hard, and her vermillion eyes grew cold.


    Scarcely did a day pass wherein she did not attempt to recreate her father’s face in her mind’s eye. She rarely succeeded though, and soon, he became faceless to her. But she no longer cried for him, she had no more tears left to shed. Or so she thought.


    “The Witch of Zalesia,” they called her. The villagers- the small ugly people with their short lives and small brains feared her. They respected her. They paid homage to her, sacrificed to her, and in return, she protected them in her own way. But they did not love her. Nor she them.


    She had loved her father though. She tried hard to remember this fact as the years stretched, but her heart was empty. The memories of love were the memories of another life.


    And then came the alchemist. He had descended upon the villagers who lived and cowered in the long shadows of her castle one black day like a ravenous plague. What he did with the villagers- used them for, she never knew, but they were murdered to a man. Executed. To a woman. To a child.


    With her own eyes, she saw their lifeless bodies piled in a lonely pit, a grand feast for their own pigs. And as she listened to the snuffle of the obscenely huge swine as they gorged themselves on the raw muscles and quivering fat of men, the alchemist appeared beside her.


    The witch did not turn her head, but asked, “What have you done to my people?”


    “Do you mourn for them? Miss them?” he asked by way of reply.


    She inhaled, filling her lungs with the rank smell of death and the pungent tang of disease. “No. But I will miss their tributes.”


    The alchemist laughed. As he laughed, he entwined his strong fingers around her own. His fingers. So much like her father’s. Shocked by the bold touch, but strangely exhilarated and unexpectedly receptive, she looked upon his face. His laugh was high, carefree and pretty. His magnetic face was beautiful. It was also stern and intense. But most of all, beautiful. His dark blue skin seemed to glow from within, as if a star from above resided in the core of his being. And from that day forth, the witch was trapped. She did not resist him. She denied him nothing. Not her lands, nor her treasure, nor the knowledge passed down to her by her father in secrecy. Nor her own body. She denied him nothing. And happily.


    For his part, he taught her well. She was an eager student and hungered for new knowledge after living alone for so long. In a handful of years, her power had increased a hundred fold. And she lived happily for a time, alone with he whom she loved, lording over a countryside of moldy corpses and bleached bones.


    “Evelyn. My love,” said the alchemist one violet evening as they both bathed in a scorching hot spring, their bodies illuminated by the eerie reflected light of the colorful night-planets in the vast blackening sky.


    The steam rose and parted, revealing the witch’s lovely face. The sounds of the pounding Crystal Sea provided a whispering chorus to her words as she replied. “Yes, Keldor?”


    “I fear I must leave you come the morn.”


    “Why?” She rose from the water suddenly, and the alchemist gasped, overwhelmed by her magnificence.


    “Because I must,” he managed to say as his eyes feasted. “Not because I wish.”


    The witch looked to the stars. “The last time I loved a man,” she said sadly, “he disappeared from my life. You will be no different.”


    “I will return,” replied Keldor in a soothing voice. “I am not your father.”


    She leaned over, kissing first his brow, then the points of his ears, then his dark, full lips. “No.” She reentered the steaming water. “You’re not.”


    An hour later, still submerged in the hot spring and entwined in the arms of her lover, the witch asked, “Do you truly love me?”


    Scarcely a beat of their synchronized hearts passed before he answered with certainty, “Yes.”


    Evelyn considered his reply, and then asked, “And when you return? Will you love me still?”


    “I will.”


    “Promise it.”


    The alchemist- Keldor smiled. He pushed he witch away gently and stood slowly, helping her to her feet as well. “Come to the castle.”


    She obeyed.


    Keldor led his love to the sanctuary. Standing before the stern iconography of her cruel gods, he lifted two knives- one with a deep purple hilt- one gold, from the surface of a massive stone altar. He gave the witch the knife with the purple hilt. Smiling, Keldor carved a strange series of symbols into the soft, porous stone of the altar. “Do you see?” he asked the witch, indicating the symbols. The flames of a thousand candles immediately ignited, banishing the darkness from the sanctuary.


    “Yes.”


    “That, my love, is my promise. It is a promise more binding than fleeting words. It is my promise to you that we will never be parted. When I return, we shall be together. For all time.”


    “I’d like that,” she whispered softly. Her short silver hair dripped diamonds of water down the curves of her body until they were absorbed into the stones beneath their bare feet and further down into the roots of the ancient castle.


    “Then carve. Carve the spell of binding into my chest. And I shall do the same to you.”


    Far from fear or revulsion, with breathless excitement, the witch consented. Soon, they were both bleeding. They embraced, pressing their weeping wounds together. They stood like this, before the altar and before the hard eyes of their gods for several minutes before sinking to the floor in love, covered in blood and intoxicated by magic.


    As he promised, years later, the alchemist returned to the witch. But he returned changed. His face was no longer his own. It was the face of cold death- the face of a specter. A monster.


    His appearance, however, did not trouble her as much as his manner. He was cold. Cruel. Dismissive. One day, she asked him, “Do you still love me?”


    Scarcely a discordant vibration of their no-longer synchronized hearts passed before he answered with certainty, “No.”


    Evelyn crumbled and collapsed in agonizing sadness. “Then go,” she sobbed after a time. “Leave my home. Leave my lands. Leave Zalesia.”


    The man who was once Keldor knelt before the witch. A horrible smile sprung to his ghoulish face and the glowing ruby embers that were now his eyes flickered. With skeletal hands caressing her tenderly, the alchemist slowly and gently pushed aside her outer clothes. Evelyn shuddered and hoped against hope that her lover had returned. But no. He laid a frigid hand upon her chest- upon the symbols written in flesh and whispered, “These scars will never fade, witch. Though I no longer have need of you or your body, I have great need of your power. You are mine. Bound to me for all time. My slave. Subservient. For eternity.”


    He left her then, but only for a time. Throughout the long years, with unbearable frequency, he called upon her, treating her cruelly, using her, draining her. Draining her… killing her…



    …………………



    “Mother? Are you crying?”


    Evelyn pulled her daughter close. “Illumina. My sweet Illumina. Yes. Yes I am. I… I’m surprised that I still have tears to shed.”


    “I hate him, mother.”


    Despite her sadness, Evelyn laughed. “I know, my dear. I know. After all, you are a part of me.”


    “Mother? Will you never be allowed to reclaim your birthright? Will you never be allowed to ascend as queen of all there is?”


    The witch sighed. “Upon his death, my love. With you by my side, one day perhaps, upon his death.”


    Illumina smiled. Her mother smiled.


    They lay in happy silence for a time. But the peace they shared was not to last.


    “What is that sound?”


    “Oh, Illumina. I fear that the others have returned.”


    “Another defeat?”


    Evelyn nodded. “It appears so. Why would this time be any different?”


    The shouts and curses of unleashed violence soon rose to a pitch impossible to ignore. After the sounds had ceased, Evelyn groaned.
    “What is it, mother?”


    “He summons me.”


    “Why?”


    “Speak no more, daughter. Please. Stay here. Out of sight. Hide.”


    “But mother, I—“


    “Do it!” snapped the witch. Now it was her daughter’s turn to weep. Evelyn pinched the bridge of her proud, aquiline nose. “Oh, Illumina,” she sighed. “I’m sorry, my sweet. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”


    Still sobbing quietly into a pillow, Illumina watched her mother leave the beautiful world they had built together for the last time.


    In the corridor that led to the throne room of her former lover, the witch nearly retched as the ripe, overpowering smell of one of her fellow warriors struck her like an unexpected blow.


    “Move,” she managed to say in an angry exhale while holding her breath. “Your stench nauseates me.”


    She pushed passed the beast, taking care not to touch him. And he allowed her passage, but he stopped in his tracks to watch her go.


    “Monsters,” thought Evelyn uncomfortably as she left the beast behind, all the while feeling his hungry eyes devouring her. She could taste his desire. “Sickening,” she thought. “Madmen, freaks, and monsters. Why does he surround himself with such creatures? And,” this thought particularly disturbed her, “am I any different?”


    “Come in, my dear,” said the alchemist in his best impression of his old voice. The impression served, but it lacked warmth. Such a quality, he found, despite his great skill, was nearly impossible to replicate.


    The witch was not fooled by his empty, sweet words. “What do you want?” she asked.


    The alchemist sunk deeper into his throne of polished bones and sighed. “Very well. No niceties then. Listen to me carefully.”


    “I’m listening.”


    “We lost the battle today.”


    “No,” she replied.


    “No?”


    “No. You lost the battle.”


    “Very well. Have it your own way. Yes. I lost the battle. I lost my battle. But…” he slowly beat a tattoo on the femur of a long-forgotten hero with his bony finger. The sound was the sound of cannon fire. The witch took a step backward as he continued speaking, his volume rising with every word though he didn’t raise his voice. “But it’s all your fault.”


    “My fault?” She eyed him warily. Evelyn did not expect this. “How is the failure of your… idiots- your failure any fault of mine? I was here. I—“


    “Precisely.” The alchemist chuckled and his teeth clacked together like dice. “Precisely, my dear. My treacherous witch. If you were not here, hiding from life, from your… duty to me in your chamber, you would have been on the field of battle. Fighting for me. Killing for me. You’re mine, do you understand? No one else can have you. You are mine. Mine alone. Mine.” He paused, musing. “Never again… I have been too kind.” He shook his head. “No. Never again.” He stood. His cloak dripped with the blood of the beast. “No more, witch. No more.” He clapped.


    A shockwave knocked Evelyn to her knees. She stood slowly with wild tears of panic welling in her vermillion eyes. Her heart began to race, and she began to breathe heavily, desperate for air. “K… Keldor. Please. No. You wouldn’t.”


    “Don’t call me that!” he screamed. “Don’t! You! Dare!”


    The bones of the witch vibrated and she moaned. “Please…”


    “Say my name,” ordered the alchemist. “My real name.” He paused and screamed, louder this time. “Say! My! Name!”


    “No…”


    “Say it!” An invisible hand plunged into Evelyn’s open mouth, forcing her tongue to obey. “Say it! Say my name!”


    In tears, the witch submitted. She said his name. And the alchemist smiled an evil skeleton-smile as Evelyn sprinted from the throne room, drunk with dread.


    “Illumina!” she shouted as she burst into her chambers. The witch knew what she would see, but still, the reality of it forced her to collapse in grief. Her sadness was incalculable. “Illumina,” she whispered stupidly, for she was in shock. “Illumina. Illumina. Illumina.”


    But the girl wasn’t there. Her daughter was gone. All that remained upon the warm stones of the sweet-smelling bedchamber where mother and daughter dwelt in fleeting contentment was a small gray mouse with empty eyes and a broken neck.


    Evelyn sank to the floor and clutched the dead mouse to her chest. It was still warm. She lay on her back and stared at the ceiling.


    Soon thereafter, too soon, the mouse grew stiff and cold. Then it began to decay. In her clutching fingers, the body of the mouse liquefied, became a tiny skeleton, then dust. Then nothing. Nothing remained but the wet stain on her chest.


    She howled then. Like an animal gripped by disease and madness, she howled. She couldn’t even remember how she got there, but in one moment, she was in her chambers, and in the next, the witch was standing before the throne of the alchemist with burning hatred swirling in her vermillion eyes.
    “I did not send for you.”


    Evelyn attacked him then. But the effort was all in vain. She only succeeded in breaking her elegant fingers upon the invisible barrier of protection he suddenly summoned.


    Then she tore her clothes. She removed and threw her helm at the one whom she once loved with all of her heart. It smashed on the barrier and rolled away. She spoke low. “How… how could you do this to me? Again… You’ve done it to me again. She was my… daughter. Illumina was my daughter. Why?”


    The alchemist shrugged. A smug look was written across his skeletal features. “I need not explain myself to you, of all people. Now go. Leave me. I will forgive this one… miscalculation on your part, but cross me again, disobey me, attack me, and I promise: It will not go well for you. It—“


    “My daughter! My daughter… She was mine. To love. To keep me warm. To live for. To die for if necessary. How can you do this to me? You are evil. Cruel.” As she spoke, the witch paced frantically and gestured wildly.


    “Have I pretended otherwise? Oh.” He snapped his fingers. “And you are barren now. Did you know that? No more magic babies for you.”


    “Cruelty…” she rasped in a detached voice. “Cruelty…” Her voice was tight, and then it exploded. “Your cruelty knows no bounds!” The alchemist remained silent. The witch continued. “You love me no longer. I know that, but… to honor what we once shared, send me away. I never want to see you again. Please. But mark me… Keldor,” she punched him with the name, “if you do force me to stay, one day, I will find a way to kill you. By all the dark gods, I promise this.” Still, the alchemist kept his council. “Answer me.” He did not. “Allow me to leave.” She was sobbing now. “Why don’t you allow me to leave!” she screamed before collapsing at the foot of the throne.


    Like a smirking statue, the alchemist remained silent. The witch began to weep again, softer now. The hot tears fell like rain and mixed with the cooling blood of the beast that was splattered all around the grim throne room.


    The alchemist had heard enough. “Leave. Me,” he said.


    Evelyn looked up. “Just say my name, Keldor. And have pity. Please. Say my name, and perhaps you will remember the warmth we once shared.” Her plea was met with bored indifference. “Keldor, please, Keldor, please,” she repeated in a strained whisper. “Keldor, please, say it, say it, say it… Say my name!”


    “No,” he replied. “Witch.”


    And then Evelyn ran from the murderer of her children. Blinded by grief, she ran back to her empty life. On her way out, she saw the cybernetic madman lurking in the shadows. But she did not care what he had heard. She no longer cared about anything.


    As soon as she reached her chambers, she began to cry fresh tears. And after a time, the witch knew not how long, without warning, a blazing supernatural fire sprang to life in the stone hearth of her bedchamber.


    The white flames spoke. “Your oath to the alchemist was foolishly made, was it not?”


    The witch stood suddenly. Peering into the fire, she demanded, “Who are you?”


    “No one.”


    “Then leave me to my grief, no one.”


    “But I can free you.”


    Several heartbeats passed before she spoke. “From my oath?”


    “From your oath.”


    “You have this power?”


    “I do.”


    The witch sat down and crossed her legs in front of the hearth. Her tears evaporated in the heat. “What,” she asked, “is to be the cost?”


    “No cost,” answered the flames with a rocky voice.


    “Do not take me for a fool, stranger. There’s always a cost. What is it?”
    The flames snorted like a boar. “You must live with the consequences of your choice. That is cost enough.”


    Evelyn considered her options. “Very well,” she said cautiously. “If… if you release me from my oath, I will be free to leave the Mountain of Snakes? Free to leave him?”


    “You will. But you won’t.”


    “I won’t?”


    “No. You will kill him first.


    “Yes.” The witch smiled, leaning closer to the fire. Her long, black eyelashes singed. “Yes. I will kill him first.”


    The flames smiled. “Of course you will. Now.” Another snort. “You are free. You are free to do what you must. Go now. Go. Kill.



    End of Part Three.



    USURPERS


    Written by: M. Lawson Humble


    4. The Servant-King: Ruled by Fear



    Heavy were the twin hearts of the king who sat high upon his underwater throne of living coral. In his youth, in the peaceful days, he quite enjoyed the plays performed by the skilled actors who travelled from every corner of the vast Liquid Lands to entertain the royal court in the capital city of what is now called Rakash. But now, now that his life was the subject of their plays, though ably written, he always watched in agitation and left feeling empty and depressed. The king sighed.


    “My King!” shouted the lead actor as he swam upward from the floodlights of the stage and into a brilliant spotlight. “My Queen! Royal family! Courtiers and citizens all! Welcome! Welcome to our performance!”


    The king clapped politely as those around him shouted happily and yelled enthusiastically. The queen laid a delicate webbed hand upon his knee. Her touch was warm in the cold water. It always was.


    “And now!” continued the actor. “If you will, kind patrons, peace! Peace, for we shall now begin!” The applause died. The actor nodded, and then lowered his voice theatrically. “For your enjoyment,” he said, “we now humbly present: ‘Squidish Rex!’”


