Aphelion Issue 261, Volume 25
May 2021
 
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The Hunting Ground of Mars

by Benjamin Davison




The Onyx Gate of the Solar System, its jet surface lost almost entirely within the dark expanse of space, burst to life. Such an initiation was no meagre thing, the gate was many miles in diameter, vast and ancient--and one of many that fused together a tenuous and boundless cosmic civilisation. Hidden beneath the gate's hull esoteric devices as large as any planetary edifice began to hum and resonate in a snowballing display of activity; it would have been a deafening cacophony had anyone been aboard the megastructure to hear it. Yet the galactic gates were one of the wonders of galaxy, no one was needed to oversee their function; ancient, free-thinking machinery sensed the approached of something within the searing and uncanny realm they connected to and thus drove the gate to its explosive cataclysm. Its immense arch was abruptly filled with seething and writhing energies, the volatile and atomic energies of the universe harnessed to allow starships to travel speeds that far exceeded even that of light.

From this churning mass of energy came a vast array of colossal starships, returning to reality within the blink of an eye. At their helm, dwarfing all others, a spacefaring city whose fifty-thousand inhabitants, like the rest of the fleet, lived and breathed to serve one man, the Great Despot of the cosmos, the Envolator of the stars--a proclaimed living god. With him he had brought his entire court, five hundred individuals in all, a grand collection of notables gathered from across the breadths of his great realm; aristocrats dressed in shimmering chromatic silk, sub-dictators who ruled in their lord's name fiefdoms of a hundred worlds, errant knights who rode meteorites to distant galaxies and insane zealots whose skins were scarred with the words of their worship. All were drawn to his person, as if he could conjure gold from the very air.

The destination of this grand armada was the red planet of Mars, one of the Envolator's countless tributaries. Upon news of his arrival, it was as if the end of times had come to her people, cities of millions were thrown into disarray as religious fervour overcame them. Meanwhile the rulers of Mars frantically set to ensuring that their ruler would receive a welcome appropriate of his status. A vast parade ground was constructed out within the red deserts beyond their cities' boundaries, whilst all across the land treasures were gathered as homage; glittering jewels of long dead kings, gold and silver idols of slain gods and enough food and drink to feed billions. As their rulers hurriedly made their preparations, common Martians all across the planet threw themselves into excessive celebration, for were they not blessed? It was on their planet the Envolator had chosen to set his holy feet.

Meanwhile, upon the bridge of his flagship, the man for whom this great effort was expended sat upon a throne of marble, whilst at his feet lounged twenty of his favourite consorts, women selected for their beauty, their bodies augmented still by patronised fleshticians until they seemed more alien than human. The Great Despot ignored the reports of chaos that had gripped the planetary surface, he had not come for them after all. Rather his attention rested upon the smear of green set against the rest of the planet’s dusty surface. The Hunting Ground of Mars, one of his own personal playgrounds. He had come to hunt a mythical creature that was supposed to reside within its depths; the fabled Diamond Eyed Lizard itself.

Far from the febrile activity of Mars’ cities the Hunting Ground itself remained within its tranquil state. A great forest, rumoured to have been created by the terraforming machines of the first colonists, it stood unmoved by the arrival of its lord. The immemorial and verdant woodlands had survived many generations of Martians, enduring stoically the dusty winds of the planet. It bore within its emerald cradle glades of varying sizes, and it was into one of these clearings that the Hunter arrived. He broke free from the enveloping branches with barely a sound, dressed in a slouch hat and the ragged uniform of an imperial woodsman, whilst bearing a laser-revolver at the hip. He strolled through a field of swaying grass and blooming wildflowers, enjoying the warm embrace of Martian air. His route took him up a gentle incline and under the grasping boughs of an overlooking tree, where he remained to escape the unrelenting sun, gazing out across the serene clearing he found himself in. The air was thick with the drifting seeds and sweetly aromas of the forest’s flora: awed, he allowed himself a moment to savour this scene of beauty.

