Aphelion Issue 289, Volume 27
November 2023
 
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Smoke and Fury

by Jonathan Snyder




It was the smoke that Rikin saw first. Though the undulating rolls of the prairie hid most of the landscape from him, it was the large, black columns that told him that something was wrong up ahead. His walk from Tyshin’s Rift had been quiet for the most part, preferring to avoid anyone—which included grouping with other travelers. As the lanky man continued following the path worn by the feet of travelers and monks, the smoke just got closer. Rikin had even stopped at one point to study his map to see if there was a way around the town the path cut through but, in the end, he would have rather dealt with this than getting lost on the prairie that stretched as far as the eyes could see.

It was the smell that hit him first. The acrid taste in the air of charred wood mixed with the sweet scent of death and burned flesh. The carnage that Rikin saw as he crested the hill made him sigh. Running his weathered hand through the shock of brown hair, he was of a mind to just circle around and risk the endless sea of grass and the roving dryad tribes. The man shouldered his canvas bag and hoped that it was just a simple walk through as he really did not want to get in a tussle with the Dryads again.

The town sprung up around the path that cut across the Great Emerald Plains. The dirt road morphed into cobblestone including a bridge that crossed one of the few creeks that crisscrossed the plains. On the other side of the bridge stood the town with its slate stone building and thatched roofs that gave the place the look of civilization. The problem was that most of it had been burnt to the ground, the stone foundations like many skeletons of the consumed.

There were bodies scattered all over of men, women, and children. He shifted the rucksack on his shoulder and ignored the destruction around him as it wasn’t something he had not seen before. Though the man had some curiosity about what had attacked, he felt the sooner he left the better off he would be.

Rikin’s frown deepened as he slowed nearing the town square. It was the white pennant with gold trimming and a stylized hammer in the center that got his attention. The Golden Crusaders were not something he expected in the wilds but there they were. The pennant wasn’t a forgery because it was too clean and perfect, just like the members of the ruthless army. Sworn to the Icon of Righteousness, the consummate representative of Shamak, the Muse of Justice, they claimed to eliminate evil anywhere it could be found. Some are foolhardy enough to claim they could beat a Torment and their ilk. The traveler had even heard some brag that they could take down a Harrow, the opposite but as powerful as their Icon. Their arrogance knew no bounds.

One thing was for certain though, the Golden Crusade did not just attack villages when it suited them. Something here had gotten their attention.

He crouched down and examined the body of the male whose robes told him used to be the mayor, his form used to support the pole the pennant was on. He noted the tattoos of the Roaming Clans and pulled back a sleeve to wince. The man’s arm had been chewed off.

A closer examination of those around him saw that the other bodies were in states of consumption. Rikin stood again, a bit more alert and his dagger loosened in its sheath.

Of course, the traveler knew he should continue and make his way toward North Obsidia and turned to head out to the other end of the town. What had happened here was done and there was nothing that could change the fate of everyone here.

Instead of doing what he knew he should have done, he pushed open the cracked wooden door and walked cautiously. Rikin’s eyes darted back and forth, and he ignored the stench that wafted around him. The hovel had been torn apart and decimated by a fight. He did not even stop to consider the black stains splashed about. What he was interested in was the basement.

This was the focal point. Instinct and experience told him this with certainty. Why he needed to confirm this was beyond Rikin now but the creaking steps to the basement woke him up. The traveler had to bend over a bit to keep from smashing his head on the roughhewn wood ceiling. It was in the door, lower in a corner, that caught the eye. It was barely glowing but the little idol on a black pedestal of wood was obvious.

The little statue was broken in half but the form of a very gaunt male in robes too loose for his own body was familiar. Someone had an alter to Throp, the Torment of Excess. Inside was the remains of a plague stone that had to have started the debacle above.

With a sigh of resignation, Rikin stood and made his way back out. He only made a few steps past the front door when the patter of feet against cobblestone reached his ears. It was more instinct than anything else when Rikin threw himself to the side and the blur of bodies missed him. They landed in a pile in front of the man, scrambled, and turned on him snarling.