    As the actors assembled, and as the house lights grew dim within the Aquarium- the largest, most ornate, and most expensive theater in the entirety of the Liquid Lands, the king whispered to his wife. “Why do they insist on calling it that?”


    The queen smiled her beautiful smile and the gold and green scales on her flawless face glittered like jewels. “I think it’s cute.”


    “But…” The king made a sour face. “No one has called me ‘Squidish’ since I was a tad. It—“


    “Oh, hush. I think it’s a fine name for a play glorifying your rise to power. Of course,” she smiled, “if you don’t like it, force them to change it. Or better yet, execute them all. You are their king, are you not?”


    “I’m not that kind of king,” he said solemnly.


    “I know.” The queen kissed his cheek fins. “And that’s why I love you. Now be quiet. They’ve already started.”


    Despite himself, King Mer also smiled.



    …………………



    In the middle of the second act of the play, the actor portraying the part of Young Mer- of Squidish spoke. “Brother! Help! They’re dying! Dead! All dead!”


    King Mer sighed. “And so we come again to this part,” he whispered. “How many times must I relive that day?”


    “Oh, my love,” said the queen in her gentle, bubbling voice. “I know this is hard, but your subjects love the tale. It is history. It is who you are. It is who we are. As a kingdom.”


    “A captive-kingdom, and I am its servant-king.”


    The play continued. The eldest brother of the future king was speaking to their father. Squidish stood meekly behind his ten brothers.


    “Father! Squidish has brought me news! The waters! They are poisoned!”


    “Where?” growled the ancient actor portraying the old king. His voice boomed through the water like the thundering vocalization of a bull war-whale.


    “In the deep sump that leads to the western outlying cities of the Crystal Sea. Thousands are dead! Many more—“


    “Guards!” shouted the old king, interrupting his son.


    “Command us, mighty Rakash,” replied the three actors playing guards.


    “The costumes are quite good though. Aren’t they?” said King Mer in his queen’s ear.


    “Hush!” she said as she nudged his with her bare shoulder.


    An hour passed, and the story was very nearly told. The ten brothers of Squidish and his father- Old King Rakash had been slain by the magic and trickery o the Skull-who-Speaks. The Liquid Lands were now leaderless and without hope.


    But then, when the kingdom dwelled within the dark of the deepest trench, young Squidish, last remaining son of Rakash returned to the dying city, transformed from his hero’s quest that spanned Eternia, both below and above. And though his gentle manner remained, he rose to the challenge of the awful days and seized the golden trident of Rakash- the weapon of kings that had been passed down from father to son since the first drops of rain fell upon Eternia’s back and created a pool many eons ago. Squidish was no more. King Mer ascended. The kind ruler. The just champion of his subjects. Loved by all, but feared by few. On stage, crowds of actors roared with delight. In their seats, the audience joined them.


    “At least they glossed over my shame,” whispered King Mer.


    This time, his wife did not chastise him. She turned her eyes, glowing like lanterns in the clear water upon him, soothing his anxious hearts with her gaze. She always knew when to cease her jesting and attempt to arrest her king’s- her husband’s black moods. She was successful in her efforts perhaps half of the time.


    “You did what you had to, Mer,” she said. “Our people- the entirety of the Liquid Lands- us- you and I would not be here today but for your… negotiations. Your father fought. Your brothers fought. And they died.”


    “But they were no one’s servant.”


    “Mer. Listen. You are not a servant to the Skull-who-Speaks. You are your own king.” King Mer did not speak. The queen put her arms around him. “Mer. My sweet. You—“


    In a harsh whisper, with a mass of tiny bubbles escaping behind the words, King Mer said, “In exchange for not poisoning our entire kingdom with toxic runoff from his vile mountain, I agreed to allow the Skull-who-Speaks to call upon my army at his leisure. I put this idea forth. It was my proposal.” He paused. “My suggestion. And he can call me. Summon me. Any time. To fight his foolish skirmishes. To bend the knee. And… if that is not servitude, my queen, what is?”


    For a moment, the queen did not speak. The actors where taking their final bow. As the house lights began to rise, revealing the thousands of patrons, with a sad smile, she said over the disorienting sound of the swirling water created by wild applause, “The alternative is to die. We can’t challenge his might. You know that. You wouldn’t… we wouldn’t stand a chance. A king must do what must be done. Not for glory. For his subjects. To keep them safe. Happy. Healthy. And look around you, Mer.” She pointed toward the ecstatic crowd. “They are. They are.”


    “Except for my soldiers who have been slain by the enemies of the Skull-who-Speaks. What of them? What of their families?”


    For this, she had no reply.



    …………………



    “How was the play?”


    “Why underneath Eternia are you not asleep, little one?”


    The youngest son of King Mer came swimming swiftly from his pod into the arms of his mother. “I couldn’t sleep. I missed you.”


    “We were only gone for a handful of hours.” The king’s eyes softened. “Well are your brothers asleep, at least?”


    “They are, Father.”


    The queen passed the tad off to Mer. He embraced his son and shrugged. “Then that is something , I suppose.”


    The boy was small. Smaller even than the majority of the fish who dwelt near the great city. But the tad had little need for physical strength. Like his father, he was clever. Observant. A thinker.


    The king and queen had four sons. Rarely had a family in the Liquid Lands produced fewer than ten sons. And never a king. But his subjects did not gossip. They loved Mer.


    “Father,” asked the tad.


    “Yes Engraulis?”


    “Will you take me to see the villages in the Kelp Jungle tomorrow? You promised you would take me soon.” The tad’s sleepy eyes looked into those of his father’s.


    For a moment, King Mer considered saying, “No.” His mind was already running through the many duties that required his attention upon the morrow. But he dismissed those concerns as his son clutched tighter to his neck, his small body slowly giving up its fight to stay awake.


    “Very well, Engraulis. We shall go tomorrow.”


    Engraulis smiled widely and then yawned, pushing schools of bubbles out through his small gills. “Promise?”


    “Promise.”


    When the darkness of the deep water lightened, King Mer woke. Engraulis eagerly swam into his father’s pod. The tad was already dressed in this travelling armor and carried his play-spear.


    “Let’s go!” he said.


    Mer nodded slowly, groaned and inhaled, allowing his body to float upward from his soft bed of caressing anemone. “I’m up. Alright, alright. I’m up.” The tad swam around the royal suite noisily, whooping with excitement. The king attempted to quiet him. “Engraulis. Hush. Don’t wake your mother. I’m coming, I’m coming.”


    Mer then swam over to his wife’s pod, kissed her beautiful face and turned to leave.


    “Mer,” she bubbled sleepily. “My dear, sweet Squidish. Be safe.”


    “I will.”


    The queen closed her eyes.


    “I don’t see why we need so many guards,” said Engraulis bravely.


    Mer held his son’s hand as they swam through the mighty Flood Gates of Rakash into the wild beyond. Grim royal guards encircled them like satellites around binary stars.


    Mer explained. “Although our subjects love me, there are still a few who would do us harm. For these few,” he sighed, “we must be kept safe. It is a king’s duty to be… protected.” Mer sighed again. “No matter how weak it makes me appear… How weak it makes me feel. Listen to me: I am no warrior, son,” he confided, squeezing the tad’s hand tighter. I am only king by unhappy chance.”


    “Will I ever become king?”


    King Mer shook his head. “No, Engraulis. No. The throne is not for you. But take heart,” he said, noticing the pained look written across his son’s face. “Your duty will be quieter, but a far sight more fulfilling, I’ll wager. In truth, I envy you. It was to be my path.”


    “What am I to be, Father?”


    “When we return, your training shall begin. The Great Oracle of Okeanos has spoken, and you are to be the next Wizard of the Water.” The tad stopped swimming. He floated, stunned and still as if in utero. “Are you pleased?”


    Engraulis found his voice. “Father… Yes. More than pleased.”


    The king nodded. “It will not be an easy path, and more than once, I daresay, you will wish to give up. But perhaps not. There is strength in you to be sure.” Mer paused for a moment and then spoke. “A different kind of strength, perhaps. A strength more akin to mine. Your brothers are powerful, yes, but they will need you after I am gone. Especially Prince Mobula, when he is king.”


    An hour of hard swimming into the cruel currents passed. Both Mer and Engraulis were exhausted, but hid it well. They rested as soon as they entered into the safety of the Kelp Jungle.


    “Did you know,” said King Mer to his son after they each regained their breath, “that this is not the first time you have visited the jungle?”


    “No, Father. When?”


    “A long time ago. When you were very young. Now come. Guards.” The guards tightened their circle around their king. One of you go and tell the Mistress of Kelp that we have arrived.” Mer turned toward his son again as one of the guards swam into the swaying, thickening greenery. “Just wait, Engraulis. Just wait until you see her palace again. Such wonders… Such wonders.”


    “Tell me father. Please?”


    King Mer smiled. Then he cried out in agony. Thin red blood vessels burst in his luminous eyes and a gelatinous black fluid began to ooze from the slits that were his nose.


    “Father! Father! Please!” shouted the tad.


    Mer began to speak in a shaking voice. Alarmed, his guards surrounded him and held him upright. “No. No. Not now. No.”


    “What—“


    “I… have been summoned, son.”


    “I don’t understand.”


    Mer sighed. “Of course not, Engraulis. Of course not. When I leave, the guards will explain to you what they can.”


    “You’re leaving?”


    The king grabbed onto his son. “Yes. But I will be back. Blood will be on my claws, that much is true, but for you, your brothers, you mother and our kingdom, I will always return."


    The guards knew better that to offer to accompany the king. This summoning was for Mer alone.


    And so, with heavy hearts, the king called back as he swam away, “I’m sorry, Engraulis. I’m so sorry…”


    Mer swam for nearly two hours through the vast, sometimes barren, sometimes beautiful seas and through the dark submerged subeternian passageways that led into the Mountain of Snakes- the home of the Skull-who-Speaks.


    Mer squeezed into a tiny opening in the rocks above, compressing his cartilaginous tissue to make himself fit. And he did fit. But just barely. After he popped out of the hole like a cork, the king found himself in the stagnant waters of the lake that festered in the belly of the mountain like an open wound.


    An unnatural glow lighted the way toward the surface. He stopped. Something entered the lake from above.


    “A… hand?” thought Mer, swimming cautiously, but ever upward. He choked as the greasy fur that covered the hand released its foul oils into the lake, and a thousand drowning fleas abandoned their home, swimming frantically with many legs toward the light. Toward salvation. None were successful. In time, their microscopic corpses would be swallowed up by the sad, inbred, blind predatory fish of the stinking lake.


    The hand beckoned with its large, long, and deadly fingers. “What under Eternia…” thought Mer. “Is that… the beast? Fishing? Disgusting monkey,” he said aloud, bubbles escaping from his gills and lipless mouth.


    Mer swam closer. The undulations of the beast’s fingers began to cloud his mind. “If only I can reach his hand… All will be well. There will be peace. Happiness. An end.”


    But against the odds, Mer persevered. With a violent thrash of his head, he broke the spell of the beast.


    And then, a small shadow darted past the king. Mer’s triple-chambered stomach tightened. “A meal,” he moaned. “A fish.” He sighed. “That poor creature does not possess the resolve to resist the pull of the beast.


    Just when Mer ceased swimming upward, turning his back upon the blur-of-a-fish, seeking to spare himself the sight of its awful death, the fish cried out. It cried out as the beast’s long black claws pushed into its flesh. But the cry was the cry of no fish.


    “Father! Help! It hurts! Father! I’m sorry! I—“


    And then the screaming stopped. Engraulis, beloved youngest son of King Mer, future Wizard of the Water, was now no more than a meal for the beast.


    For a moment, the king floated unmoving, suspended in the poisonous water. He could not comprehend what he had witnessed. Engraulis was back among the swaying greenery of the Kelp Jungle, not here. Not… “He followed me,” said the king. “My son followed me here. I… led him here. To his death. My association with these… monsters… my weakness has led to his end. My! Fault!”


    As Mer howled, the festering lake bubbled. “My son!” he continued to scream. “In the belly! Belly of the beast! Belly of the beast!”


    And then Mer exploded from the water and dove head first into the unwashed body of the beast. The king continued to scream in the face of the murderer of his son, despite knowing that the beast could not understand a word. Time and time again, Mer pounded the already-broken nose of the beast. “I will kill you!” he shouted as his wild anger fueled his sledgehammer blows. “I will kill you! I will kill you!”


    The beast struggled through the unexpected pain and fought to retain his grasp upon his own rapidly receding consciousness. And with a roar, the beast then desperately summoned a massive amount of brutal power, using it to kick the king off of him with a mighty heave.


    The king flew through the close air, and landing directly on his back, slamming onto the surface of the water with a deafening slap. Slowly, he began to sink. Darkness crept in around the edges of his vision and he sank. He sank.


    “No!” he exhaled as he came to. “No!”


    Again King Mer exploded from the lake. But this time, the beast was gone. Engraulis was gone. In the belly of the beast. Belly of the beast.


    Mer went mad then. And in his madness, he vowed to pull the Mountain of Snakes down stone by stone. And he actually made a very good start of it before he realized he was no longer alone. The sound of heavy metal echoed through one of the corridors that led to the lake.


    “My son!” shouted King Mer to his fellow warrior. “You have to help me find the beast! Help me help me help me! I need to kill the beast! My son is dead! The beast must die! Please! Please!”


    The cybernetic man walked closer. He was clearly uncomfortable. He clacked his jagged metal jaw against his filed teeth a few times before speaking. “I don’t know what you’re saying, frog-man, but you need to stop tearing up the boss’s home. Now… come with me. He wants a word.” The wondrous right arm of the cybernetic man then began to whirr and hiss, pumping out steam and plumes of smoke from burning oil as it transformed from an elegant sub-atomic bio-phasetron into a nasty, sharp hook. The cybernetic man looked at his hook and laughed a giddy, gear-grinding laugh. “Come with me, I said,” he said when his laughing fit had subsided, “or I’ll hook you. Gig you like the froggy you are.”


    King Mer could not understand the cybernetic man’s words. In fact, the biology of the two warriors differed so, that even if they wished, neither could physically pronounce the others’ language. Frustrated, the king pulled a slimy stone from the wall and threw it at the cyborg’s head.


    After easily dodging the missile, the cyborg laughed. But then, hot anger began to course through his veins and tubes. “Now you’ve done it.” He scowled metallic.


    King Mer lunged. The cybernetic man spun, catching the king in the back of his head with the blunt edge of his hook-hand. The devastating force generated by the brilliantly-designed arm had been known to turn diamond to dust, but it only knocked Mer unconscious.


    The cybernetic man sighed, and with a sour face, picked up the ugly, slimy creature, slung him over his shoulder, and walked back to his master.


    And after the cyborg had dumped the servant-king at the foot of the throne of bones of heroes, he walked away in angry silence.


    In the corridor, not fifty yards from the throne room, the cybernetic man stopped dead, listening to a voice in his head. After a time, he turned around and began to retrace his steps back to the throne room with hot murder bubbling in his brain.


    And then a voice- a real voice called out. “Where are you going, Kronis?”
    The cybernetic man answered without turning. “Trydor. I’m going to see the boss. I’m going to kill him.”


    The machinist caught up to his friend. His jade sword was drawn and he was dressed for battle. “Funny,” said Trydor grimly, surprisingly unsurprised by the coincidence, “so am I.”


    Back upon the throne of bones, the alchemist laughed as the watched King Mer struggle for breath. The king was still in a daze, but was beginning to wake. King Mer heard the laughter through his haze. And then he heard something else. A voice. A voice throbbing in his head, pushing out from within his spongy cartilaginous skull, trying to burst free.


    The voice snorted and then spoke. The sound was the sound of scraping rocks. But Mer could understand the words. “He is going to let you die here, you know. He will watch you dry up and then feed your desiccated corpse to his panther.”