This peace however was suddenly broken, a feeling of being watched overcame him, and with reflexes honed from his profession its cause was quickly sought. He noticed that back along the path he had arrived from was a vague form, someone observing from the cover of the treeline. An old, familiar feeling came over him, an unseen wound that had never healed quickly flared as well-worn memories surfaced and darkened the bright day. He stood entranced by the spell of the instance, so fully in fact that he almost failed to notice that there had arrived into the clearing a third person, a man of large appearance, walking towards him from another part of the forest entirely. Having had his attention stolen by this newcomer, he tried to find the spectre again, though despairingly discovered they had disappeared without a trace.

'You look like you’ve seen a ghost!' the new arrival called out as he neared.

The Hunter shook his head, freeing himself from what seemed a waking dream. 'It was nothing, the heat of the day getting to me. Anyway, what brings you out here Game-Keeper? You know more than anyone else to leave me be.'

'Aye that I do, though these are not usual times friend,' said the Game-Keeper, at last coming to a stop and wiping the pouring sweat from his reddened brow. 'The day has come. He has arrived.'

There was no need for the Game-Keeper to expand on who exactly he meant, the Hunter knew well enough the implication. Their God had returned to his Martian Hunting Ground after twenty years of absence, ending the regency of the woodsmen adding another reason for his worsening mood.

'That's not even the worst of it old friend, for he's come to waste everyone's time in a hunt for a fairy tale creature,' the Games-Keeper continued.

'The Diamond-Eyed Lizard?'

'That’s the one. Bah! What a load of old trite. Anyway, you’ve been paid a great honour my friend, consider yourself lucky. Against my better judgement I told his officials your knowledge of these grounds is unmatched, and so they’ve seen fit to ask that you personally guide our Lord in his hunt for the bloody thing.'

'I take it there’s no chance of me refusing?' replied the other man, absentmindedly gazing back out to where he had seen the watcher.

'What do you think? In fact, I hope I’m not going find out you’ve caused trouble, am I? Because you of all people should know the consequences of displeasing a god, don’t you?'

'Of course I do.'

'Good, that’s good friend,' the Game-Keeper said, nodding slowly. 'Because if we play our cards right, well…we might just make it through this alive.'


*****



With the looming trees of the Hunting Ground pressing in on him, the Hunter forged his way beneath a sky of leaves and the tangled, labyrinthine sprawl of the undergrowth far beneath. He had spent the entirety of his life within this untamed realm, and so was privy to many secrets, its hidden regions and the strange creatures and sights they held. If the Envolator did indeed seek the Diamond-Eyed lizard, his officials couldn’t have chosen a better man.

At last, after many hours spent trekking through the wild and often unmapped tracts of land, he reached his destination, a cave set into a hill entirely concealed by the foliage of the trees, as if an intentional attempt by the forest to obscure this topographical feature. Here was the site that he'd once visited twenty years ago, driven by desperate means.

The cave appeared like any other, its entrance a dark descent into the bowels of the planet. However, in the air there hung,,,something, such a vague feeling that anyone besides the Hunter would have found difficult to explain. But there was a tell, if one paid close attention to the surrounding area. Here and there an odd plant would wither and die far too quickly, only seconds later to spring back into life again. Insects would withdraw suddenly into their natal eggs and larvae forms, whilst the berries of shrubs would ripen and fall within the blink of an eye. He knew that if he had a mirror he'd see his hair, once grey, reverted back to a long lost youthful black. Time, what could be sensed was the very slight manipulation of time. It was not a pleasant feeling, and the Hunter through a subconscious act of reassurance rested his hand upon the grip of his holstered revolver. He would have to endure far worse however in the journey ahead, for the arrival of the Envolator had left him with no other choice. It was now or never.

He started his descent into the subterranean darkness, the cave remained unassuming in its form, stone walls and dead moss hung in gathered gloom. But this state of affairs didn't last. Not long after the woodsman had left behind the light of day and sought the illumination of his torch, a perplexing and drastic change took hold. The walls of the cave became increasingly indefinable and beclouded, until they formed no less than a tunnel of cold mist. Within this smog appeared a mass of ghostly countenances, an endless collection of beings gathered from the endless span of time, cast by the creature that had ensured them into their ghostly states, so that they might prowl forevermore about the misty passage, waiting for the day their prisons must dissipate and they could rush as a torrent back into the corporal realm.