They were once a man and woman, but the flesh clung to them, their pupils so wide that the blackness ate up any color left. They grunted and moved, feral and hungry for flesh; their minds completely gone, only a husk of a human left. All the hallmarks of those who had fallen to tomb sickness. They were now only revenants, cannibalistic creatures who would hunt and feed until something killed them. That explained why the Golden Crusade was here.

The woman leaped at him only to be impaled by his dagger and thrown at the man, Rikin using her destroyed body as a shield. They stood again to attack but Rikin had enough, he extended his hand and twisted, the air coalesced for a second in a scent of magic, and their heads turned roughly and snapped, dropping to the ground.

As he knelt to examine the remains for any telltale signs, Rikin caught movement out of the corner of his eye. There was a small form crouched behind a pile of rubble. It was then he made eye contact with a pair of wide blue eyes. A survivor? Rikin saw her step out. She was a young girl around eleven years old, her pale blue dress with lace tattered and barely clinging to her scrawny body, covered in dried blood and mud. One ponytail had come undone while the other was still perfect with a blue bow of satin.

“Hello,” Rikin said gently as he kept crouching so as not to spook her. “Are you okay?”

The child crept over slowly to him, her wide eyes watching him, the haunted expression of a girl who saw more than she should have for her age. Her black hair was a knotted mess. He raised his hand to gently brush the clumps of dirt away and she froze like a feral animal. Lowering his hand but leaving it extended, he tried to be comforting.

“It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”

Though the movement was fast, his eyes could follow it. Her pupils grew wide until the black consumed her eyes, the razor-sharp teeth were exposed, and her jaw unhinged as she lunged and sunk her teeth into the meat of his hand. Rikin grunted and used the other to backhand her causing her to fall back stunned. Her eyes returned to normal, and tears burst from her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said, weeping. “I’m really hungry.”

Hungry? Rikin looked down at his bleeding hand where the wound was rapidly repairing itself. Tomb Sickness wasn’t spread by bite, so he wasn’t concerned about that. What attracted his attention was that this revenant could still speak and appeared self-aware. This was new. Standing and stepping forward, the girl took the same amount back.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

The traveler held up his hand to show that the puncture wounds were gone. She looked at it curiously and then back at him.

“Have you eaten?”

She hung her head as her shoulders slumped in shame. She nodded slowly.

“I ate mommy.”

Poor thing. Consumed by tomb sickness but not lost. It was the only saving grace of being a revenant. Your soul was gone and only the monster remained.

“It’s not your fault,” Rikin said gently.

He approached and laid a hand on her shoulder. He saw the pupils shift again but they retracted as she somehow controlled the urge. He hefted her up into his arms which made her start for a quick second and then buried her head in fear in his shoulder.

“What’s your name?”

“Naeva,” she finally volunteered, her face still pushed against the leather of his coat.

“Well, Naeva,” Rikin said, letting her back down. “Are you hungry now?”

“I’m always hungry.”

The eyes told the truth. She was much more aware of her predicament than he expected.

“You survived,” he said. “Don’t judge yourself. Want something to eat?”

The girl nodded, her eyes showing the conflict. Rikin put his hand out and she took it. He led her over to another body that was pretty much intact. He brought her to it and a look of nervousness came to her face.

“It's okay. You need your strength. I won’t do anything.”

“But…”

“Survival,” Rikin said. “Is first.”

The hunger in her belly won out as the blue of her eyes vanished again and she began to rip into her meal. He crouched and watched as her nails became claws and the hunger consumed her. She was three quarters done when she stopped and stepped back.

“No more,” she said, looking a bit guilty.

“That’s okay.”

“I’m a monster, aren’t I?” Naeva said, wiping her mouth and leaving a fresh streak on her clothes.

“Yes, but so am I.”

Her eyes looked at him inquisitively but before he could say anything more voices broke his concentration.

“There’s one!”

A troop of about fifteen soldiers wearing the colors of the Golden Crusade came around the corner and pointed towards Naeva. Naeva’s eyes grew wide with terror, and she struggled to climb him. He returned her to his arms with ease.