    “Then leave me,” thought King Mer, “to my death.


    For many long moments, the voice was silent. But then it spoke. “You have great power in you, you know…”


    “Leave me. Leave me to die.”


    “What do you want, Mer? What do you want… little Squidish?”
    “To die.”


    “I don’t believe you,” said the voice. What do you really want?”


    King Mer began to cry. The precious moisture pooled around the alchemist’s bare feet. The Skull-who-Speaks screamed with laughter as he watched his servant-king sob and mutter to himself.


    “I want…” said Mer inside his own head, “my son back.”


    The rockslide voice rumbled angrily. “That is beyond my power.” Another snort. “Last offer. What. Do. You. Want?”


    “Death… for…” Mer pointed upward toward the grinning skull as hot hatred blossomed next to his rotting grief, “him.”


    “There we are,” said the voice. “Finally.”


    “But… what good—“


    “Cease doubting,” rumbled the voice. It’s exhausting. Listen well to me: If you do kill him, when you kill him, what will happen to your subjects? Your kingdom? Your armies? You?”


    Mer understood. “I will be free. We will be free. All of us.”


    “Very good. Can you be brave?”


    “No.”


    “You must.”


    “I cannot… Please… Help me. Take away the fear… It has been with me for so, so long…”


    “Done,” said the voice.


    Mer smiled. “I need a weapon,” he thought as a black veil lifted from his mind. I need water.”


    The voice laughed its strange laugh. “You shall have both. And Mer?”


    “Yes?”


    “Go. Kill.”


    Just then, a torrent of supernatural sea water flooded into the throne room. Mer was electrified as the water kissed his body. And riding on the back of the sudden waves, the golden trident of Rakash- his father’s trident- his trident leapt into his hands. King Mer rose with the shallow tide, swelling with power and out for death.


    The alchemist stood as well and squealed in astonishment as, without a second thought, without fear, the sea king plunged the gleaming trident into his throat. The glistening, bloody tines erupted out of the back of his neck. The Skull-who-Speaks fell.



    End of Part Four.



    USURPERS


    Written by: M. Lawson Humble


    5. The Machinist: Blind Loyalty



    Trydor watched his body spin away as his head rolled across the dirt. A reflected explosion of light from the sword that had decapitated him seared his darkening eyes, casting his killer in silhouette. That was the last thing he saw. “Who has killed me?” he thought in casual detachment as blood flowed out from the raw stump of his neck and as his formidable brain, starved, began to shut down. “Who? Who…”


    Upon waking, the first face he saw was the handsome face of his savior. The face of the alchemist. “Who are you?” groaned the machinist. His voice was raw and ragged, and he couldn’t hold on to a coherent thought for more than a moment.


    “A friend,” replied the alchemist in a soothing voice as consciousness began to slip once again from the machinist. “A dear friend. And those who ambushed you have been… punished. Painfully. By my hand.”


    “…Why?”


    “You truly remember nothing?” asked the alchemist in a strained voice as he knelt to hold the machinist’s hand. “Because we are friends. The best of friends. Don’t you remember? As boys, we were once inseparable. As men, our bond only deepened. Your mother was a servant in my house. She was my nurse. We shared the same milk, Trydor. In all but name and blood…” the alchemist paused, fighting back agonized tears, “we are brothers.”


    Weeks later, Trydor woke suddenly. He was completely lucid, and his memory had returned. “Keldor?” he rasped. “Are you there?”


    On a small cot beside the sick bed of the machinist, the alchemist stirred. “Yes, Trydor. I’m here. I’ve scarcely left your side.” Keldor stood. “Have you--”


    “Yes, friend,” said Trydor with a smile. “I have regained my memory. But… with memory also comes confusion. She killed me. The captain of the royal guard beheaded me with her serpent-blade. Why… why do I still live?”


    “You live,” said Keldor in a low voice, “because I saved you.”


    “My vision is… strange.” The machinist reached up to touch his eyes, but instead, his deft fingers brushed against cold metal and hard plastic. “Oh, gods,” he moaned. “What has happened to me?” His hands then strayed to his neck. Large pipes and small, external artificial vessels connected his head to his body. “No… no.”


    “Yes, Trydor. I did what had to be done. With skillful magic and crude science. The work is sloppy, I know, and I did my best to restore your vision. Your eyes… I fear that the captain put them out after you… died. I tried to stop her. But… I was too late. I’m sorry. I tried. I’m sorry, Trydor. I have not your skill with machinery. But you live.” Keldor squeezed his friend’s hand tighter. “By all the gods, you live. And when you have recovered sufficiently, I have no doubt that you will improve greatly upon my work.”


    A month passed, and finally Trydor was well enough to stand. And soon, much too soon for Keldor’s liking, for his concern for his friend was great, Trydor began to work. He began to repair himself. But Keldor was not concerned for long. When the machinist had completed his work, he stood before his friend.


    Keldor gasped. “A work of art, Trydor. You have become a work of art.”


    The visor that the machinist had constructed spun and clicked into place. “Better than my natural eyes,” he declared.


    “Indeed,” agreed Keldor. “For what natural eye can see through stone or banish the darkness?”


    “Or level a mountain?”


    Trydor shrugged. “The captain… Despite her, I can see again. But she defeated me by the sword. She took my honor. That will not stand. Where is she now? You punished her. I remember you saying that. Am I wrong? Did you capture her?”


    Keldor ran his fingers through his long black hair as he said quietly, “Escaped. She escaped.”


    “Then we will meet again on the field of battle.”


    “She will best you again.”


    “How—”


    “No.” The alchemist cut his friend’s words short. “Listen to me. The captain has trained with the royal man-at-arms- her father since before she could walk. Her sword is her arm. And although you are competent- more than competent, you cannot defeat such a warrior.”


    “Then what do you suggest?” asked Trydor.


    “You must train harder. You must improve. We both must. For like the captain, I too was born into a life- a culture that worshipped the sword. You know this. You were a part of it. But as you also know, my interests have always leaned more toward the… academic. And so. Now. I feel I must learn that which I spurned in my youth.”


    “Who will teach us then? Who has skill enough to train us?”


    “I know of a man. I have made plans to travel and see him soon. You may accompany me if you feel well enough. They call him Bronze-Lord-Jitsu.”


    “I see. Will he teach us?”


    “Time will tell,” replied the alchemist.


    And the fabled sword master, known as Bronze-Lord-Jitsu did indeed lend his sword and his services to Keldor. For years, Trydor and his brother who was not his brother trained with the master swordsman. Under his strict, ruthless guidance, they both improved. They improved so much in fact, that they both soon surpassed their teacher. But whereas Trydor’s character strengthened as his skill developed, Keldor grew bold and arrogant.


    And so it was. One cold morning, in a fit of rage brought on by a perceived insult, Keldor insolently challenged the bronze-lord. The sword master accepted, and was soundly defeated.


    Later that day, Trydor watched with artificial eyes as his beloved and feared master, the mighty Bronze-Lord-Jistu, whom he came to think of as a father, in disgrace, left the rough encampment where the alchemist plotted and his warriors trained, trailing blood from the ragged stump of his hastily cauterized severed arm.


    At the end of the next year Keldor changed. He now had a new face. A new name. But Trydor didn’t much care. For he, too, had changed. The man who was once dead now felt more of a kinship with his sword and his machines than his brother who was not his brother. And besides, though no longer close, they worked well together. Together, they conquered a mountain, driving the slithering snakes that occupied it into lightless holes. Together they built an army. And together, the alchemist and the machinist tightened this grip around the throat of Eternia.



    …………………



    Trydor came into full consciousness then, vaguely disappointed by the fact that in the last few moments of his intense daily meditation, his mind strayed. That was unacceptable. He would have to try harder. But to try was to fail. He must try not to try.


    He stood. Raising his hand to his visor, he flipped a series of switches. After a moment, his artificial vision was fully operational. He adjusted the complex system of tubing and wires that connected his once-severed head to his body. All was well. He breathed deep of the sterile air in his brightly-lit workshop. Today, there was to be a battle. He removed his emerald sword from its hook with reverence, and banished the residual thoughts of the bronze-lord that blossomed unbidden in his mind. Bronze-Lord-Jitsu had haunted his subconscious mind with increasing frequency for years now. But in his mind’s eye, the face of the master swordsman always changed. Always turned strange. Silver. It was the face of his father, he knew. His father, holding high a bright curved sword, as cold as ice, as sharp as death, speaking to his son, begging him to come home. But Trydor had no father. None that he could remember. But now was not the time to dwell upon such things. Some mysteries can wait. And with a mind as empty as a drained goblet and a heart as light as air, Trydor exited his clean, orderly workshop out into the filth and filthy company of the other damned souls that haunted the evil, rotten, Mountain of Snakes.


    They lost the battle. His only friend, now that he and Keldor had grown apart was very nearly killed. But Trydor saved him. As so many times before, he saved him. Repaired him. And as his friend- Kronis the cybernetic madman came back online, one of their fellow warriors- the stinking ignorant beast paid them both a call. With his artificial eyes, Trydor could plainly see the countless parasites that called the matted fur of the beast home. He dared not magnify the thousands of microscopic creatures that fell to his polished, sanitized floor for fear of what he may see. “I must make the beast leave. And after he leaves, I must wash my workshop in radiation to kill these vile intruders. But,” he thought as Kronis threatened the beast, “there is something strange about him today.” He looked at Kronis, cycling through optical filters, searching for answers. “And Kronis too. What’s happening around here? I feel… odd as well. Like cold fingers are dancing on my spine.”


    After the beast left, leaving behind his lice, ticks, and worse things besides, Trydor spoke his fears aloud. “What do you think he wanted, Kronis?”


    Kronis answered with a question. “Who?”


    “The beast.”


    Trydor tried to articulate his concerns to the cybernetic madman, but it was hopeless. Kronis could not grasp the subtle implications. It was only at times like these he missed the bright intellect of his brother who was not his brother. He missed Keldor.


    Kronis was called away. Trydor secured the blast doors of his workshop and waited outside in the gloomy, slimy corridor as pure unfiltered radiation scoured his sanctuary. He sat down on the uncomfortable floor and began to meditate. But as soon as thought left him, evaporating like soft dew on morning flowers, a presence entered inside of his mind.


    “You want him dead, do you not?” it said in a voice of crumbling mountains. Trydor did not answer. He fought. “Let me stay,” teased the voice. “I can help you.”


    “No…” grunted the machinist aloud. “I will banish you from—“


    “Enough!” Trydor cried out as his brain caught fire. “It hurts, doesn’t it? Do you want it to stop? I will make the pain go away if you wish. Just listen to what I say and I will make it go away.”


    Trydor submitted. The voice seemed to stretch out in his mind, making himself at home. “Who are you?”


    “One with more power than your master.”


    “Who do you think… is my master?” asked Trydor, thinking of the betrayed and armless Bronze-Lord-Jistu.


    The voice spoke the true name of Keldor.


    “He’s not my master. He’s my brother. Or at least… he was.”


    The voice snorted a condescending laugh. “Then you want him dead, do you not?”


    Trydor was confused. Confused and offended. “No. Of course not. What business is it of yours? We have our differences, I won’t deny, and those differences have grown over the years, but we remain bound together. Bound by family and blood and honor. We grew up together. We will rule Eternia together.”


    The voice did not speak. Trydor thought- hoped that it had retreated, but he was a mindful man. He sensed its alien presence. “Now. You know my mind in regards to your distasteful suggestion,” he said quietly, fearing the pain. “Leave me.”


    Shifting rocks scraped. “You… I can scarcely believe it!” Trydor winced in agony as the voice shouted and began to laugh hysterically. “Oh, he has made me proud today. Such skill. Such… subtlety. He as earned my gift to him today, if nothing else.


    “Leave me alone,” groaned the machinist. “What do you… want?”


    “The question is…” said the voice as its laugh receded like a wave. “Listen to me. Ask not what I want. Ask yourself what you want. What you really want. Deep down. No? I will tell you. I will tell you true: You want him dead.”


    “No! For the last time—“


    “Listen. Remember.”



    ………………..



    “We’ve lost Oppenheimer, Captain,” said the young galactic scientist in a strained voice. “He’s breathed his last. There… there was no hope, Captain. His head injury was too… severe. When we… When … it happened. Like the others, he wasn’t strapped in. Not like us, Captain. Not like Senior Astronaut Erwin…”


    “What? Happened? Here?” demanded the captain in anger, turning her eyes away from the dead spaceman whose head had burst like a swollen, overripe fruit. “I swear to— Will someone tell me what on Earth happened? Surely you have a theory, Erwin?”


    The senior astronaut stared at his captain. She was a perfect specimen of humanity- tall, strong, beautiful, brilliant and driven. Perfection. When she was a girl, growing up on the once-welcoming, now toxic shores of the New-Californian islands, Captain Marlena Glenn often dreamed of times past, far back, hidden deep within the veiled history and true legends of her home planet of Earth. She dreamed she harbored a secret in this secret world. She dreamed she was a queen. But time passed and her mind sharpened and her imagination began to die of starvation. She soon forgot her childish ways and her foolish fantasies. She was a woman. The woman, in fact. For in addition to her illustrious career as a captain of the Earth’s Space Defenders, she was also engaged in a one-sided struggle for the presidency of the Solar system. Only weeks remained before it would be put to a vote, but the results were all but in. The incumbent, it was reported, had already begun to pack.


    But Senior Astronaut Erwin looked through his captain as she spoke. He did not see her. He saw only the spinning field of unfamiliar stars wheeling around wildly through the large, domed window behind her head.


    “Erwin!” shouted Captain Glenn. She slapped him. I was not a gentle slap. But the senior astronaut did not blink. He only looked at the alien constellations in numb disbelief as his mind slowly unraveled.


    “Captain, if I may?” said the young galactic scientist. He had pulled a sheet over the face of the junior astronaut. Blood and liquid gray matter immediately began to soak into the thirsty, crisp, white fabric.


    “Speak your mind, Ito,” replied the captain. “Speak freely. What do you think happened? Since Erwin here won’t answer me, do you have a theory?”


    Galactic Scientist Takeshi Ito nodded. “Thank you, Captain. Yes, Captain, I do.”


    “Well? And don’t say ‘black hole,’ or I’ll open the airlock and throw you out.” She began to check the pulses of the collapsed astronauts strewn about the bridge. Dead. All dead. And Erwin would follow them soon, she knew. He had that look about him. A look she had seen far too many times. “Well?” she repeated.


    “I’ll go prepare the airlock, Captain.”


    Despite all, Captain Glenn laughed. But the laugh was bitter. Hopeless. After a moment, she stood and wiped the blood of the ship’s surgeon upon her thighs. Two smeared red handprints remained on the rubbery, light green, self-cleaning spacesuit that she had worn for the better part of the last decade. “Seriously,” she said. “A black hole. Jesus, Ito.”


    “Captain,” said Takeshi nervously, “please forgive me, but… yes. Yes. That is what I believe has happened to us.” She looked deep into his light-brown almond shaped eyes, and he into the sparkling emeralds that were hers. “Captain,” he added suddenly before looking away quickly.


    “Where are we then? The…” With a sigh, Captain Glenn threw herself into a padded chair and attempted to pull up their coordinates on the ocu-screen. “The mapping is all wrong.”


    Galactic Scientist Ito moved another chair in front of the monitor. “Captain, all due respect, Captain, but…” He navigated through the menus of the ocu-screen with a series of practiced blinks and forced dilations of his pupils. “These are our coordinates, Captain. This… this is no known galaxy.”


    “A black hole. Damn it all.” Captain Glenn sighed again. “We’re the first through. No one else has survived being sucked into a black hole… Am I correct?”


    “Impossible to say, Captain,” said Takeshi, “because none have ever returned.”


    “So we’re trapped?”


    “I… would count that as a certainty… Captain.”


    Captain Glenn asked quietly, “Can’t we just enter another hole?”