On and on amongst this haunting maelstrom he unhesitantly ventured, for he had witnessed it all before. However there came a time when from somewhere up ahead, just beyond the beam of his torch, the Hunter heard his name called in a voice that gave him pause. He shone his light about but it was like trying to spy the wind. He continued on. Then the voice called out again and this time he was sure a figure was dancing ahead; it held a familiar air, the same borne by the spectre from the forest. Through the occasional fleeting glimpse, he noticed that the apparition held the form of a woman, one that he knew too well. It took all the control he had to remain at his cautious pace, despite his conflicting feelings. The spectre couldn’t really be reached, it would always be beyond his grasp no matter how much he wished overwise, a cruel lesson learnt. No, it was simply leading him through this strange land, lest he should become lost and fail to reach the tunnel's end.

How long he would come to travel along its breadth, beneath its leering inhabitants, he couldn’t say; it felt like it had stretched on for a hundred years and more. His body started to ache and stiffen, whilst his hair turned a dusty white. One by one the teeth from his mouth dislodged and fell away and the vision in his eyes was dimmed by growing cataracts. Even his mind was not immune, growing as incapable at holding onto thoughts as an open hand is at containing flowing water. He was dying, a life that should have been lent to the span of decades was instead cursed to the passage of mere minutes. Yet still ahead that dancing figure remained unaffected in its course, and still undaunted he followed in its wake.

Then at last it was over. The spectre rounded a corner and was lost from sight. Following in its wake about the same bend he was abruptly dazzled by a flickering light, whose source was soon revealed to be the gleaming walls of a vast chamber of ice, and into which he stumbled. Abruptly he was freed of the tormenting inflictions of that harrowing journey; gone were the taunting spirits, whilst his body was restored to how it had been before. The Hunter knew then, helped by the guiding spectre, he had indeed arrived at last to the dreamlike lair known only to his memory–the mythic cave of time.

In wonder did he examine the cavern, his attention quickly drawn to its sweeping glacial roof, which was of such an ethereal quality that it shone like a marvellous and fractured heaven. From this scintillating sky fell delicate snowflakes in silver and starry form, so that it was as if an entire galaxy were descending in some beatific and lazy dance. This dance was eternal, though the icy stars themselves were ephemeral and would eventually meet and dissipate into the subterranean lake upon the cavern's floor, upon whose snowy coast the Hunter now stood. This lake was no less enchanting in its beauty, for its water shimmered strangely in the boreal colours of the roof it reflected. These vivid and shifting colours lapped at a small glacier within their centre, like a precious jewel held, upon which lounged a large and sleeping lizard, whose scales were as white as virgin snow.

The intruder for a second dared not move, afraid to disturb the silence of the cavern. Such a hallowed place was this, each footstep felt like sacrilege. But after much deliberation he was eventually able to force himself to the very edge of the anomalous lake, and so called out to the lizard across its waters.

'Oh, Great Lizard! Reptile who traverses the cyclonic eddies of time! Please hear me!' His voiced travelled far across the tranquil scene, so thoroughly in fact that the he realised that the unnatural echo of the cavern meant that there was no need to shout at all. He feared that this mistake had offended the lizard, who seemed to remain within its slumber. Then slowly its eyes opened, to reveal their diamond-like quality.

'You...I remember you, yes? I think you visited me a short time ago—or has that yet to come?' said the Lizard, it’s voice low and graceful, though sweeping over the Hunter like a shifting wave of sand.

'No Great Lizard, twenty years have passed since I last stood within this cavern.'

'Yes, I understand now. After all I remember what plagues you mammal, see that restless spirit still standing at your back. Is it really still tied to you? The last time you asked to be carried away across the impermeable gulf, to return back to when it still lived. But didn’t I refuse you? Didn’t I tell you that time was not to be used for such paltry means?'

'Yes, yes you did Great Lizard; however, this is not why I stand before you now, but rather so that we might help each other against a mutual threat, the coming of a supposed god.'

The Lizard did not react to this news, its forked tongue darted quickly as instead it regarded the human with its indecipherable reptilian gaze. 'So, it is revenge you seek, yes? I am aware of that divinity, claimer of sovereignty over a land I have dwelt upon for millennia, whose' stretching red plains and looming peaks I have watched tirelessly over. Of course, I hold this pretender in no high regard. However, if any deal is to be reached, I will require something from you troubled one.'

