Authors: Scott Toney
The wind hit her harshly as Julieth emerged from the mouth of the destroyed underground temple one final time. She had flown Riad to the surface first, and then Bayne and Andral, leaving Ivanus for last.
has returned to me,” Ivanus spoke as she flew him down toward the rest of the group, already moving across the sweltering desert terrain. “And yet I did not
the manbeast you discovered in the temple chamber. You said that it said ‘Kaskal’ to you?”
“Yes, I am afraid of what that means. He holds a connection to us there.” Julieth swept lower and Bayne looked up, waving at them.
Ivanus released one hand from her grasp and reached to position a cloth above his brow. “When we first camped in the desert I feared something I could not sense following us from Kaskal. How or why a were-beast would have tracked us from there is beyond me, but I fear that is exactly where this thing has come from.”
As Julieth set him on the ground and then landed, a great quake rocked the earth. She knelt low, bracing herself with her hands on the reverberating sand, and then looked up to witness the mountain range between them and Olan break apart and begin to be swallowed into the planet. “Run!” she shouted over the loud roar of earth swallowing earth. The hollow underground devoured Olan whole.
She turned, her feet hitting heavy on the shaking desert as she moved away with the others as fast as she could. After a few strides she remembered her wings and lifted up, soaring and continually pressing onward.
Cracks ripped through the desert before them, swallowing sand and stone into their jaws, but somehow not blocking the route they ran.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, the roar and the quaking stopped.
Julieth allowed herself a breath, curling in the wind and looking in awe at the massive, shadowed crevice in the distance. The city and mountains were gone. All that remained was a swarming plume of earth and a view that led to more barren sand. “Where should we rest?” she called down to the others.
“We must soon, even if it is out in this heat,” Riad responded. “But I fear we will have little rest in coming days as we move. Yourself, Ivanus, Bayne and I are protected from starvation by the essences, but we are low on stores and Andral will need sustenance or he will become weak.”
As the suns set in the distance they made camp beside a large, flat stone jutting up from the ground. They did not set out one of Riad’s heat orbs, for fear of being discovered, but instead lay on the bare sand, chilled in the coming darkness and giving in one by one to the night because of exhaustion.
Julieth was the last, shivering and staring out into the pitch-black night. She feared the voices in her head would return. The thought haunted her. Then a searing sensation pressed from her palm, up through her right arm. She looked to it, touching dark marks that moved, a labyrinth of boils leeching up her skin. She brought her fingers to it, her flesh setting on fire with the touch. She watched as puss bubbled up from beneath the darkened flesh.
The scorch mapping has begun. As I use my abilities it will increase and I will slowly die.
She looked to Bayne, snoring softly nearby.
How long until the boils appear on Bayne or Ivanus? Will we even make it to Samuel in time?
Dirty water rolled over Samuel’s hands as he lifted them from the bath. It ran in streams down his arms. The water had not been replaced in months, but he remained the only person he knew of with water to bathe in. If more were discovered beneath the planet’s crust, his followers would bring it to him. He stared out his window at the light of a vast moon. His army stood vigil and alert beneath its light.
Samuel touched the marking the essence made, imbedded in his chest, feeling its harsh lines.
The voice has been silent for days.
He breathed and allowed himself to relax, sliding down until his head was all that was not submerged.
“Sir,” the voice of one of his servants broke the silence.
Samuel lifted a boil-seared arm from the water, bracing it on the ivory tub’s side. He did not turn to see the man.
“The Raols are attacking the edge of our territory again. Marcin has sent word from his camp. He says it will be handled shortly. He only wanted to keep you informed.”
These are more that will serve us.
The essence gripped his mind.
Go to them and claim them.
“Send word to Marcin that I was told.” Samuel sank back into the bath, submerging his head in effort to block out the essence’s prodding.
Pain seared through his chest, forcing him to emerge, gasping for air.
After drying the water from his flesh he tossed the towel into a fireplace in the hall beyond the chamber. Its moisture evaporated into steam as the towel charred and blew as ash through a chimney. Samuel walked to his chamber and dressed in a light robe. A sword braced on the far wall of his chamber caught his sight and he went to it, lifting it in his hands and measuring its weight.
As he walked down the hall he was determined. He would give the essence its followers, yes, but he would show the thing he was in control.
Torches flickered in sconces as he walked. He came to the main doors of the holy temple. His servants pushed them open and he strode out beneath the moon, taking one step after another down the stairs to the desert soil. The lava ocean resembled blood in the moonlight.