    “To where would it lead, Captain? Not the Solar system to be sure. The odds of that would be… impossible. And that’s on top of assuming we would survive another passage.”


    “No, Ito. No, of course not,” said the captain, shaking her head. “You’re right. I was just thinking aloud.” She removed her helmet and threw it on an empty couch. It rolled off and came to rest, nuzzling against the broken neck of a dead man. Her messy, but still beautiful copper-red hair tumbled down until it reached her shoulders. She pushed away a few loose strands and allowed the disguise of captain to fall away for but a fleeting moment. That time of vulnerability, however, was all the young galactic scientist needed to understand his heart. He was in love. “What are you looking at, Ito?”


    “Nothing, Captain,” replied the scientist.


    “See that you continue lusting after ‘nothing,’ Ito, and I’m sure you will come out of this ordeal without a broken nose. She tied her hair back. A microscopic smile was written across the attractive age-lines of her pursed mouth.


    “What should we do about the cleanup, Captain?” asked Ito, attempting to regain his composure. “What should we do about the… bodies?”


    “Freeze them,” sighed the captain. “We will freeze them. You must understand,” she said, reading his face. We may not find another inhabitable planet in this new galaxy. Dimension? Parallel realm? Wherever the hell we are. We may not set foot upon land again. Ever. But…”


    “But? Captain?”


    “But land or no, we must explore.” And despite the horror that surrounded them , the captain’s heart rejoiced, for such an opportunity- such a wonderful adventure was now laid out before her like a rich feast. A feast fit for a queen. She was a child again. Her imagination had returned from the dead. It was hungry. “Now step lively, Ito. Grab a leg. Grab an arm. Get those bodies in cryolock storage.”


    As they worked, neither commented on the unspoken reasoning for the preservation of their deceased shipmates.


    After a year together, the words ‘Captain’ and ‘Ito’ vanished from their vocabulary. Only Marlena and Takeshi remained. This was their paradise. This was their home. Naming stars. Conducting experiments. Theorizing. Inventing. Marlena shared her vast knowledge with Takeshi. Politics. Music. Fine Art. And he shared stories of his childhood with her. Fascinating stories of his father- the famous master swordsman that ruled the strange, feudal state of Hiroshima IV in the vast continent of the United States of Chi-Pan upon the Earth. But that world was far behind them. They were now in paradise. And they were the new Adam and Eve. The genesis of an old species in a new frontier.


    The baby came early. It was weak, but Marlena, with Takeshi’s help, delivered their child with great skill even though neither of them had ever undertaken medical training.


    “I… don’t hear crying,” whispered an exhausted Marlena in a dreamy, drowsy voice. “Is he… she unwell?”


    “He is a boy, my love. And yes, something is wrong. He’s not breathing. He’s… gray.” With a racing mind, but with a steady hand, Takeshi unwound the cord from around the unresponsive infant’s neck. “He’s… He. Oh. Oh! There he goes! That’s it, son! Breathe!”


    And the interior of the ship- named The Rainbow Warrior, then exploded with the happy, echoing sounds of new life.


    Their son, still unnamed, began to put on weight over the following weeks, and his parents rejoiced. “But what kind of life will he have,” they thought in their darker moments, “when we’re gone?” But Marlena and Takeshi were both practical people. They lived in the present. They did not dwell upon such thoughts for long. And for that reason, they were happy.


    “Marlena!” cried Takeshi on star-filled day that was as black as all the others. “On the ocu-screen! Come here! A planet! Life! I’m receiving evidence of habitation! Wait… Wait! Sentient habitation!” Marlena, with babe in arms, came running. She passed off the gurgling child to his father and immediately rechecked Takeshi’s readings. After a while, she looked up at him with watery eyes filled with hope and wonder. To Takeshi, she appeared more beautiful that he had ever seen. “How long do you think until we reach… our new home?” he asked.


    “The atmosphere is breathable,” she said. “The temperature… perfect. But... Don’t get ahead of yourself, Takeshi. Weeks. Perhaps a month. And who knows what will meet us when we land? Death, more likely than not.” But as she said this, her smile did not shrink.


    Five weeks later, all preparations for a landing had been made. The alien planet was now set before them like an iridescent pearl upon a jeweler’s black cloth.


    “Hush, baby. We will land soon. Tomorrow, perhaps? Maybe we will find some friends for you to play with.” Even though she didn’t truly believe what she was saying, it made Marlena feel good to speak the foolish hope aloud. The baby burrowed into his mother’s arms, cooing and grunting by way of reply. “Now, my love. Bedtime. Sleep well, for soon, you will be home.”


    Their little family would indeed find a new home, but not together. Never again together. For not two days had passed before their tentative hopes and careful plans were extinguished. Smothered.


    “What’s happening, Takeshi?” barked Marlena- reclaiming some of her old edge from when she was captain.


    “The heat shields!” groaned the former galactic scientist. “We’re losing them.”


    The baby began to cry.


    “There’s no hope, then?” Dammit, Takeshi! Talk to me! Options! What can we do?”


    “Strap in and hope for a miracle…” he said in barely a whisper.


    “The baby?”


    Takeshi bit his knuckle in agony and spoke these horrible words. “He will die. He will not survive the entry. He’s too little. Too… brittle.” The ship began to shake violently. Marlena held her baby tighter. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Marlena. And it… it’s far too late to turn back now. Gravity has taken hold. We’re stuck in the final descent. And the controls. The controls are beginning to melt. With any luck ,” he added as he choked back tears, avoiding the wild, confused gaze of his son,” we will die with him…”


    Marlena was silent and closed her eyes as she listened to Takeshi speak. Her eyes shot open in fear as the turbulence grew in intensity. And then, once the shaking had subsided for a moment, and after she had steadied herself, she lay their screaming baby down in his crib and turned to face Takeshi. “No,” she whispered. “No!” She grabbed him. She lifted him out of his chair and threw him back down in it with unexpected strength and violence. “No, Takeshi! It will not end like this for him! It will not end this way!” She kicked the chair between his legs, fracturing three of her toes, even through the padding of her heavy space boot. She did not feel the pain. “Now!” she barked. “If you’ve finished giving up, you coward, stand and help me think of a solution!”


    Ashamed of his weakness, Takeshi immediately rose and said, “Marlena. Forgive me. This is no time for despair.”


    She smiled sadly. And then she ship jerked with such force that the two lovers fell into each other’s arms, one supporting the other. “Think. What do we need? What can we do?” hissed Marlena into Takeshi’s ear with an urgent whisper.


    Takeshi suddenly untangled himself from his love and sprinted to his small workshop. Half a dozen projects lay strewn about in various states of completion. Due to the turbulence, much of his equipment lay shattered on the floor.


    “What’s your plan?” called out Marlena, who was now attempting to pacify the infant.


    Takeshi’s voice rose over the death-groans of their doomed spaceship. “We will jettison him! I’m building an escape pod- an artificial womb!”


    “But our shields are dissolving! He will burn up!”


    “Dissolved, Marlena. Our shields have already dissolved. But we’ve come through the worst. We’ve punched far enough into the atmosphere, so the effects on the pod—” He grunted as another shudder of the ship forced him to crack his head on a low-hanging shelf. He cursed, and then continued. “The heat related effects on the pod will not be a concern. He needs padding, though. And oxygen. The womb needs armor.” The grating sound of sheared metal and an explosion of crackling sparks followed his words.


    “Hurry!” pleaded Marlena, though her lover did not hear.


    After five excruciating minutes, Takeshi finished his desperate project and ran to Marlena’s side. She investigated the small black pod. It looked like a coffin. A coffin for an infant. “Oh, Takeshi,” she moaned. “Is this truly our only chance?”


    “Yes,” he replied grimly. “It is his only chance… We need to get him away from the ship.”


    “Will we explode?”


    “Yes. We will wear blast suits, but…” Takeshi did not finish the thought. He said, “We must be strong, Marlena. We can’t wait any longer. Put him in and seal… seal him. Seal him up.”


    Along with the baby, his parents were also crying hysterically. Takeshi and Marlena both kissed the baby’s brow, nearly drowning him in tears, and secured the pod. That would be the last time they gazed upon their child for many decades. It was easier to work, now that the cries and screams of the baby were muffled by cold black metal.


    “I trust you attached a homing device,” said Marlena as she attempted to compose herself and become the captain she once was.


    “No time,” replied Takeshi. “But don’t worry. We’ll find him.”


    “Well then. Let’s hurry. Send him away.”


    And they did. The tiny escape pod- the metal womb- the baby coffin was jettisoned. They watched through a porthole as the infant screamed downward toward a heavily forested area upon the face of the unknown alien planet so much like the Earth. And in on a handful of hours after he crash landed, the baby would be discovered by he who would raise him with love as his own. He would be discovered by the ancient green guardian of the verdant forest. In time, the boy’s adventures would become legendary- his triumphs undying, but those are tales for another story.


    “Let us prepare ourselves,” said Takeshi wearily.


    Marlena nodded and squeezed his hand. “What will happen…” she began.


    “Will happen,” added Takeshi.


    Marlena and Takeshi held hands and looked into each other’s eyes as the ship- The Rainbow Warrior- once the proudest ship in the fleet of planet Earth’s Space Defender force slammed into the foothills of a great snow-capped mountain range and immediately exploded.


    Many of the inhabitants of the planet witnessed the fall of the alien ship and its breathtaking end. A handful of them set out to investigate.


    Marlena was paralyzed when she woke. Takeshi could see the fear in her wild eyes. He longed to call out to her, but he too was crushed and mangled. A pile of smoking boulders pinned him down, crushing the very breath from his body. He struggled to stay conscious, even though the promise of painless oblivion tempted him greatly.


    Marlena began to wail. Like a dying animal, she moaned until her voice was raw.


    “Look at me,” he pleaded quietly in a bloody wheeze. But even if she could hear him, or even if she could turn her head, she would see nothing but the remains of the charred spaceship and a thousand, ash-smeared sandy rocks. The top half of Takeshi’s face was the only part of his body that was not buried, but it was shrouded in deep, hot shadows.


    He was sure she had died. She made no sound for many hours.


    “Very well,” thought Takeshi then, making up his mind. “She is gone. So I will give in and greet the absolute nothingness by her side.”


    But she was not dead. And two men approached. She twitched and gurgled as they lay gentle hands upon her. One wore dented, dull orange armor that protected him like a carapace. The other was a huge man. A mighty warrior by the looks of him. His chestnut-brown beard was streaked with shocks of bright white, and despite the map of old scars that traced paths across his face, he was still handsome. There was a noble look of equal parts compassion, suspicion, and kindness in his dark eyes. It was a kingly face.


    The men spoke to one another. Then to Marlena. They both began to search the area though they stayed close to Marlena the whole while.


    “Are they looking for me?”


    At that moment, Takeshi would have given anything to utter a single word. A single syllable. But his dry, swollen, and bruised mouth would not obey.


    The strange men quickly abandoned the search. Takeshi didn’t blame them. There was Marlena to think of. And with great care, they lifted her into their odd vehicle and sped off, leaving the former galactic scientist to die on his own, so far from his home.


    “Steady on, fools! Careful!”


    Takeshi pulled himself out of a horrible nightmare and then quickly realized that the nightmare was his new reality.


    A two headed monster loomed large over him. Its heads argued. Cream colored pus oozed from the ragged, infected, sewn-up seam that connected the two mismatched creatures. Not far off, a giant humanoid lobster pulverized rocks with his formidable right claw. And standing next to the two headed horror, a being more dinosaur, more lizard than man, lifted great boulders from the cairn that was to be Takeshi’s tomb and threw them a hundred yards away. As soon as another boulder broke into thousands of pieces, the creature hooted and cracked his long green-scaled tail like a whip in near-mindless ecstasy.


    “Get him out, idiots!” shouted a commanding voice- clearly the voice of the leader of this colorful cabal. His frustration was evident. “Hurry!”


    “I got him, boss,” said one head of two-head.


    “No, I got him!” argued the other head.


    “Just! Be! Careful!” shouted the leader. “I can’t believe Captain Randor passed up this prize. A pity we were not here in time to take the woman…”


    “Sorry, boss,” said a head of two-head. “Tuvar entered the wrong coordinates.


    “I did not!” growled the other head- Tuvar apparently. “You did!”


    “It appears that I must enjoy surrounding myself with idiots,” sighed the leader theatrically. “But that will change today. Hello,” he said to Takeshi. “I am Keldor. Unsurpassed master alchemist and rightful ruler of planet Eternia. I am king here.”


    “You’re not king, boss,” said the twenty foot tall lobster-man. “Miro is.”


    “He’s right,” agreed the reptilian monster with whip tail.


    Keldor sighed again and continued speaking to Takeshi. “Do you see what I must endure, alien? My own warriors do not even acknowledge their rightful king. Fools. Incompetent wastes. But…” Keldor touched the Earthman’s fevered brow. Takeshi cried out in sudden pain. “Oh, yes. You’re a bright one. I can already tell. You’ll do.” Keldor smiled a warm, reassuring smile.


    “I… want Ma… Marlena. Where?” rasped Takeshi.


    “Marlena?” said Keldor. “The woman? The woman stolen by Randor? She’s a bit old for you, don’t you think? But,” he shrugged, “trapped in a cramped ship for gods know how long… Believe me. I understand. I didn’t get a good look at her face, but her form was… well, quite lovely now that I come to speak of it.”


    “Kill… you…”


    A practiced look of injury passed over Keldor’s face like a cloud. “You wound me, sir. I’m here,” he opened his hands in a gesture of peace, “to rescue you. If you can’t see that, I forgive you. I understand that you have been through much.”


    “Go… to hell”


    Keldor frowned. “I’m far from certain to where you’re referring, alien, but I know an insult when I hear one. Enough of this. I’ll either rescue you or I won’t. It’s your choice. I’m quite content to leave you here for the wild monstroids. They will swarm over you, pull the meat from your bones, and use it as organic fodder for their grotesque experiments. Would you prefer that fate, or should I rescue you?” Takeshi grunted. “I’ll take that as a yes.” Keldor turned and shouted. “Why are you standing around, morons? Move those rocks! Help our new friend!” Keldor’s warriors obeyed. “Now. Let’s see what kind of shape you’re in.” Keldor laughed with feigned embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I never asked your name. Well? What is it?


    “Ta… Takeshi. Takeshi Ito,” said Takeshi through gritted teeth. One of the rocks had shifted and was pressing into the raw nerves of his lower back.


    Keldor made a sour face. “That won’t do,” he said. “I’m sure I will be able to come up with something more… suitable.” The towering lobster-man picked up the last large boulder that rested upon the Earthling’s back. He threw it at whip-tail’s feet. It shattered and both creatures roared- one with laughter, one with anger.


    “Tuvar. Baddrah. Help him to his feet.” Two-head picked up Takeshi. The Earthling shouted for mercy, but apparently, that was a virtue unfamiliar to the monsters. “Does it hurt?” asked Keldor, though of course, he knew the answer.


    “Y… Yes. Help… me…”


    Keldor smiled and approached Takeshi. “Let him go,” he said to his warriors. Takeshi swayed like a drunkard, but kept his footing. “Very good. So now—“


    And without warning, before Keldor could finish his thought, the astronaut sprung. He slammed his shoulder into the alchemist’s neck, bowling him over. Keldor flipped head-over-heels, cracking his skull upon a rock.


    Takeshi lowered his head and ran. He did not look back. He heard sounds of pursuit, but could not bear to catch a glimpse of their hungry, dull eyes.


    He did not run far, though. He tripped. A hand, stripped of skin an muscle emerged from the very ground itself, greedily grabbing at his ankle. Takeshi succeeded in freeing himself, but soon, other hands burst through the hard ground. There was no escape. He was captured.


    The alchemist caught up with Takeshi. Keldor’s blue face went a shade of bright purple and his polite manner fell off like cloak. “Ingrate!” he shouted, inches away from his prisoner’s face.