'Whatever it takes and whatever I have,' the mortal replied.

'Good, because what I want is no less than your soul. I see the chaos of your mind, the dark vice about your heart. It does this land no good to bear one so haunted. Once the deed is done, I seek to put that restless spirit to rest, which means your soul must be forfeited to me. Do we have an agreement, old woodsman?'

The Hunter, despite his previous bravado, found doubt begin to creep into his mind, a shaking of foundations he had believed to be firm. Could he really leave the Hunting Ground? Beneath its canopies he had found a sort of refuge, a balm to ease his wounds. But at this moment of doubt there came to him the spectre, the woman waiting in the dark. He couldn’t disappoint her, leave a promise made to her haunt unfulfilled.

'I agree Great Lizard, my soul is forfeited,' he said at last.

With the pact reached the Hunter left behind the domain of the Lizard, confident now he had the reptile’s support. He then waited patiently for his summons and was eventually called to the capital when two days had passed. There he was told that the Great Despot had shown him great distinction, as he was to wait for the Envolator’s arrival as a guest of honour amongst the planet’s elite; the governors and generals and aristocracy. By that point, much to the relief of Mar’s rulers, the arrangements for their deity's arrival had been finished, including the immeasurable parade ground out amongst the red deserts. A sea of concrete, it was so large that it could easily hold within its span the very capital of Mars itself, a settlement of millions.

The blessed day arrived at last and the guests of honour took their place upon a giant dais, meant for their god's pleasure, overlooking the oppressive grey stage. As he waited for the Envolator’s arrival, the Hunter became aware of how much he stood out amongst the notables of the planet, his woodsman's uniform was a drab affair when compared to the glittering regalia of the Martian nobles, who seemed intent on ignoring him, perhaps believing that he was no more than another attending servant. Truth be told he actually preferred it this way, being not a man of cities and their crowds; with a natural wariness he watched millions trapse from the cities and assemble along the breadth of the parade ground, strongly wishing he could sit alone by a forgotten ravine back in the deep depths of the Hunting Ground. It was, he decided with resignation, going to be an arduous and bitter day.

The sun had reached its zenith in the Martian sky when at last they were sighted, the immense carriers that would transport the Imperial Guard to the surface of the planet. Such was the size of these ships that the sun was entirely obscured as the sky was set alight with the atomic fire of their engines. What's more these were merely the auxiliary craft of the far larger starships that hung in space beyond Mar's gravitational pull, peering like inhuman metal gods. Was this the power of the Envolator then? Who could send from the heavens monolithic chariots of steel and nuclear excess?

The first of the carriers landed on the parade ground with such power that currents of air generated from their massive engines blew large amounts of sand into the waiting crowds assembled upon the parade ground's limits. Shortly afterwards a resounding groan burst outwards and the carrier's hanger doors opened, allowing the first of the Envolator’s guards to come marching out, the gallant enforcers of the tyrant splendid in their finery. The Hunter recognised them, they were the 31st Askinii Rifles, veterans of the worst fronts of the Dreaming Wars, men who had marched unflinching into the horror maw of slumbering Galmopoteph. Onwards from the gloom of their chariot, ten thousand departing from their transport, marching in perfect unison across the trembling expanse of concrete. There came more carriers, soon dispensing sweeping formations of men and war machines, the forces of a galactic wide empire laid bare; there were the scarred and battered tanks of the Venusian Armoured Division, grotesque and genetically altered Penal Legions, uncanny liquid-men of the Thurungian 601st, the hooded magi of witch-howitzers and a plethora of other units besides. Hours passed by as this army was unloaded; yet he knew it must come to an end, that eventually the figure to whom these men gave their lives must appear.

At last came the ship that carried him, daubed in Imperial insignia and bearing weapons and defence systems of dizzyingly fey design. The carrier landed with mechanical grace and from its bowels there came the bodyguard of the Envolator himself, the Monastic Knight-Guards of Saturn, bearing lethal vapour blades and insidious nightmare helms. They were the ones he would have to be careful of, the ones he would have to separate from his prey.