“Sir, will you be needing your transport tonight?” a man standing post nearby asked.
“Yes, gather one at once.”
The man hurriedly left to return moments later with six strong men and himself carrying a platform with a chair positioned in its middle.
“Set it down here.” Samuel pointed nearby. He stepped up onto it and sat, watching his people as he was carried past them. They stood in unbreakable formation, their hollow stares fixed on some point in the distance.
As the night wore on he was carried toward that point in a steady, unbroken pace. He passed thousands of his soldiers, standing erect and ready to defend.
And then the first of the two suns rose in the sky.
The loud noise of steel meeting steel and the shouts of men in his army came to him in the distance as they moved. The death screams of his enemy filled him with warmth somehow. But that was not what he came for. He came to satiate the essence, and now the essence demanded souls to follow them.
Samuel sensed the men and women not yet under his control. How easy it was to possess them and have them follow him in any way. One moment shouts and clashing metal filled his ears, and then as he took control a second later, there was silence except for the sound of one lone man shouting loudly.
“Set me down here,” Samuel instructed the men carrying him. Sunlight draped over him, spilling a vast shadow before his form.
Samuel walked steadily on the earth, his tone muscles tensing as he moved and his thin robe rippling in the wind.
“You! My people will kill you!” an armored man with his arms held firm by people wearing his same garb shouted, spitting toward Samuel. His spittle evaporated as it hit the ground.
Do not do this. Take him. Make him follow us,
the voice of the essence spoke.
“No, if I am to serve you, then you must allow my whims.”
Did you have these whims when you served your God and not me?
“You proved to me that there is no God, after all these ages of forced life. At first I looked at you as a gift, as a way to bring worshipers to him, but if there was a god then he would have purged my body of you long ago.”
The soldiers around him did not look at Samuel. They did not flinch or flex, but instead stood motionless where they had been in battle, their hollow eyes gazing blankly at the horizon. Only the non-possessed man moved.
“Who do you speak to?” the man asked. “You surround yourself by followers and yet none hears your words.”
“I do not need to speak to them.” Samuel grinned. “They follow me with a thought in my mind.”
He looked out at what he had taken. At least one hundred new warriors joined his force from this skirmish. He would not need them, he knew. He only kept them to appease the essence. “What is your name?” he asked one of the new men under his control that held his companion’s arm.
“Pax,” the man responded without emotion.
“Pax, kill this man for me, to prove your loyalty.”
“Brother,” the restrained man pled, looking to Pax with tears streaming from his hardened eyes. “Do not give in to his control. I know you are there inside somewhere.”
Pax drew a dagger from his side. He held it to the man’s sun-worn neck, pressing its tip into his quaking flesh and tearing through the soft tissue from one side to the other.
Blood gushed from the wound and the man choked on it as it gurgled up from his lips as well. Life soon left his eyes.
Pax stood there with the others holding his brother’s bleeding carcass, emotionless and calm.
“You have proven yourselves, my servants.” Samuel turned from them, walking casually back toward his escort. “You may release him now.”
The lifeless vessel of flesh thumped to the ground.
Julieth’s company traveled through the heat of day wearily, exhausted and yet on constant watch for an enemy attack or food of some kind. Andral consumed their last container of food that morning. Though the rest of them could survive without food, hunger still tired them quickly.
“I see the essences have begun scorching your skin,” Riad remarked without looking to Julieth. The two of them led the others.
“Yes. How long is typical until it kills?”
Sunlight radiated off Riad’s metallic limbs. “One never knows. I have seen people crumpled days after the markings began, and though I am marked, my health is seemingly never affected. Perhaps that is because my essence is in my cybernetics, and not in my flesh.”
“Do you hear your essence’s voice?”
Riad turned his head slightly and gave her a half grin. “Yes, but not as you do.” He tapped his hand on his leg where Vrax connected to him. “The essence has taken over my repair bot. It speaks to me through it.”
It made sense. It also made her nervous when she thought of how Vrax had connected with her skin and spoken through her thoughts in the temple. “You said you would explain your past. The others are not that close to us, now. We seem to have the opportunity and the time.”