    The Earthling grunted and slammed his forehead into the bridge of the alchemist’s nose. With a meaty crunch and a messy spurt, it broke. Keldor howled.


    Takeshi kicked free of the hands of the dead and began to sprint once more. His destination was in the direction of where the two men took his Marlena. He traveled perhaps fifty yards before he was caught again. This time, he crumpled as his neck exploded. He had been shot. He faintly heard the alchemist scream as reality and consciousness began to slip.


    “Fool! Idiot! I need him alive!”


    In unison, both heads of two-head replied sheepishly, “Sorry, boss.”


    “But it was Baddrah’s fault,” added Tuvar. “He pulled the trigger. I just held the blaster.”


    Baddrah attempted to explain. “I… was just aiming for his leg, boss. I swear!”


    “Then. You. Missed!” shrieked Keldor. He inhaled deeply, composing himself. “You!” he barked to whip-tail. “Go get him! And go about it gently! Maybe I can still salvage something from this… this… disaster.”


    Takeshi had fallen to his knees. With shaking hands, he packed the gory hole with a dirty shred of his thick but destroyed blast suit and tied his leather belt around his neck in a desperate attempt to stay the flow of blood. And he was lucky. The flow soon stopped, for the intense heat of the laser-blast had cauterized the wound.


    The humanoid dinosaur-lizard with the whip-tail then attempted to pick up the hunched astronaut.


    Miraculously fueled by raw adrenaline, grief, and anger, Takeshi grabbed a long dagger from whip-tail’s boot as the monster leaned in. He then plunged the chipped, rusty blade in between the horrifying creature’s green scales and into its belly. He twisted the blade. Warm guts escaped onto Takeshi’s hand and the creature howled.


    “Give me that!” said Keldor as he grabbed a sword from two-head’s belt. Two-head watched with slack jaws as their master ran toward the Earthling. “Get up!” he screamed to Takeshi.


    Takeshi rose as whip-tail fell. Dying and in unspeakable agony, the enforcer of Keldor exhaled his life away with one gurgling splutter.


    Without warning, Keldor’s sword blazed downward. Takeshi parried the blow. A dozen more blows followed.


    When the cold dust settled, much to Keldor’s astonishment, Takeshi still lived. He had succeeded in turning all of Keldor’s vicious strikes.


    “How… How can you do… Where did you learn—“


    “My father taught me,” rasped Takeshi in a shredded voice. He held the ugly entrails-covered knife-sword in front of his own eyes. The makeshift bandage and the belt around the Earthman’s neck had come loose in the clash. Keldor could see the golden horizon through the freshly burned hole in his opponent’s neck. “He was a master. Is a master.”


    “So there are masters of the sword upon your planet?”


    “There are in Hiroshima IV.”


    The alchemist shook his head. “This gets better,” he smiled. “In addition to possessing technical brilliance, you have some skill with a blade. I do wish you’d cooperate… I really could use you,” he added wearily. “Though you could stand some more training.”


    “When I fight… which is rare these days, I fight only for honor,” said Takeshi Ito in a hoarse whisper. “And although I hardly know you, Keldor, I can already see you have none.”


    All trace of humor left the alchemist’s handsome face. “You… dare?”


    Takeshi beckoned with his free hand. “Come at me again, and see what I dare.”


    Keldor charged. They fought for several more minutes as the lobster-man and two-head watched on, eager to witness another death.


    When the two swordsmen separated once again, both men were exhausted. Takeshi could barely stand. But he had suffered not a scratch by Keldor’s blade. Keldor, on the other hand, was bleeding from several small wounds. He was beginning to feel faint.


    “I can find… Marlena for you,” offered the alchemist through gasps for breath. “I will rescue her and bring her to your side. To your bed.”


    “You will not touch her!” shouted Takeshi. The inflamed walls of the hole that tunneled through his throat and out the other side split open and he gagged upon the released fluids. Coughing, he said, “Now go. Leave me alone. I’ve defeated you. Don’t force me to kill you.” Keldor stepped closer, circling the Earthling. “Leave me alone!”


    “Never,” said Keldor. He dropped his sword and whispered an abominable incantation.


    Takeshi could not move. He was frozen by a spell. But he wasn’t surprised by the reprehensible tactic. For it was as the Earthling surmised- there was no honor in Keldor.


    The alchemist bent over and picked up his sword. He raised it. The lobster-man laughed and drooled stupidly. Two-head clumsily clapped his mismatched hands in anticipation.


    And Takeshi Ito, galactic scientist of the Earth’s Space Defenders, son of master swordsman Bokken Ito, wielder of the magic sword ‘Invincible Frost Silver,’ lover of Captain Marlena Glenn, who, if fate had not had its way, would have won the office of the Sol Presidency- therefore becoming the ruler of the entire Solar system, lost his head.


    Takeshi watched his body spin away as his head rolled across the dirt. A reflected explosion of light from the sword that had decapitated him seared his darkening eyes, casting his killer in silhouette.


    From far away, a voice, the voice of the simple lobster-man said, “Can I have his eyes, boss? They look tasty.”


    “Sure,” replied Keldor. “Why not?”


    And the alchemist gouged them out.



    …………………



    Takeshi Ito- Trydor sat in silence until his racing mind and buzzing body began to calm. The memories were true. All of them. Of that, he had no doubt. There was no childhood in the court of Keldor’s family. There was only Earth. His father. The Academy. Swords and science. The crash. Marlena. Birth. Death. Lies. Marlena. His Marlena was now queen of all Eternia. Wife of King Randor. Mother of Prince Adam. “She has forgotten me,” he thought. “But why shouldn’t she? I am dead. Ito is dead. Only Trydor remains. Trydor. A fabricated name for a fabricated life.”


    “Now,” said the rocky voice with a snort inside of Trydor’s head. “I will ask my question again: You want him dead, do you not?”


    This time, Trydor nodded. “Yes.”


    “Then go. Kill.”



    End of Part Five.




    USURPERS


    Written by: M. Lawson Humble


    6. The Alchemist: Prayers to a Dark God



    “What is this?” shouted the witch as she burst into the throne room of the alchemist with murder on her mind. A foot of warm, salty water covered the stone floor. She splashed through it and called out, “Get off of him, frog!”


    King Mer looked up and twisted his trident in the throat of his master. “Stay back!” he said, but the sounds he made were meaningless to the witch.


    “Back away, I say,” growled Evelyn. “He’s mine.”


    “Wait your turn,” said Kronis. “We were here before you.” His enormous cybernetic right arm was gleaming in the dim candlelight that reflected upon the supernatural waters that flooded the throne room. It was in the form of a serrated eight-foot long sword. “But it looks like the frog beat us all.”


    “Trydor,” said the witch. “Has the frog killed him? Is he dead?”


    The machinist nodded. “It appears so.”


    The witch then began to cultivate hot, bitter tears then. Confusing tears. Not tears for the sadistic master of the Mountain of Snakes, though. Tears for Keldor. For her lover of old. “Move!” she shouted as she pushed King Mer aside.


    The sea-king postured, but allowed Evelyn to access the body nonetheless. Mer had extracted his trident. The black fluid that covered the weapon immediately evaporated.


    Trydor eyed the phenomenon through his cycling visor. His findings were far from reassuring. “Appearances can be deceiving,” he suddenly thought, and he tried to warn his fellow warriors, but he was too late.


    The alchemist exploded like a bomb. When the stone dust settled, he was the only one standing. “You… Dare!” he screamed as he stomped his clawed feet, sending a shudder throughout the mountain. His mortal wound was gone. Only an illusion.


    But King Mer was undaunted. He tackled the alchemist, and with arms covered in sharp, bony scales, he bound the skull-who-speaks in a punishing embrace.”


    “Hey! He was dead!” observed Kronis as he rushed forward. “Not that it matters. I’ll soon take care of that!”


    The madman swung his arm-sword down in a blazing arc, attempting to bisect both the alchemist and the frog. But his sword first struck thin air, then the floor. His head jarred and his pointed organic teeth rattled against his rusty, metal ones.


    Thinking and acting quickly, the witch worked to neutralize her former lover’s invisible barrier. She succeeded. The barrier turned an opaque purple color for a fraction of a second before popping like a bubble.


    The witch- Evelyn then thrust her small dagger into the heart of the alchemist. The alchemist deftly turned his body though, and with King Mer still holding him tight, binding his arms, the blade kissed the frog instead. But it broke on the sea king’s scales. The broken hilt fell to the submerged stones and the snapped blade followed soon after.


    But the witch did not retreat. She climbed up the frog’s back and began to claw at the red embers in the hollows of the alchemist’s yellowing skull with her broken fingers. As soon as her fingers touched the embers that were his eyes, her hands caught fire. She screamed and threw herself face first into the shallow water.


    The steam created by the extinguished flames rose up and temporarily blinded the alchemist. And that was when Trydor struck. Time and time again, he battered the deceiver with his emerald blade. And time and time again, using the frog as a shield, the deceiver deflected the blows. Unwilling and unable to take any more punishment, King Mer finally released his hold.


    With his hands now free, the alchemist wasted no time in summoning his shadow-black sword. With a crimson puff of foul smelling smoke, it appeared in his hand. The frog and the madman then attacked as one. The alchemist fought them both off.


    The witch stood and entered the fray once more. Due to the unbelievable heat encountered, her hands had completely melted. The blood-stained, charred bones of her fingers had fused together in macabre, lumpy masses, but she felt no pain. She pounded on the alchemist’s body with her magically strengthened stumps and screamed in his face. Now it was the master of the mountain’s turn to bleed. Triple waterfalls of thick black fluid- for it could no longer be named blood erupted from the volcanoes of his eye sockets and the hollow hole where his noble nose used to sit.


    With one hand, the alchemist grabbed the witch’s throat. Her yellow face turned crimson as he squeezed. Raising his sword above his head, the man who was once Keldor then slammed the butt of his sword into her chest. She crumpled like a doll and once again fell. This time, upon her back.


    Trydor came at the alchemist again. Kronis. Mer. They all struck at the same time.


    The witch regained consciousness, and through nauseating dizziness, she began the magical process that would soon regrow her hands. Immediately after, she hastily cast a spell of binding around the alchemist’s legs. He fell to his knees. And then, like desert hyenas, his former servants swarmed over their master, eager for their pound of flesh.


    He was losing. The alchemist was overwhelmed. But luck appeared to be on his side, for in their bloodlust, his warriors began to inadvertently strike one another. And in this confusion, the alchemist rolled away. He was grateful for the respite, but knew it would not last.


    A moment though, was all he needed. “Kronis!” shouted the alchemist through fractured jaw. “Die!” He mentally activated the cybernetic madman’s kill switch. The warriors helped one another up and faced their former master. Kronis laughed. “What trickery…”


    Kronis laughed again. “Doesn’t work, boss.”


    “Huh,” stated Trydor coolly, leveling his sword at the master of the Mountain of Snakes. “His kill switch has been disabled. And… with your death, liar, my honor will soon be restored.”


    “Trydor,” pleaded the alchemist. “Why have you betrayed me? We shared your mother’s milk. Together as boys, we cried and played and grew. Together. We are bound in brotherhood, Trydor. We are family.”


    “Lies. All lies, Keldor. I now know the truth. And by my sword and by my love for Bronze-Master Jitsu whom you disrespected, and by my love for my father, Master Swordsman Bokken Ito, wielder of Invincible Frost Silver, who was taken from me by fate, but blocked from my memory by you, I will have you skull. As a trophy.”


    The alchemist’s eyeless sockets seemed to grow larger in fear. “But…” he struggled. He looked at the witch. “You… Evelyn. If I die, you will still be bound to me. You will follow me into death. Into whatever hell awaits. You will never be free.”


    Evelyn smiled. “No, Keldor. You are alone. That spell is broken.”


    And he knew it was true.


    “But… but… you, King Mer.” The alchemist was speaking in the sea king’s own language, using his mind and not his voice. “Your people will die… If I die. I have given the word, upon my death… The Liquid Lands will be choked by poison and will lay in waste for one hundred years.”


    King Mer hesitated. He then walked over slowly to the alchemist. He extended a scaly hand. The alchemist accepted. And in the blink of an eye, King Mer bashed the ghoul who was once Keldor in the mouth with his spiny, hard fist. The alchemist flew backward and crashed into his throne, trailing liberated teeth the whole way. He then slumped over in the shallow water. King Mer walked over to him once again. “Liar. Desperate liar. I no longer fear you, Skull-Who-Speaks. I will fight you. Always. Forever, if I must. No matter the cost. For I am now fearless.”


    “Please…” moaned the alchemist. “Why have you all turned on me?”


    “Let’s end this,” said Kronis. “I’m tired of his whining.”


    “As am I,” said the witch.


    Trydor nodded.


    King Mer did not understand the words of his fellow warriors, but he understood their intent. He stood tall in unity with them.


    When all appeared to be lost, as his warriors solemnly approached, as they prepared to execute him as one, the alchemist heard a low rumbling sound resonate from a high ledge that was shrouded by black shadows in a forgotten corner of the throne room.


    The warriors looked up. Two enormous glowing green eyes, the size of pumpkins revealed themselves.


    “Thank the dark gods…” whispered the alchemist. The creature landed soundlessly in the water. It padded over to the alchemist. He was saved. His beloved pet- his friend- his only remaining friend had finally come to his aid. The great sabre-tooth panther pressed its massive head against the leg of the alchemist. “Hello, girl,” he said wearily. The seven foot tall and twenty foot long panther pureed contentedly before turning to bear her sword-teeth at the usurpers. Her deep guttural growl was more terrifying that a wild yowl. It was the sound of distant thunder before the storm clouds break. “Kill. Fetch. Fetch me their guts.”


    The panther pounced. All but Trydor retreated. He held his ground, but his bravery counted for nothing. The animal swatted him like an insect and he crumpled.


    “On second thought,” said the alchemist in a quiet, painful exhale, “Just eat him, girl. My gift to you. What do I want with an Earthling’s innards?”


    “No!” screamed Kronis. He blasted the sabre-tooth panther with his wondrously wicked weapon. But wherever his blasts landed, his prey was no longer there.


    The horrifyingly swift beast was now after Kronis. He lost his footing and fell. The panther immediately appeared over him. And a moment before her sabre-teeth san into the soft organic tissue of the cybernetic madman’s body, the animal hesitated. She turned and padded back toward her master. Before the alchemist could demand an answer from his pet, she pounced on him and began to feast.


    “Nooo!” screamed the master of the Mountain of Snakes. “How? Why? Nooo! It’s me! It’s… Don’t… …”


    “What just happened?” asked Kronis, finding his feet once again.


    “I don’t know,” answered Trydor, wiping blood from his nose and mouth.


    “That smell…” said the witch.


    A dull, animal laugh came from the entrance of the throne room. The beast had arrived.


    Looming large in the large entrance, the beast was attended by his subjects. Hundreds of thousands of cave-dwelling creatures clung to his matted orange hair or sat perched upon his massive hunched shoulders. At his feet, the ground moved and shifted with the undulations of countless blind snakes, mindless worms, and squirming insects.


    “You,” said Evelyn. “You… killed him.”


    The beast man who was more beast than man snarled.


    “Huh,” commented Trydor.


    King Mer pushed his way past Kronis, his webbed feet slapping in the standing water. The beast. The murderer of his son. The beast would die by his hand.


    “Whoa there,” said the cybernetic madman. “Ease up, froggy.”


    Even if Mer could understand the language of the surface dwellers, he would not have listened.


    Fear did not blossom in the beast’s fierce eyes, but he did retreat. And as he retreated, he ordered his creatures to advance.


    Mer was soon hopelessly, helplessly outnumbered. And although his natural armor was strong, the smallest of the beast’s thralls quickly found their way to the sweet softness of his flesh underneath. In seconds, King Mer was poisoned- swollen, dizzy, and totally incapacitated.


    “Call then off,” ordered Trydor.