A deafening sound like thunder erupted fourth, was a colossal storm approaching? It shook the Hunter to his very bones, deafened him with its ponderous roar. No, he quickly realised it wasn’t a storm but the vast crowds themselves, shouting and stamping and wailing, a bedlam of human worship, a requiem like no other; this was to be the first time in twenty years they would see their ruler, their god descended from the ether. It was into this show of unrestrained reverence that the Grand Despot himself stepped, dressed in robes that shifted with the qualities of a dazzling form of coruscating gaseous material, like vapourised diamonds. Raising his arms in greeting to his subjects, the god revelled in their veneration. Flanked by the Grandmaster of the Guard-Knights and the High Marshal of the Imperial Armies, he left behind his ship and strode across the parade ground with all the self-assured confidence his divinity granted him, past the lines of waiting soldiers and beneath a forest of banners from a thousand worlds; his destination was the dais of course. The rulers of Mars clapped frantically; a hysteric fit had overcome them, in the eyes of many even tears ran freely. Such was the spell that had overcome them that a general actually collapsed, his devotion had driven him to faint. The Hunter meanwhile stood impassive, refusing to clap nor cry for a murderer, no matter their godly pretence. Within his veins a deeply held anger seethed as long-corroding venom, a malaise treated no longer by the panacea of the woodland refuge he named home, and so was released from dismaying and intramural hollows memories that came rushing forward like some primordial, ravening thing.

...her death throes shown to billions, an example had to be made, her face turned purple as she clawed at the hands of her executioner, the edicts of the God were to be upheld…

'And you must be my guide to the Hunting Ground, the one who will lead me to my prey,' came a voice, it drifted through to the Hunter like choking smoke. He came back to reality and found himself face to face with the visage of his foe; Envolator, ruler of the cosmos.

'Yes...Great One, I hope not to disappoint,' he replied quickly, cursing himself for allowing his emotions to get the better of him.

'I’m sure you won’t dear old servant, I have heard you are the best in all the land, the Envolator laughed, a seemingly innocuous enough action. Yet the Hunter’s senses were keen. In the deep depths of the Hunting Ground, he had met many dangerous creatures, fiends that glowered from the undergrowth with calculating, dangerous eyes. The Envolator had the same feature, eyes that did little to conceal an inherent savagery, a rot never answered. Such was the potency of those eyes he almost reached for the hip where his revolver would have been, had he not wisely left it back at the grounds.

He swiftly regained his composure, what was he thinking? To shoot the tyrant now? Before the mass of soldiers and civilians? To do so would have been to invite a fate worse than death, there was no doubt; he would have been dragged away to the flesh-vats of some unnamed and unmapped world, to be shaped into a monstrosity that could sense only pain, only think on nightmares designed by Imperial dream-shapers, living an unbearable existence for a thousand years. No, just like any hunt, he needed to keep a clear head and a steady trigger finger, the time would come, it was clear now that despite commanding the powers of a god, the Grand Despot was no more than a man of flesh. The trap would be sprung and all those who had suffered would be avenged.


*****



It was believed that the Envolator would tour Mars and her cities, pay witness to the tributes that her people had prepared for him; however, the ruler of the cosmos had other plans. He sent officials to gather the red planet’s riches and pay-lip service of their Lord's gratitude, whilst he and his courtiers prepared themselves for the true reason they had travelled across the gulf of space.

The Grand Despot brought to the Hunting Ground a sizable retinue of a hundred aristocrats and guards, a great mass of men who were soon blundering through the forest in their silks and jewels, scaring any sensible creature within ten miles away. The whole affair did the Hunter’s tempers no good; the only comfort the old woodsman could find was that every step the god took into the wild land, the closer he was drawn towards his own end. Great care would still be needed however, as the Envolator was always flanked by two members of the knight-guards, their grotesque helms a constant reminder that as long as such fatal designs were held towards their ward, he was in just as much danger as his lofty prey. It was after all rumoured that these warrior monks held sorcerous powers; that they could read the ill intentions within a man’s heart. Of course, there was no indication that they really did hold such magic, but their well-earned martial prowess ensured they were not to be trifled with at any cost.