“I will share some.” Riad reached out his hands and cracked his bone knuckles in the one. “I am not from Solaris, or really any planet. A long time ago I was birthed on a space vessel in this galaxy. My parents and my people were soldiers stationed in that place. I grew, learning to fight and defend. When I was a young man there was a battle on a planet near us. My limbs and face were irreparably scarred as a group we thought were our allies ambushed us. I threw myself on a mine to protect my company. That day it was decided for me, as I was unconscious and dying, that the cyborg program would be run on my body.”
He paused. Walking on without word or emotion. “A meteor was discovered on the edge of the galaxy after the races of that planet were defeated. We detected a life in its core, and a strange energy surrounding it. Then word came from our home planet that we were to investigate.
“That day we left with a company of fifty, half our stationed force, and months later arrived in our star-fighter to Solaris.
“While nearing your planet an asteroid collided with the back of our ship, partially destroying landing gear. Flames writhed over our ship’s hull as it plummeted in Solaris’s atmosphere. A blast that must have shaken the planet itself exploded as our ship thrust into Solaris. Then it all went dark.”
Julieth watched Riad’s emotionless face.
“When the ship’s power rebooted we realized all thrusters and guns were destroyed in landing, along with COM connection that would have allowed us to communicate with our home station. Sensors, though, were still viable and indicated a nearby civilization. Several of our number also lost their lives in the crash. It was decided that we would exit the craft, armed and ready for conflict. When we discovered the meteor, we would examine it as directed and attempt to repair the COM to communicate what we found back along with a request for assistance.
“As the vessel bay door opened, the heat of your planet overwhelmed me. I was in the back of our group, charged with keeping any enemy we may encounter off our flank. The vegetation we saw beyond the crater our ship had created was all either wilting or charred. There was a spoiled stench in the air. This planet had clearly been filled with life in recent time, but as we feared, the meteor appeared to have altered the planet’s atmosphere.
“It was silent. We walked through the tall, browned vegetation for a long while, and then I heard our leader, Sar, over our company’s personal COM line.
“‘Planetary life forms spotted. Prepare to make contact. Life forms appear to be peaceful.’
“‘What direction do they come from?’ a man named Garda’s voice broke in on the line.’
“I waited for Sar’s response. The only sound I heard was static. Then I heard screams and saw fire slithering above the rotten vegetation in the distance.
‘Retreat! Sar has…’ Another voice clicked on and off the COMs.
“The men around me, lower ranking men, looked to me to guide them.
“‘Walk low and prepare for anything,’ I instructed.
“It would not be long. The fire quickly spread through the dying vegetation as more screams echoed around us. Then, as we met a clearing, silence blended with the crackling of the fire coming in on us. I breathed relief as Sar stepped in through thick smoke along the clearing’s far side. I motioned to him using my hands.
“Without hesitation Sar leveled his weapon at me and fired, the charge of its blast knocking me down and back in the foliage we came from. Multiple blasts sounded before the silence returned. Then, just as I thought I had the strength to stand, two fingers pressed into my neck.
“I do not have a pulse there. My cybernetics keeps me alive without a clear pulse, but instead with an even flow of blood through my body. That is how I knew it was an enemy. As the fingers lifted I thrust my weapon up, opened my eyes, and then fired in the center of Sar’s forehead. Blood bathed the clearing with splatter and as I stood I saw the five who had been with me lying dead in the area.
“How could Sar have betrayed us, I asked. I ran full speed forward through the bodies of my company until I burst through a wall of fire toward another open place. I saw him then as I slowed, and then lay low to the earth. He did not see me, but his robe flowed in the wind and I could see two suns printed on the back of the garb. I waited as the flames seared my flesh until this man and a few others with him walked beyond my sight. I knew that somehow it must have been him. Somehow he had possessed Sar. I vowed I would have the man’s soul in return.
“Then, as I knew I would break that vow and death would take me in the flames, a glowing gaseous thing roiled above the charred soil before me. It stopped, illuminated by the fire scorching my form, and I suddenly had the urge to touch it. I reached my cybernetic arm up, thrust my cybernetic hand within it, and had the strength to stand.”
Julieth’s heart raced. “That man was Samuel. I had wondered why you are so set on his death, and yet seem to have no care for us or Solaris.”
Riad looked to her with heat in his eyes. “It is not that I don’t care for you. But I am one left out of many men and women. His blood must spill before there can be any other importance. When his soul dies, only then can I move on.”
“What then? Solaris will celebrate what you do.” Julieth saw the silhouette of a man on the horizon as she spoke. She wondered if she saw a mirage.
“Then my life will return to my hands, and I will choose if it lights anew or is extinguished.”