    The beast snarled and entered the throne room. “No. And shut your mouth before I send them after you.”


    Several rabid wolf-bats then flew from their perch on the beast’s arm and buzzed the machinist’s head. Trydor lost his balance and slipped on the ancient submerged stones. He smashed his head on a sharp rock. Trydor cursed aloud due to the violent pain and then again as his artificial eyes went offline. The impact had severely damaged his visor. He was now blind.


    Kronis shouted metallic with anger. His right hand had transformed into a bayonet. “Kill you!” he promised as he rushed.


    The beast met the madman head on, and they wrestled for a time. The mountain seemed to shake. When they finally separated, both warriors were badly injured and exhausted, but that did not stop them from smiling.


    They charged toward one another again. And they both cried out as their noses exploded red, for the beast and the madman had both smashed face first into an invisible barrier created by the witch. “Stop fighting, fools!” she yelled. “Stop it!”


    Silence reigned. The only sounds were the wet sounds of tearing muscle and dry sounds of cracking bones that came from underneath the sabre-tooth panther.


    “Try that again, witch,” growled Kronis as he applied pressure to his rotten nose, “and you won’t like what comes next.” The cyborg then reached down with his other hand and helped Trydor to his feet.


    “What now?” said Trydor.


    “What now?” the witch repeated. “I will ascend. I will rule in his place. That’s what. You’re all free to go if you please, but if you stay here, you must abide by my rules. Pledge loyalty to me and I will swear to treat you well. I will satisfy your hunger for conquest. Under my rule, you will all prosper. Even as the universe bleeds.”


    The beast lowered his head and stepped forward, extending a long, heavy simian arm toward the witch. She recoiled. “Not you,” she sneered. “You’re not welcome here, ape. Go. And take your bugs and your snakes and your bats with you.”


    “And my panther?” the beast added angrily. The colorful skin of his face brightened considerably. “She’s mine now, you know. I think before I leave, I will allow her to eat your head. How would you like that, witch? If I… If I can’t have you… no one can…”


    “Very well, foul one,” laughed the witch. “Do it.”


    “I… will,” he replied in agony, for he truly intended her no harm. But she would never love him. Better to kill her. “Yes,” he decided. “Better to kill.”


    The witch- Evelyn shrugged. A mocking smile was written across her lovely face.


    The beast groaned. “You leave me no choice then.” He closed his eyes, summoning the panther. Moments passed. Nothing happened.


    Kronis laughed.


    Still blind, Trydor asked the cyborg, “What’s happening?”


    “Seems like the beast has lost his touch.”


    The sabre-tooth panther’s body moved up and down in strange jerking motions, but she did not obey her new master.


    “What—” began the beast.


    And then, a bony hand pushed out from within the body of the huge panther, splitting the animal’s skin and glossy, deep-purple coat.


    “What—” echoed Trydor.


    Kronis retreated and pulled his blind friend back a step. “It’s the boss! Damn it! That’s twice he’s come back from the dead!”


    The corpse of the panther swelled and split open with a messy, meaty pop. The alchemist emerged from the gore like a man reborn.


    Evelyn, with raw, pink hands, now fully regrown, stepped forward. “Keldor? Is… that you?”


    The alchemist wiped hunks of his beloved pet from his skeleton face. A long twitching tendon remained dangling from his fluid-saturated hood. “Unbelievable,” he whispered. “Unbelievable. It appears,” he said without humor, “that lessons are in order.”


    The beast had heard enough. He attacked. But he never reached his prey. The alchemist snapped the unhappy beast’s wrists and shattered the large bones of his legs with no physical effort save a series of barely-muttered incantations. The beast collapsed in terrible agony. The master of the mountain did not relent. With a gesture, with his mind, he then sent a loose stone, weighing nearly five hundred pounds on a trajectory toward the beast’s head. It connected. The beast would not regain consciousness for several days.


    The beast’s creatures began to run wild then. But the alchemist simply lifted his arm and touched his ring finger to his palm. His hand began to smoke and glow, and thousands suddenly fell. Thousands suddenly died. The surface of the shallow water in the throne room was now littered with the corpses of the thralls of the beast.


    “You killed him,” started Trydor. “Didn’t you?”


    The alchemist replied. “The beast? No, not yet. Not yet. I’d say he learned his lesson though, wouldn’t you?”


    “Come on then, boss. I’m next. No kill switch here.”


    Before Kronis could advance, King Mer, who, although still incredibly sick from poison, attacked. But this time, even though his back was turned, the alchemist was ready. He caught the sea-king’s golden trident as it punched through the air, thirsting for his blood. Mer screamed as the trident melted in his hands. The molten gold dripped down, sizzled in the water, and quickly solidified, forming golden cuffs around King Mer’s legs. Mer tried to back away, but he fell.


    The witch, the machinist, and the madman then decided to attack once more as one. And they were repelled once more as one.


    The alchemist shouted so loud that his voice cracked. “Continue this farce, and I will kill you all! Look!” He pointed at the crippled, unconscious beast. Only the occasional, faint, and irregular rising and falling of his massive chest indicated that he still lived. “My spell over the beast had been broken. His full strength was returned to him. His! Full! Strength! And look at him now! Look!”


    King Mer did not understand the skull-who-speaks’ words. But finally free of his golden bindings, he rushed the alchemist once again. With a disquieting shriek, the master of the Mountain of Snakes then raised his hands- his palms facing the sea-king. Mer stopped moving. He was frozen. And then, the armor that he wore cracked and fell from his chest in twisted, bronze hunks. Then the hard scales of his chest split open, revealing his two beating hearts. Mer stared down in shock and horror as his vital organs were laid bare.


    “And you, my servant-king,” thought the alchemist to the sea-king in his own language.” “You no longer fear me. Fine. But you are still weak. You always will be. See how easily I can… remake you.”


    King Mer screamed as one of his hearts exploded, spraying pints of highly-oxygenated blood into the face of the alchemist. The alchemist then magically closed King-Mer’s chest. The sea-king collapsed, gasping and spitting up blood and bile.


    “You will remain strong on the surface, where I have need of you, slave, but now… now that you only have one heart, you can never again survive the great pressure of the depths of the deep sea. Your kingdom is now inaccessible to you. You are forever exiled. You are mine. Fear me. Don’t fear me. I care not. But you will respect my power. And you will not challenge me again.”


    “Um,” whispered Kronis to Trydor. “What do we do now?”


    The witch cleared her throat. She took many deep breaths to calm her nerves before speaking. “Keldor,” she said, “let me go.”


    “No.”


    She expected this answer. “Then you must kill me. Or I you.”


    “Don’t flatter yourself, witch.” The alchemist slammed the palms of his own hands together before his face. The shockwave shook the witch’s teeth and electrified her tight muscles, but she remained standing.


    “What… what did you do?”


    “Strike me down. With your magic. Strike me down. I won’t stop you.”


    She did. She tried. She failed.


    The alchemist laughed. “Nothing? Now it is you who is impotent, my… dear.” He spat out that last word. “Leave my sight. And know now that from this day forth, I will allow you your powers only in service to me. I—”


    A concussive blast of concentrated weaponized photons knocked the alchemist off of his black-clawed feet and onto his back. Kronis had heard enough. He cackled madly. And then, by result of a spell conjured by alchemist, the parts of the madman that were no longer organic evaporated with a misty puff. The smell of burning metal hung in the air for a moment. Kronis crumpled. He was now no more a threat to the master of the mountain than a baby. Or a kitten.


    The alchemist found his feet and looked down upon the jawless, armless, legless, scarred lump of a creature. “And you see,” he said sarcastically, “how the lack of a kill switch has protected you.”


    Kronis slobbered and moaned wordlessly in reply.


    The alchemist looked toward the blind man. “Trydor,” he said in a brotherly tone. What has happened this day? And please don’t lie. You know I can see. Right. Through. You.”


    Though the machinist struggled to resist, the words were ripped from his mouth nonetheless. “A voice,” he struggled not to say. “A voice spoke in my head. It… told me the truth.”


    “Yes…” said the alchemist. “Galactic scientist Takeshi Ito. Takeshi Ito of the planet Earth. That is indeed who you once were. A voice,” pondered the master of the mountain of snakes. “Who?”


    “Don’t… know. It sounded like rocks scraping together. Punctuated by horrifying… snuffing… snorting. Animal inhalations.”


    The alchemist was puzzled, but his expression did not change or betray his true feelings.


    “Who is doing this?” asked Trydor.


    “I don’t know,” the alchemist replied truthfully.


    The two former brothers who were never brothers stood in silence, surrounded by a sleeping beast, a weeping, powerless witch, and immobile, deformed madman, a stunned, exiled servant-king, and a dead panther.


    Finally, Trydor spoke. “Come, Keldor.” He swung his emerald sword. The air split. We have a matter of honor to settle between us.”


    The alchemist started. His mind was elsewhere. He had nearly forgotten the machinist. “Oh. I’m sorry, Trydor. Takeshi. Earthman. I was pondering the voice. Why did it urge you all to challenge me? To what end?”


    “Keldor,” said the machinist again, leveling his blade in the direction where the thought the alchemist stood. “Summon your sword. The voice must forever remain a mystery to you. For today, you die. Now. Meet me in single combat. No tricks. No magic. The law of the blade. The law of honor.”


    The master of the mountain shrugged. “Why not?” He laughed. “You do realize you’re blind, don’t you?”


    With one hand, Trydor unhooked the many pipes, hoses, and artificial vessels that were attached to his visor. And though it was elegant in design, the visor was also cumbersome. A crutch. He let if fall. Underneath, two empty sockets where his eyes once lived absorbed the dancing light from the many candles. “Yes,” he said. “I am blind,” he swung his emerald sword slowly, passing it from hand to hand, slicing through the air again and loosening the tight muscles of his shoulders, “but that does not mean I cannot see.”


    The alchemist summoned his sword. He tested the machinist’s claim. True to his word, Trydor easily deflected all blows. “Very good. It has been ages since we have played this game.”


    “Has it, Keldor? Or were our early years together nothing but lies as well?” Trydor circled, listening to the beating of the alchemist’s black heart, probing for weakness, anticipating his movements. “Bronze-Lord-Jitsu. Was he, too a fabrication?”


    “Ah, him,” said the alchemist. He thrust the tip of his shadow-black sword into the face of the machinist. Trydor parried the clumsy probing maneuver as well as the more skillful series of attacks that followed. “He was real enough. His teachings were real enough. And… I fear he and I will meet again someday… Oh. And Trydor?”


    “Yes, Keldor?”


    “Don’t call me ‘Keldor.’”


    “Then don’t call me ‘Trydor.’”


    They both shared a shadow of a smile and fought on. Sometimes the master of the mountain gained the upper hand, sometimes the machinist. Their skill was truly awe-inspiring. The witch, the frog and the madman ignored their own personal sadness and agony for a moment and marveled at the show. The beast slept on.


    A day passed. But neither swordsman tired, nor any blows landed.
    Finally, the alchemist cursed aloud in frustration. They were too evenly matched. The contest could easily stretch into the next day. The next week. The next year. “But I am the master here,” he thought. “I am akin to a god. I have no time for this foolishness. I have indulged the Earthling for far too long. Time to put an end to it!” The alchemist pushed into Trydor. Sparks flew from their grinding swords. “Yield!”


    “Never, Keldor! I can do this forever…”


    “You… fight honorably,” grunted the alchemist. “You fight honorably, but… you are also an idiot,” Trydor suddenly dropped his sword. His blood was on fire. He could not move, “for you trusted in me to fight fair.”


    Trydor cursed, then spat out a mouthful of blood as the alchemist’s sword slid into his neck and bisected his jugular vein. The sword remained in place. The alchemist’s hand remained steady.


    “Trydor. My fool. My pretend brother. If I move my sword, you will die.”
    “Then kill me.”


    “No. I have need of you.”


    “Why would I serve you? Why should I serve you? Knowing now what I now know?”


    The alchemist laughed and twisted his sword ever so slightly. A river of blood gushed out of the wound, and Trydor’s head swam. The alchemist twisted his sword again, and the bleeding stopped. “Because, Trydor. Takeshi… No, now that I think about it, I actually prefer the name I have given to you. Trydor. Listen. Trydor. Yield to me. Swear upon your sword and upon your honor to serve me until death, and I will leave she whom you loved- whom you must still love, though you only now remember her, in peace.”


    The other defeated warriors strained to hear the words of the alchemist and the machinist, but were unsuccessful.


    Trydor felt sick. “But… but why have you made no attempt on her life before this day?”


    “Although her husband is my enemy, although the entire line of Miro is my enemy, the queen- Queen Marlena- Captain Glenn- or… simply Marlena to you, has never been a target. I was… saving her should this day ever come.”


    “What will you… If I disobey, what will you do to her?”


    “She will die,” promised the master of the mountain of snakes.” His tone was deadly serious. “And slowly. And painfully. Of course that…exquisite death will come after her reign as my queen ends. After she is… used up.” Silence hung between them like a wall. “Not enough for you? Not enough to sway you?” Trydor kept his own council. “Very well. Think of your son.”


    Trydor’s body tensed and his face reddened with rage. “What… do you know of my son, Keldor?”


    “Not much, truthfully. And I have little reason to believe that he still lives. But Marlena does. She believes. So that must count for something, to be sure. I am not a mother, Trydor. I’m not even a father, in fact.” The alchemist sighed. “But I am inclined to trust in the instincts of parents. Especially mothers. What do you believe, Trydor? Does your son still live?”


    The machinist- the Earthman did not hesitate in his reply. “Yes. Yes he does. And he will be the one to kill you. When he grows older.”


    The alchemist laughed. “Oh, I highly doubt that. And besides, if you don’t swear to serve me, I will find him. I will kill him. Unless of course he has already been devoured by one of the many fierce creatures that inhabit the dark corners of Eternia. He was but an infant when he crashed in the forest, you know. Alone. Abandoned. Unwanted.”


    “You… dare…”


    “Spare me, Trydor. You’re in no position to speak to me in that tone. I’ll ask you one more time: Pledge servitude to me, and the reward is life. Life for you and your forgotten family. Now answer. Life or death? Service or sorrow?”


    There could be no other answer. “By my sword, by my honor,” said Takeshi Ito sadly, “by the honor of my family, I choose servitude.”


    The alchemist smiled. And with a snap of his bony fingers, the wound in the machinist’s neck immediately healed as his midnight-black sword was extracted.


    “Now go, slave,” said the master of the mountain. “Clear this festering filth from my throne room. Clear it all away. Except… for my pet. I will tend to her… remains.” The alchemist coughed and continued. “Drain this water. Dispose of the bugs and the snakes and the bats. Escort the servant-king to his new permanent quarters. Move the beast from my sight. He smells. And don’t fear. He should not wake for many days. But if he does, you will be safe. He is once again bound by a spell. And make sure the witch knows her place.” The alchemist spared not even a glance for Evelyn. He continued. “Fix Kronis. Remember to install a new kill switch. And Trydor?”


    “Yes…”


    “Yes?” asked the alchemist, projecting false outrage.


    “Yes… Master?”


    The alchemist nodded his approval. “Good. Very good. Build yourself some more eyes, Trydor. It sickens me to look upon your ruined face.”


    Several hours later, the throne room was cleared. Nothing remained but the master of the mountain and his grim throne of bones. The beast was gone. The madman was gone. The witch was gone. The servant-king and the machinist were gone. All gone to live out the remainder of their miserable days in bondage. In sorrow. Until death.


    The remains of the sabre-tooth panther had been disposed of by the hands that had killed her. The hands of the alchemist. But he vowed that her memory would remain with him always. She had been his confidant. His only friend. They had been inseparable for more years that he cared to remember. Though he displayed no outward emotion, his grief was unbearable. A hole yawned in what was left of his soul. That hole, he thought, would never be refilled. He would soon be proven wrong.