The shade of dusk had started to gather when he found himself caught within an exchange with the Despot. Since the start of the hunting expedition he had been able to escape with no more than a few pleasantries and exchanges with the Envolator, as the god had been more occupied with finding game than speaking with his servants. But the woodsman was unpleasantly surprised when his Lord had idled alongside him, intent on striking up a conversation.

'Is this not fun old guide? The thrill of the hunt at last. Usually I prefer my Venusian territories, as the creatures there are far more deadly and freakish in their character. But recently those delightful tales of that Diamond-Eyed Lizard have reached me and incited an interest I have not felt for quite a while. My how unusual, a creature that can supposedly alter the flow of time. Never have I heard of such an ability, not in all the span of my endless realm. Please, tell me they are true?'

'Yes my liege, they are indeed true. I’ve even seen the creature myself, with a body like white gold and eyes that seem of the heavens—it truly is a marvellous creature to behold. Actually, it was in this region no less, which is why I have brought you and your fellows so far, as I’m sure in no time the creature will show itself.'

'Excellent! Because I’d be very disappointed if my trip to this planet were wasted; it does no good to waste a deity’s time. You see it is precious to me, despite how immeasurable it must seem to mortals like yourself. Such is the curse of a divine life, one very soon grows bored and indolent, and so I must dedicate myself towards the exploration of sensations, to the beguiling extremities the universe can offer. In my opinion hunting is one such extremity, the mastery it offers over a creature’s existence, to see its life drain from wounds inflicted…to watch a body in its death convulsions is comparable to no other. Surely you of all people understand? I will profess to holding an appreciation for your skills in the art of dealing death. Old man, perhaps you have advice to give your God?'

'Oh, great god,' began the Hunter; his voice was steady, his words were firm. 'Despite your infinite wisdom I think you misjudge. My abilities come not from a domineering bloodlust, derived from an insulated and conceited mind: but rather through hard toil persuaded by a desire to see that this rich and teeming land, the cradle of generations, might benefit in harmony from the order that I must keep through needful culling; such is the genesis of a righteous and warranted stewardship, secured from the perverse inflictions of tyranny.'

And then as suddenly as it had started the laughter did stop, and the Great Despot gazed upon his subject with cold, calculating eyes. 'What do you know of such things? You are no more than a trifling worm, a mere man who knows nothing of rulership,' he said in a low and barbed tone. 'You forget your place, were it not for my need of you at this time I would have my guardians drag you away, to a fate your diminutive mind could not possibly contemplate. But as it is your talents will see you through at least my time upon these Hunting Ground, though after that…. who is to say?' The Hunter met his gaze calmly; the time had come he decided. Quickly he turned his attention away from the Envolator, to the bushes ahead and where there appeared moments later a coat of gleaming white scales, and a set of reptilian eyes like miniature stars.

'There! Do you see it?'

'Ha--ha, yes! I see you beast! You will not escape me!' the Envolator cried, all thoughts of confrontation with apparently forgotten. Quickly he pulled his laser-revolver free and chased after the reptile, which had disappeared back into the darkness and undergrowth of the forest. The Hunter followed after him, the knight-guards in turn quickly at his heels.

But it was at this point that a strange anomaly struck. An odd sense of distortion swept through the forest, and everyone at that time and at that place felt their perceptions warped and sense of reality become unanchored. Every member of the hunting party, besides the Envolator and his pursuer, felt time slow to an interminable crawl, a tortuous passage where an action as simple as a footstep threatened to stretch for eons. Meanwhile for the two exempt the complete opposite happened, for time instead became a grotesquely fleeting thing; man and god were set as helpless driftwood carried off upon a bewildering deluge, whisked along a incorporeal and mystifying route that saw their surroundings blur and fade beneath a disorienting and rapid succession of light and darkness, the suns and moon and stars passing by in seconds. As this happened the Hunter fought to keep the Envolator within sight, battling with all his might against the irresistible current of time, lest he be swept away to some distant age far separated from his own. It was with relief when at last reality began to restore itself around him, and the swift progression of time began to slow until his own movement was regained and the world fixed itself back in place.