Pushing through the group of soldiers was a large man wearing a full set of way too shiny armor and a billowing cape of a cohort leader pointed at Rikin.

“You,” he commanded. “Stand fast.”

“I’m just passing through,” Rikin said, raising his canvas bag to show with the other hand.

“If you’re not tainted like this village, then we have no quarrel with you. But we have a quarrel with that beast you're holding.”

Naeva tightened her grip on his arm and buried her face deeper.

“The girl?” Rikin asked.

The man in the armor scoffed. Obviously, the drying blood on her dress did not help the lie.

“She’s with me.” Rikin finally said, then sighed. He was irritated with himself that after months avoiding interactions, he had thrown himself into the middle of it all again.

“By order of the Golden Crusade, you are to give me the beast so we can do my muse’s holy work,” the armored man commanded, pointing the broadsword at the traveler.

“She’s a child. She still thinks. The girl is not a revenant like the others.”

“She is a foul monster who must be dispatched before her filth can harm others.”

“You and I know tomb sickness doesn’t spread by bite,” Rikin shot back trying to think of anything to stop where this was all going.

“Again, traveler. In the name of Shamak, the Muse of Justice. Surrender the vile creature.”

A cold swept through Rikin’s spine and his eyes narrowed. His anger simmered deep inside himself at the name of the muse.

“I don’t recognize your authority,” Rikin responded. His voice became dark and even. He had sworn to stay away from the power inside him, but he had chosen to protect the girl.

The large man’s eyes hardened as the other men began to surround him.

“Bold of you, traveler,” the armored leader said. “I shall be gracious and give you one more chance to stand aside.”

Did he hesitate because he sensed something off? Rikin didn’t know. The hesitation was long enough that one of the soldiers moved first. The world seemed to shift as the dagger in his free hand moved perfectly. Four soldiers attacked, four swipes of the blade and they lay on the ground dead.

“Who are you?” their leader demanded, having drawn his shield from his back, seemingly realizing there was more to the traveler who was protecting the little one in his arm.

There really was no reason to hide it. Rikin could not let any of them live anyhow. From their point of view, it appeared like his clothes were on fire as ornate armor and a circlet of burnished iron appeared on his forehead. Within his left hand, a battle hammer appeared emblazoned with a crimson dagger wreathed in fire.

“I am the Harrow of Rage.”

They came at him, but the soldiers did not stand a chance against one who sold his freedom to the Torment of Wrath. The power of the dark Torment swirled through him as his battle hammer struck, killing many instantly. The leader was decently trained. He survived three blows before the final hit, but the hammer crushed the soldier’s skull, dropping him in place. Even Naeva had jumped out of his arms and dragged a fleeing soldier towards her and finished him while he screamed.

The armor melted away, back to the illusion of his simple clothing. Rikin crouched as Naeva came over to him, her eyes filled with admiration and concern.

“I wish to come with you,” she said bravely, taking his hand. Rikin looked back down at the pair of blue eyes staring back up at him.

All Rikin wanted was quiet and to get to the coast. He thought for a moment and then nodded.

“I will teach you how to protect yourself and make sure you are fed,” Rikin started as he gestured towards the road. “But you cannot eat anyone without my express permission. This road is going to be hard. Much harder than if you stay here or I just kill you.”

“I promise,” Naeva said with a solemn nod. “I don’t want to be alone. I want to stay with another monster.”

That brought a smile to his face. Rikin gave her a little squeeze but then glanced over to the bodies lying around. He nodded towards them as she gazed at them.

“How about you get a bit more to eat before we go? It’s a long road to North Obsidia.”


THE END


2023 Jonathan Snyder

Bio: Mr. Snyder has been writing stories since his mother handed him a college typewriter at the age of twelve. With a love for stories and the written word, he has continued to share his work with anyone willing to hold still long enough to be caught. His publication credits include Aphelion, JukePop, Gateway Science Fiction Magazine and the popular Horror subreddit r/nosleep. http://www.jtworld.net His last Aphelion appearance was Hitchhiker in the First Contact, 2019 issue.

E-mail: Jonathan Snyder

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