    “Genesis,” groaned the alchemist aloud to himself after a time of silence. “What was the genesis of these betrayals? What… who turned my warriors into would-be usurpers? Trydor spoke of a voice. Who? Who? How could—”


    An excruciating sound- not actually a sound in fact, but the sudden absence of sound assaulted the master of the Mountain of Snakes like a sledgehammer to the head, cutting his monologue short.


    A shimmering doorway, as brilliant as a butterfly’s wing, with hypnotic allure, blossomed and grew suddenly before his eyes. And then, as hearing retuned, and as his pain receded, he found that some invisible irresistible force pushed him off of his throne and onto the moist, hard stones of the floor. He couldn’t rise. And there, on his knees, the mighty alchemist beheld the woman in violet and magenta as she entered his small world.


    “Who are you?” he demanded.


    “Silence,” the woman ordered in a harsh, hateful voice.


    The woman was stunning. She was statuesque and shapely. Her long dress clung to her perfect hips like an embrace. But the alchemist could not discern her features, for her head was covered with a hood. Her glowing, yellow eyes peered out suspiciously. She stood aside and kneeled.


    Another woman, a woman with impossibly high, angular cheekbones walked with feline grace through the portal. She had the eyes of a cat. In fact, she appeared to be more cat than humanoid. She cocked her head, made a sour face, and hissed as she tasted the foul air in the throne room with her vomeronasal organ. She too stood aside and kneeled.


    And then came the monster. He ducked as he came into Eternia. He was covered in thick, black fur and loomed menacingly with massive, broad shoulders hunched and with blunt teeth bared. With great difficulty, the twelve foot tall bear-man took his place opposite the two women, and growled low as he kneeled. Once settled, he leveled his oaken crossbow, hewn from the trunk of an ancient and mighty tree, toward the alchemist and trained its sights upon their unwilling host’s heart.


    The disgusting, slobbering leech-man shuffled in next. Though small in stature, he was easily the most repulsive and fearsome of them all, due in no small part to his oversized, gaping mouth, and the tens of thousands of needle-thin, razor-sharp teeth that lived within. He smacked his swollen, fleshy lips as he breathed noisily. He kneeled next to the ursine warrior.


    The master of the Mountain of Snakes continued to watch against his will as another unwelcome freakish monstrosity imposed its awful presence upon him. The eyes of this one came first. They were the eyes of a snail, stretched out impossibly far on independently moving sinewy stalks, and they seemed to glow a sickly yellow of their own accord. The bizarre creature’s bio-luminescent eyes scanned the throne room warily before it fully exited the portal. It walked with a strange rhythm on its four insectoid legs, and kneeling, took its place with the others. One eye was trained upon the shimmering portal, and the other upon the alchemist.


    “We’re here, Master,” came an awful, high-pitched, grating voice. The speaker was soon revealed. He was a baby. A grotesque and mutilated baby. The product of amoral experimentation. His skin was a bruise. A dark, cold, deathly blue. Sprouting from his lumpy back were the wings of a wolf-bat pup. And the unsettling expression written across his smirking face was conveyed by the mismatched features of a humanoid, the aforementioned wolf-bat, and perhaps a fetal pig. The nauseating abomination was perched upon the shoulder of he who was presumably the leader of this fearsome retinue.


    “Indeed, my pet,” said the leader in a voice of crumbling rocks as he stepped over the threshold from his dark dimension into war-torn Eternia.


    The alchemist struggled to stand upright from his forced position of prostration. His body, however, was no longer his own. It no longer obeyed his commands. “Leave… my… home,” he exhaled in a strangled voice. Chilly, gelatinous blood began to ooze through the broken teeth of his open mouth.


    The hooded woman in violet and magenta commanded, “Speak not to the dark lord of Despondos!” She stood and gestured toward the alchemist with a thin, ghostly, powder-blue hand.


    The alchemist’s rotten blood began to boil within his ruined body. He screamed. The woman relented after a few moments.


    “Stand!” shouted the bat-pig-baby. “All of you!”


    They all obeyed, even the master of the Mountain of Snakes. “Who are you?” he demanded.


    The hooded woman stepped forward. “I am known as the Weaver of Shadows, high priestess of the Dark God. And from now on, you will hold your tongue!”


    Against his will, the alchemist reached into his own mouth with bony fingers and grabbed his own tongue. He began to pull. The horrible monsters all laughed with horrible voices.


    The lord of the monsters smiled. “Enough,” he said with a cruel snort. “Your warriors have betrayed you, have they not?”


    “They… have,” admitted the alchemist.


    “Very good. The seeds have borne fruit. The seeds I planted. Though the feelings of your warriors are genuine- they all hate you…” The monsters laughed again. “But the timing. The… nudges were all my doing.”


    “Why?” hissed the alchemist. He summoned his midnight-black blade.


    “Drop your sword,” said the dark lord of Despondos in a bored voice.
    The alchemist had no choice but to obey. Once again, his body was no longer his own. He dropped the sword. As the echo of the clattering sword resonated and then suddenly died, the dark lord calmly stroked the furry head of his disgusting familiar. Eying his sword, the alchemist asked again, “Why?”


    “That can wait. You will understand soon enough. Or at least I hope you will. Patience, my son. Patience.”


    “Son?” spat the alchemist. “How dare you speak to me thus? Who—”


    “Enough.” The dark lord passed off his pet to a less-than-thrilled attendant. The feline-woman took the squirming creature with a look of revulsion frozen on her strangely beautiful hybrid face. “Do you know who I am, alchemist? No? You should, for you have prayed to me many times in your life. And I have heard your prayers. Every one. I have even answered them from time to time.”


    “Who—”


    “Your master. Your creator. Your unholy God.”


    “Never! I—”


    With inconceivable speed, the dark god’s metal-gloved hand shot out. He closed his fingers around the alchemist’s neck and squeezed. He then flung him away as if he weighed no more than a child’s doll. The alchemist slammed into his own throne- the throne of the bones of dead heroes, and it shattered, crumbling to dust. Moans escaped as the powdered bones settled. “Shut up, little Keldor.”


    “I—”


    “Shut! Up!” The alchemist quailed and the monsters laughed. “You know me, Keldor. Though we have never before met, you know me. Gur’rull! Come here! Open his mind, if you would be so kind.”


    A savage, hour-long beating then followed. The only sounds in the throne room were the sounds of the alchemist’s pitiful, pleading moans.


    “Enough,” ordered the dark got to the ursine giant. The bear-man obeyed and found his appointed place once again. Foul-smelling, sticky fluids soaked his long, matted black fur. The dark god turned toward the broken master of the Mountain of Snakes. “Well? Have you begun to see?”


    Pushing up from all fours, the alchemist then pressed the cold palms of his skeletal hands against his cracked, leaking skull. As he struggled to remain conscious, his vision strayed to the figure of the priestess. “A spell,” he said to himself. His mind was hazy and his thoughts were slow. “She’s weaving a spell around me.”


    Vibrant images then exploded in the alchemist’s mind’s eye. He cried out, but the images only sharpened in clarity. They were so sharp that he was nearly unable to bear the sickening revelation. But after a time, the alchemist ceased to fight. The images washed over him. He bore witness as his childhood was laid bare.



    .....................



    The once proud and unassailable Gar Empire was in its twilight. The citizens of the empire watched, as brick by brick and stone by stone, the great monuments dedicated to their own greatness crumbled as they themselves attempted to conduct business as usual in their dwindling shadows. The books and scrolls in their libraries now sat, tucked in and forgotten, under blankets of ancient dust. The great arenas sat in disuse, attracting wild, feral animals. The sad, starving creatures dug for the bones of forgotten champions in the hard-packed, blood-enriched dirt.


    It was here, in these tumultuous times that the Last Emperor called his generals to him for what would prove to be the final Council of the Mighty before the darkness totally descended upon the Empire. Before the light of culture and wisdom was extinguished forever.


    The emperor surveyed his generals. Lesser men than their fathers who were in turn lesser than their fathers and grandfathers before. And so on. Back through the ages. The emperor sighed. These men were his tools. Rusty, broken, and unfit they may be, they were all he had. He must use them. Use them to defend the Empire. The Empire of gathering sands and blossoming ignorance. He sighed again.


    As always, the Empress sat at her husband’s right hand. They both appeared as gods to their people. Their untainted blue skin shone in the low candlelight of the war-room with stunning brilliance, and their penetrating eyes blazed like fire.


    The dull generals began to speak their cowardly words, shifting blame and hiding from their responsibilities. The Empress squeezed her Emperor’s hand. The end was near. They both knew it. There was no hope. No new dawn for the Gar Empire. No rebirth. The barbarians were at their gates. And what was worse, they were finally massing. The barbarians were forming alliances with one another. Uniting under one so-called king.


    “Miro the Lion is no king,” thought the emperor. He is a blood-thirsty, unwashed savage. But… savage or no, fool or no, his coming will finally undo centuries of culture. Of enlightenment. Of peace. Such as it is… As it was…”


    “If only we had conceived a stronger son,” thought the empress. “Then perhaps our people could forestall this doom. But then again, perhaps not. Perhaps it is time for the Gar Empire to sink into the sea and into the sand. To be remembered only in barbarian-song. To be uncovered in time by archaeologists not yet born.”


    The pointless, wearisome council dragged on. But the son of the emperor and empress- the son of the living gods of the Gar watched on, eagerly absorbing all that was said. He was weak. He knew this. He was lame, malformed. But his mind was strong. And one day the Empire would be his. He would himself ascend to godhood. His people would worship him. He would lead them from the brink and into a new golden age. Or so he thought. So he dreamed. Even though his own parents did not believe in him.


    The council ended. The foolish, preening, vain generals exited the Imperial War-Chambers. And he who would be emperor followed them out into the gray day. He passed by many citizens, though none recognized him. He was clever with disguises. He even stopped to talk with a boy- a house slave, nearly the same age as he, but the boy never realized to whom he spoke. After a time though, the slave’s master pulled the boy away by his long, black hair.


    The heir to the Empire walked on. Then a man on a mechanical horse careened toward him with reckless speed. His mount had malfunctioned, and he was trying desperately to steer the vehicle away from the citizens who packed the crowded, foul-smelling streets. But the man was unsuccessful in his efforts. He was headed straight for the son of the emperor and empress. The heir was too slow. His twisted legs did not respond, and his tattered cloak caught on one of the long, iron bolts that protruded from the robot-horse’s flank. And the heir, the last faint hope of the Gar Empire was then dragged through the capital city until he was dead. The godly lineage was broken that sad day. Even the small hope in a misshapen, lame deity faded completely.


    And the young house slave, who was the last person to speak to the heir, looked over his shoulder at the spectacle until once again, his master grabbed a handful of his hair and led him away like a dog.


    The slave thought no more of the dead boy. He was nothing to him. He did not know his true identity, nor if he did, he scarcely would have cared. The life of a house slave in the dying cities of the crumbling Gar Empire was a hard life. There existed no time for reflection. No time for anything save mindless work and the daily- hourly struggle to remain among the living.


    He did see his mother occasionally though. There was some small comfort in that. They both toiled in the same house for the same master, but the boy’s many tasks kept him toiling outside, and his mother’s work kept her inside. On her back. In submissive service to their cruel, grotesque master. But they did meet in secret from time to time. He and his mother. They never spoke, however. They only held one another and wept silently, cursing their sad fate.


    The news of the death of the heir travelled fast. In a handful of days, the united barbarian tribes began to swarm around the capital city of the Gar Empire like ravenous nanolocusts.


    The master of the young slave’s house grew frightened as the ranks of the barbarian horde grew. His ordered world was ending. The old ways would soon cease to matter. His high birth would cease to matter. And he began to deal with his great fear in unthinkable ways. In passionless frenzy, he began to use up his bed slaves. They began to die. Their bodies began to litter the dark alleys behind the dark house. Mutilated. Unspeakably.


    The young slave found the bodies day after day. He counted them, and he attempted to make out their features, which was not always an easy task, but his mother, thankfully, was not among their number. Yet.


    Two days before the tarnished gates of the capital city burst, allowing the barbarians to explode into their lives like a rampant infection, the young slave decided to act. His mother would not last long, he knew. In their old world or in the new. He- they were on their own.


    It was an easy thing to slit his master’s throat as the old man tossed in a nightmarish, drunken sleep. His fat wife was next. Then his evil children. They all expired with tired, haunted expressions writ upon their faces as they gazed out without hope at nothing with their dying eyes.


    “Let them go swiftly to the land of the dead,” the boy prayed aloud. “Dark gods. Give to them the fates they deserve. Make them suffer. Make them scream. For eternity.”


    And a dark god was indeed listening. And a dark god gladly granted him his grim wish.


    This was the first time that he ever prayed. Throughout his life, he was aware of the existence of gods, both dark and light, but this is the first time that he had asked them for help. A spark of hope ignited in his scarred heart, and for once, he began to think of a future. The gods could be very useful for a boy who was now no longer a slave. For a boy who now had nothing to lose.


    He soon found his mother. She was alive, but barely. She could not walk. Her time, he knew, was at an end. He pressed her wet face into his shoulder as he slid his knife into her breast. She cried out softly, and he once again prayed to the dark gods. He prayed for her soul to dissipate- to become one with the great, black nothingness that awaited all servants of the dark gods. And again, a dark god listened. A dark god granted him that for which he prayed.


    And covered with the blood of his mother, as he once was when he entered the world eight years ago to the day, the slave who was no longer a slave was reborn. He pushed open the rotten doors of his old master’s house, and walked from his past life into the chaotic streets, a free citizen of a doomed Empire.


    At first, the young boy struggled with the concept of freedom. But he managed. His family was of a caste of bondage for as far back as the records of the Empire reached. He had known no other life. Nor had his mother. Nor his mother’s mother. “My mother,” he thought sadly. “She is gone. I am truly alone.”


    The boy had known no father. More likely than not, his cruel master- the dead man who was once his master was his father. It mattered not. If the boy had a name, he would have left it behind all the same.


    For days, the boy with no name hid in the cellars and sewers, as above, the Empire choked out its death rattle. The god-emperor was executed. He was hanged first, then torn apart and eaten by the pets of Miro the Lion. The empress too. She was offered up alive as a sweet desert to the vicious cats of the barbarian-king.


    And then, just like that, the great Empire of the Gar was no more. Miro ascended.


    Eventually, the boy was found. Half-starved and feral, he was found.


    “My King,” growled an unwashed soldier with a thick, wiry beard that almost entirely covered his round, red face. “We found this one hiding in a hole, gnawing the raw meat from the skull of a dead horse.”


    “Hungry, is he?” laughed the newly-crowned king. “What’s your name, boy? The boy did not answer. The king shrugged. “Remain silent then. No matter. You’re mine now, you understand? So it lies to me to choose you a new name.” The king pondered a moment before declaring, “I name you after the rabid dog who is the oldest and most pitiful among those who sire the pups for my lions to eat!” The king laughed again. His enormous goblet of black ale sloshed out onto his sandaled feet. “Though the name is too good for you, gar, I name you ‘Keldor.’”


    Keldor the mad dog soon died, but Keldor the boy endured. A slave once more, hopeless and helpless once again, he endured.


    Years passed. Though severely abused by King Miro’s men for the sole crime of the color or his skin, he still managed to cultivate one meaningful relationship amidst the unending animosity.


    The old barbarian was a wizard, they said. The Wizard of Gnarl he was named. King Miro’s soldiers avoided him as much as they shunned Keldor, but unlike the blue-skinned boy, they did not dare provoke the old man. And in the wizard’s presence, Keldor was safe from their cruel, hard hands. And no one dared complain if a camp slave went missing for one or two hours a day. At least not in front of the wizard.


    “Many winters ago, the Wizard of Gnarl appeared in the camp the instant the suns set one cold sharp evening,” the soldiers told one another.


    “In a dual eclipse, he came,” others said.


    “Miro doesn’t trust him, but the old wizard has proved useful over the years,” they all agreed.


    And some said, “No man knows his true name. Not even our king.”