The old man glanced about, much to his surprise and relief it seemed that he was still within the Hunting Ground. Familiar trees rose above him and to his ears there came the comforting melodies of its birds. Somehow there was a slight difference, before the arrival of the lizard and its spell late evening had reigned, the sun had nearly disappeared beneath the treeline of the woods and the gloom of nightfall had been starting to gather between the trees. Yet now, rather than its decline, the sun was instead beginning to clamber to its zenith, peeking over the top of forest and sending a pleasant outpouring of midday light across the land. So, it was not a question of where but rather when. Was he in the past or future? Perhaps around him there stood the virgin forests of Mars in their primordial youth, not long after it had first been planted by his ancestors hundreds of years ago? Or was he instead at a point in time following the disappearance of the Envolator, amongst an order free at last from his baleful influence? As for the tyrant himself, the Hunter could see no sign of him, and for a moment he feared having lost his foe. But as if to answer this question there came from past the trees before him a commotion. Quickly he made towards the sound, soon finding himself in a clearing in the woods, noticeably bucolic through the gathering of lilies that had grown within. This sight for once did not interest him, instead his attention was fixed on the Envolator at last, who stood within the centre of this glade, revolver brandished and a confused look upon his features.

'Woodsman! I’m glad you’re here. Just what in the world did that fiend do? It felt as if I were pulled and twisted about a great and winding tunnel of rushing air. You weren’t able to shoot the damn beast, were you?' he said, turning to meet his guide and returning the brandished revolver back to its holster, never once believing his servant could ever dare wish him harm.

'This is no longer about the lizard, tyrant,' replied the Hunter, shaking his head and aiming his own weapon at the living god. 'I made a bargain with the reptile, who you so recklessly sought. He would separate you from your guards, from your army and zealots, so that I could face you alone.' At this the Envolator laughed again, unfazed by the circumstances he was ensnared in.

'What is the meaning of this? Have you given yourself over to madness? It would seem so, to make a bargain with some infernal beast against your god is insanity. Come now, show me the way back to my hunting party and I shall overlook such a crude joke. See I am merciful, am I not?'

'Twenty years ago, the execution of a Martian woman was shown upon the cosmic nexus, billions no doubt watched as she was strangled to death. Do you know for what crime she was executed in such a matter?' replied the Hunter, ignoring his lord's demand.

'Do you recall every fallen leaf crushed beneath your straying boot? Though godly I may be, the blood of heretics has rightfully run too freely for me to recall every single traitor killed by my order.'

'One of your arbitrary edicts, that was the cause,' his foe continued. 'She loved the Hunting Ground, often accompanying me into its depths, so that she might see its beauty with the man she loved. But then you did decree that your personal territories were sacred ground, and all those who had no business upon them an apostate of high order. By the time she found out it was already too late, her actions were discovered and she was dragged away to your bloodthirsty shows.'

Slowly, deliberately, the Envolator's lips allowed a smile. 'Now that you mention it, I believe I do remember her. A comely woman, my how she did scream and struggle, daemon that she was to commit such a sacrilege. But tell me, she must have meant a lot to you to inspire the will to defy a God?'

'She was my wife,,,' uttered the Hunter, making no effort to disguise his pain.

'All this for a spouse who died two decades ago? I do not know if you knew this, but there are plenty of other women out there, ones who no doubt would have surpassed your wife in beauty. I should know, I have within my harem ten thousand women, perhaps I could even gift you one—if you were to lead me back to my guards that is?'

'No! This ends now! I will see your reign come to end, for I accuse you no more than a petty tyrant, an insidious welt upon the galaxy. I will put you down not just through the vengeance I desire for my wife, but for the countless others who have suffered beneath your boot. Do you hear me monster? Do you really believe that you are going to leave this Hunting Ground alive? Are you that mad?'

'It is you who are mad, heretic! I am a God! My visage is known and recreated in simulacrums across the cosmos, upon my word lives are enriched and lost, the adulation of trillions pours upon me like rain and I command as many armies as there are stars in the night sky. No, I see you for what you are heretic, a usurper. You covet my divine status; you wish ascension and power to corrupt my world and give it over to your demonic vision. I understand clearly now, Arch-Traitor!'

'I covet nothing of your life, false God. It is on the blood and bones and tears of your subjects that your image is placed, you speak of adulation but it is a false and vapid sort, brought about through fear and pain rather than love and compassion, and though the heroism of your soldiers is known throughout the galaxy, it is a heroism despite your ignoble falsehood, that deceives and drives once descent men to callousness and slaughter. It is I who understand tyrant! Power and vanity have left you no more than a hollow man, whose every being rests solely upon the riches you ill-deserve, whose sense of self relies entirely upon the praise of those with a gun pointed at their back. Your divinity is a farce, foolish man!'

'What nonsense!' the tyrant spat.

The Hunter’s gaze fell to the Envolator’s holstered revolver, a thought came to him and he returned his own weapon to his hip. 'If you’re so convinced what I say is nonsense, then why don’t we put that to the test? On the count of three I am again going to pull out my revolver and try to kill you--likewise, I expect you to do the same. If what you claim is true, then your divinity will protect you from my gunfire, whilst guiding your own revolver straight and true. What say you, deity, is it not time to smite me for my insolence?'

There, was that a flash of fear upon the ruler’s face? The aura of his power had been enough before but this was different, the mortal who stood before him did not cower or tremble, did not avert his eyes or quickly prostrate at his feet. No… no, the greatest sages of the galaxy had proclaimed his ascension and across the entirety of his celestial empire men dared to whisper his mere name, lest their words reach into the heavens. This heretic would learn his place, he would see to it with all the powers he could bring to bear.

'So be it, may your soul be damned once this over.'

Thereafter silence fell across the two, the lilies swayed gently about their feet and all around the songs of the birds sounded, it was to their melody this showdown would play out; would God or Man die this day?

'One!' he began. Through the haze of distant memory came the Hunting Ground, their verdant depths shimmering within the heat of the Martian summer. It bore a mantle of colours, a fever dream of coalescing scenes. He walked arm in arm with her; through glades and beneath stretching leafed canopies, along winding woodland paths and between rolling emerald hills. It had all seemed so everlasting, that sweet summer day.

'Two!'

Why could he not see her clearly? Had it been so long ago? No, he realised, he could see her before him now. Her eyes were the blooming wildflowers, her touch the caress of the gentle breeze, her voice the song of carefree birds and her form the curves of the meandering becks. The roots of the Hunting Ground were timeless, the Envolator a fleeting creature; his great starships would rust away and his armies fade and part. His riches would be cast to the wind and his name fed and lost to the span of time. But within the Hunting Ground she would live on, as the undergrowth of the forest grew to obscure the bones of her murderer.

'Three!' The Envolator’s hand shot for his weapon, frantically he tried to pull it free from its holster. But the revolver caught and wouldn’t come loose, no matter how desperately he tugged. As he stood there powerless, a realisation as cold as the void of space came upon him. The colour drained from his face, his eyes widened and sweat ran from his brow. Slowly he glanced back up towards the other man, finding his foe’s weapon was already aimed at him.

'P...please...' he began, before a flash of blinding red light filled the clearing and the birds flew to escape its hiss. With such force did the weapon’s searing bolt hit him, the Envolator was thrown past the treeline, his corpse crashing through branches and undergrowth, to land unseen amongst the fallen leaves and scurrying insects.

The Hunter holstered his weapon, such was the silence that had fallen across the forest now he was reminded of ancient stories about lands of the dead, where souls so recently departed descended to find a land devoid of entirely of sound, where even their darkening thoughts were stifled by the uncanny spell. Just where had that lizard taken him?

There came the sound of movement at his back. Turning about, he found himself confronted with his wife, who stood now within the shade of the trees. Her eyes were closed and her body was still, as if she were nothing but a statue.

'Elizabeth?' he said tentatively, his voice no more than a whisper. Caught within a stupor he made to embrace her, to take her within his arms.

Then her eyes opened at last.

They revealed those of a reptile, as bright as diamonds too. Once more he felt reality shift and time wracked with palpitations. The Hunting Ground faded painfully away, for he discovered himself to be sinking into those cold, inhuman eyes. An extremely bitter wind swept over his body, quickly tearing it apart until he was nothing more than his own naked soul. Then came the seeping, cold mist—rapidly consuming even this fragment. The Hunter suspected he knew where it was all taking him, but despite this he felt an odd sense of relief. It was finally over, at last the spirit of his wife could sleep beneath its lush shroud forevermore.



THE END


2021 Benjamin Davison

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