    The old wizard was astounded by the ease of which Keldor mastered all aspects of the secretly-taught sorcery. But Keldor particularly excelled in the study and practice of alchemy. The boy had a scientific mind. A methodical way about him. His serious manner and his brilliant mind served him well. Soon, he would surpass the old wizard.


    One day, the company of King Miro found itself approaching the stinking lands where the Vile Marsh met the Dread Sea, beneath the long shadows of the Mystic Mountains.


    The old wizard grew agitated. He called for his pupil- his slave. “Keldor,” he said in a raw, quavering voice. “The time for which I have prepared has come. The time has come for us to melt away into the night. The time has come for you to claim this world in the name of the Dark God to whom you pray.”


    “I haven’t prayed in a long time, master,” said the boy.


    “No, Keldor. No, you have not. And the Dark God is most displeased.”


    “How… how do I make amends, master?”


    The old wizard stroked his long beard. The beard was gray, streaked with lines of yellowish-green, and it reached down to his rusty belt buckle. For the first time, Keldor realized that his master had red eyes. “Pray now, son. Pray with me. For though you have forgotten him, he has remembered you. He sent me to you, in fact. To teach you. To help you to become who you were born to be.”


    They prayed. And as always, the dark god listened.


    Late the next night, by the light of the colorful spinning planets and the swirling, cloudy galaxies, the wizard and his pupil simply walked out of the camp and out of the service of King Miro the Lion. No one saw their passing.


    “We must build a house, Keldor,” said the old man. “For this place- this Vile Marsh will be a home to me until I die, and it will be your home until you have learned from me all that there is to learn.”


    They built a house. Amidst the giant mosquitoes, hungry leeches, and slithering, spitting, water-cobras, they toiled for a month. Felling trees. Making mud bricks. Bending the landscape to their will.


    And as the days passed, the false appearance of the old man faded away. He sloughed off his glamor until one day, nothing was left but his true form. His true face.


    “Master,” said Keldor as he kneeled.


    “Rise, pupil,” said the creature who was once a man.


    “Master. Now that I can see you as you are, please tell me your true name.”


    “What have I taught you, Keldor?”


    “That names have power, master.”


    “So therefore, I will not give mine up easily.” Keldor lowered his head. “Look at me, boy!” Keldor obeyed. “I will not give you my name, so you must take it.”


    Keldor smiled.


    The master and his pupil battled for several days, until finally, Keldor had won his prize.


    “Say it then,” groaned the old wizard through shattered jaw and broken teeth. You have earned your prize. Speak my name.”


    “Uqquz’ Zekul-mshqx.”


    And as soon as Keldor spoke his master’s true name, his own teeth began to creak in their sockets. His lips split. He vomited for hours. His master laughed.


    “Be careful for what you wish, Keldor. Be careful for what you fight. Come. It appears that you require my teaching still.”


    “Who are you? Really?” asked Keldor to his master weeks later. “From where do your kinsmen dwell?”


    The wizard who once wore the skin of a man leaned back in his roughly-hewn wooden chair. He clacked his long, broken nails against one another as was his habit. His glowing green, sometimes translucent skin pulsed in time with his strong heart. “I have no kinsmen. I am alone. It is as I told you before,” he said. His long beard draped over his bare chest like a blanket. “I am a servant to the Dark God. No more. No less.”


    “Are there other dark gods, master?” asked the boy.


    “None that have taken an interest in you. None but my god- your god. And count yourself fortunate, for he is the most powerful of them all. He is absolute. The others are foolish, pale pretenders, naming themselves gods, worshipped by foolish pale men, naming themselves men.”


    And so, the years passed in quiet study for Keldor. He would leave their home and his own private laboratory that was set back from the small house from time to time. To love. To live. To search out sources of power, but always, he returned.


    One night, after an especially long affair with the dread witch of Zalesia, and after the corruption of an Earthling and the murder of the Snake King and the taking of his mountain, Keldor returned to the Vile Marsh. His master was awaiting his student’s arrival in his favorite chair, doused in candlelight. His master raised his head and smiled an odd smile. Something squirmed on his belly under his beard.


    Keldor could not make out what he saw through the flickering shadows. And despite his training, he then knew fear. “Master,” he said quietly. “I am home.”


    “Welcome, my pupil.”


    “Is anything… amiss, Master? You have a strange look on your face.”


    “Do I?” grinned the wizard like a broken-toothed fox.


    Keldor stood in silence. His eyes scanned the room warily. “Master?” he ventured.


    “What is today?”


    “Today, Master?” Keldor had no answer.


    The wizard with the once-secret name replied. “It is the night of your birth, my pupil. The night also of your rebirth. I… am happy for you.”


    The wizard then reached under his beard and produced that which was the cause of the squirming. Keldor accepted the bundle as if it would explode.


    “What—” began the young alchemist.


    The bundle uncurled in his arms, and two green eyes stared at him from sleek, soft, midnight-purple fur. The bundle purred.


    “Raise her well, Keldor,” said the wizard. Her mother fought for her. She fought and lost. Now you are her only family.


    Keldor looked up, and for the first time, he noticed that his master’s face had been recently lacerated by what only could have been giant claws. His master’s white skull shone through the raw, vertical slashes upon his shredded, glowing, green skin.


    “What will you name her?”


    “What is she, Master?”


    “A sabre-tooth panther.”


    The kitten licked Keldor’s hand and closed its large eyes, sinking into her new guardians’ arms. Keldor smiled and stroked the kitten’s back.


    “Names have power, you know, Master. And I will keep hers safe.”


    The wizard then erupted in laughter. “Smart boy!” he exclaimed. “Smart boy! Oh!” he said. “I have one more gift for you.” The wizard’s tone suddenly shifted to the serious.


    “Yes, Master?”


    “Are you prepared for another rebirth, my able student? I have no more knowledge to give you. My mind is empty. Used up. Only my body remains.”


    Keldor was confused. He said so.


    “I know you are. But not for long. Keldor? Set aside the kitten. Set aside your familiar. Though now she is small, you will need her strength and her loyalty in the awful days to come.”


    Keldor placed the housecat-sized sabre-tooth panther upon a stack of blankets that were piled in a corner. The pile rested on the hard-packed dirt floor. The kitten cried out, but did not move from where she was placed.


    “What must happen now, Master?” Keldor asked with uncomfortable sadness as he was forced to ignore the pleas of his new pet.


    The old green wizard stood. He towered above his pupil. His biceps were as thick as Keldor’s waist, and his head was like something out of a nightmare. But Keldor had grown accustomed to his master’s appearance. He did not flinch.


    The wizard spoke. “What must happen? A death. Another death. Then a rebirth. Your second rebirth. Your third birth. Providing you have the strength. Providing you can be brave.”


    “I can,” said Keldor with confidence. “I will be.”


    “We shall see, my clever boy. We shall see.”


    “What must I do?”


    “Ah! That is a better question.” The old wizard paused and then sighed. “You must kill me. Remove my heart. Take my head.” He paused and then added, “In whatever order you choose.” Keldor did not speak. The wizard continued. “Are you still brave?” Keldor nodded. “Then allow me to tell you what you must do next: After my death, boil my skull. As the skin loosens in the steaming cauldron, then you must eat my heart. All of it. No part of it shall remain outside of your body. Can you do these things?”


    “Yes, Master,” replied Keldor without hesitation. Is that all? What must I do next?”


    The wizard placed a heavy hand on the alchemist’s shoulder. Volumes of unspoken words of pride and love were communicated in the simple gesture. From the corner of the room, the kitten mewed.


    “Flay,” began the wizard. “Flay your own skin from your own skull. Throw the mask of Keldor into the cauldron. Our faces will melt together.”


    “I… understand. And am I to drink the boiling broth, Master?”


    “Yes. All of it. The broth will scour you from the inside out. It will cleanse you. You will become a shell. An empty vessel in which to store knowledge.”


    “Master?” said Keldor. “Why are you doing this? Surely you have more to teach.”


    “No, Keldor.” The wizard’s gray-green beard swayed, and the kitten was mesmerized. “My task is nearly complete. This was always to be my fate. And I am honored to play the part that the Dark Lord assigned.”


    “The Dark Lord.”


    “Yes, Keldor. Your god. I am his creature. I am a wizard, yes, but also I am a demon. A demon-man of Despondos. Now come. Kill me. Prove to me that I have taught you well.”


    Keldor obeyed. An eruption of poisonous blood sprayed onto the young alchemist’s face and into his eyes as he opened his master’s throat, hacking and tearing with a stained, dull meat cleaver. Though the pain of the spraying blood was excruciating, Keldor did not cry out. The sabre-tooth panther kitten looked on with her luminous green eyes as the old wizard collapsed. Keldor spoke his master’s name as he beheaded the demon-man. He spoke the name with ease.


    When the vile swamp water in the cauldron that hung over the blazing hearth was finally at a rolling boil, Keldor threw the head in. The water hissed and turned a sickly color. The head cooked.


    Keldor then feasted upon his master’s heart. It was surprisingly tasty. Rich, toothsome, and gamey. Somewhat sweet.


    “Well, my pet,” said the young alchemist after his meal was complete. “Now for me.”


    And without a moment’s pause, Keldor removed his own handsome face with a small boning knife and added it to the boiling broth. It melted immediately. Still, Keldor did not cry out. His wet, glistening skull reflected the light from the moons that bathed the little house, entering it from above, and in through the rough, cloudy windows. The kitten purred.


    “Into the pot I go,” murmured Keldor. “Into the pot I go!”


    He plunged his raw head into the steaming swamp water. The broth sizzled and the cauldron nearly boiled over. With his head still submerged, Keldor then began to drink. In desperate, agonizing swallows, he gorged himself.


    After a day, the cauldron was empty, licked clean, save for the battered, notched skull of the old wizard- the demon-man of Despondos.


    Keldor was reborn again. In reverence, he attempted to utter his master’s name one last time as he held aloft the old wizard’s skull, but his lipless mouth betrayed his intention. Another name escaped. His own true name. Like a key sliding into a hole, it fit. Keldor was no more. And he who was once Keldor then kneeled and prayed to the one true Dark God. His god.


    The deep-purple kitten padded over and pressed her head against the alchemist’s side in love and understanding.



    …………………



    “All of these years,” said the alchemist. “My whole life, it was you who was guiding me to my destiny.”


    “Do not presume to address your dark god directly, fool!” hissed the hooded priestess.


    But the dark god simply raised his hand and the woman was silent. His grotesque pet laughed. The dark god approached the alchemist. “Get up,” he commanded.


    Moved by legs that he no longer controlled, the alchemist instantly obeyed. The master of the Mountain of Snakes drank deeply of the awesome form of the god. With the severe face of a humanoid vampire bat, and with his many strange, alien cybernetic components enhancing his already impressive physique, the dark god loomed large and terrifying. But despite his horrible appearance, the dark god was quick to smile. And his smiles, it proved, were more frightening than his scowls.


    The dark god then had words with his infant-bat-pig pet in an impossible language and they both laughed. Neither the laugh nor the smile on the face of the god was reassuring. The sharp teeth within his wet mouth glistened, red as rubies, for they had been stained with the blood of sacrificial victims.


    The alchemist lowered his eyes. “I will play the subservient role,” he said to himself. “Then god or no, creator or no, I may survive to challenge him. This vain intruder…”


    The dark god knew the alchemist’s mind.


    “What is it, Master,” asked the small, flying monstrosity. “What do you hear, Master?”


    “Unspoken words of betrayal, my pet.” The dark god snorted an inhalation. We have a usurper in our midst.” He then addressed his attendants. “My horde. A would-be usurper. He harbors thoughts of harming my divine personage.”


    The towering ursine warrior stepped forward and kneeled. Through blunt, brown teeth, he rumbled low. “Master,” he said- he growled. “I will break him for his insolence if you command, My Lord.”


    “No need,” smiled the dark god. He snorted again and clapped his hands together. The metal gauntlets that he wore created a shower of blinding sparks. The alchemist cried out in agony as his shin bones fractured in a hundred different places. He writhed on the cold, moist stone floor, begging for mercy. “That’s more like it,” laughed the dark lord of Despondos. “Now, I know you are wise enough to not test me further, creation. Simply worship me. Submit to my absolute will, and I promise to reward your loyalty. You will remain the master of the Mountain of Snakes. By my leave, you may continue to pursue the throne of Eternia, but now you will do so in my name. Do you submit? Or perhaps more… education is necessary?”


    “I… submit,” lied the alchemist.


    The dark god believed him. His pet and his horde did as well. “Good. Good. Now rise.”


    Miraculously, the bones in the legs of the alchemist were immediately healed. He stood in astonishment. “My legs… I—”


    “Why am I here?” interrupted the dark lord.


    “Perhaps… Because… Today is the day of my birth… My God. The day of my rebirth. And my second rebirth.”


    “To the hour,” agreed the dark god. “To the hour- minute.” He paused. “Second.”


    The alchemist ventured a question. “Why, O Dark Lord, did you plant the seeds of betrayal in the minds of my warriors? Would you have me destroyed? Have I… displeased you?”


    The dark god scoffed angrily. “Don’t make me regret my faith in you, slave. Perhaps you are not as clever as I had hoped?” The infant-pig-bat alighted on his master’s shoulder and laughed another unsettling laugh. “Prove me wrong. Why did I do such a thing?”


    The answer was now clear to the alchemist. Clear and simple. “To make them fear me,” he replied with confidence. “For fear breeds order. To prove to them, without a doubt, that I am their superior.”


    “Good. So you are not an idiot. Yes, my slave, yes. You will now find that things will go better for you in your claim for the throne of this insignificant world. Ideally, a ruler must be worshipped, as I am, but failing that, a ruler must be feared. The fear of pain- of punishment of death- of punishment after death is a powerful motivator. This, my little alchemist, is my gift to you. And consider this day your third rebirth. Rejoice, for you now know your place. Subservient to me- to your creator, but master of your own domain. And be content, slave. I will only warn you once. Be content. For my generosity can quickly turn to wrath.”


    With thoughts more deeply hidden than before, the alchemist then decided what must be done. “This creature,” he thought. “This… alien’s power will be mine. Not a fraction. Not a sip. But all. All.” He said none of this aloud. Instead he said, “Yes, O Master.”


    And again, the dark lord believed him.


    “Come,” said the god to his worshippers as he turned his back upon the alchemist. “We have finished with this barbaric dimension. We must go home. Reports of my daughter’s new victories have reached my ears. She has brought me gifts. She has brought me more rebel prisoners for… experimentation.” The dark lord was nearly giddy with excitement. “A mosquito, an elephant… So much to do, so much to try,” he said under his breath. “Blood and metal. Metal and blood.”


    The hooded priestess then reopened the shimmering portal. One by one the monsters entered and disappeared. The cat, the leech, the bear, the bug-eyed horror, and finally, the violet and magenta weaver of shadows.


    “Master?” called out the god’s pet in a high-pitched baby’s voice.


    The dark lord snorted and replied in distracted irritation as the portal began to close. “What is it, imp?”


    “Your other gift, Master?”


    “Oh! Yes, yes, yes! How could I forget? Come here, slave,” the dark god commanded to the master of the Mountain of Snakes. The alchemist obeyed. “Hurry! Faster, you fool.”


    “Yes, my God. What is it, my Creator?”


    “Here.”


    And then, the god and his imp disappeared. The portal closed.


    The alchemist was alone. No, not alone. Never alone again. He unwrapped the warm blanket that he received from the dark lord of Despondos.


    The alchemist who was once named Keldor smiled a skeleton smile as his ember-red eyes met those of the newborn, velvet-furred, purple sabre-tooth panther kitten that nestled contentedly in his strong arms. The kitten purred. And for a time, at least, the alchemist was happy.





    The End of: USURPERS


    Or: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SKELETOR
    Last edited by MLHumble; March 29, 2013 at 07:14pm. Reason: PART FIVE ADDED (6. The Alchemist: Prayers to a Dark God)

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