Death's Entitlement

Death's Entitlement

A Chapter by ColdMan

Chapter One: Death’s Entitlement

          There are no such things as heroes, only fools in pursuit of their own ends. Those were the words Sigurd’s mentor had beaten into him with the end of a shillelagh and a tone just as cudgel like. It was not a pointless lesson, as it turned out. Past the breaches in the maelstrom, the words hero and martyr were typically synonyms. Yet in spite of the words screaming at Sigurd from the inside of his head, he found himself continuing on with a valiant, yet fruitless attempt to staunch a dying girl’s bleeding.

          Every second he wasted staining his hands with crimson ichor, was one he could be using to get away from whatever had done the damage and, judging by the wound, it was big. Both of his hands could not properly apply pressure to the injury. Looking more closely, it was probably something with powerful jaws of serrated teeth, and with unslaked hunger seeing how its prey had gotten away from it. Every instinct from Sigurd’s training and mental conditioning was telling him to get up and run for it. His body remained frozen in place and his mouth gibbered out in repetition like a parrot.

          “You’re going to be alright, just hang in there. You’re going to be alright, just hang in there.” The words probably were not reaching her though. Besides the shock and the rapid loss of blood, Sigurd doubted she could even understand the words he spoke. Her copper tinted skin and her white and black uniform gave her away as another nation’s operative, an enemy on most days, but a victim of brutal circumstance today.

Why are you here? Sigurd wondered to himself as his hands worked to clot the wound. He was not anywhere close to another pillar as far as the map back in his captain’s wardroom was concerned. The nearest piece of civilization was hundreds of miles away, and yet there was a girl here against all odds. 

          He had found her in a similar position just a few paces from where her body now rested. In a moment of stupidity, the frightened young breach diver had decided to try and move her. If the screams of agony she gave out as he picked her up had not attracted some monster of the depths, the further screams from when Sigurd had dropped her out of surprise must have. Justification for leaving her behind was as plentiful as the foliage of the jungle around him, but he was beyond his mind’s own callous attempts at reason.

          She was a pretty thing, was, being the crux of the statement. Her entire side was torn up from just below the navel all the way up to the bottom of her breast. Sigurd had never seen a person die. He had seen the aftermath of death out in the wilds and heard the anguished deaths of other breach divers off in the distance, but now that he saw the tendrils of death creeping around the girl's throat like the encroaching vines of the surrounding wilds, each breath growing tighter and more pained, there was no looking away. Her eyes looked up at Sigurd, welling with absolute despair. She knew all too well it was her place to die in the depths far from home with only the comforting sensations being a voice she had no way of understanding. In her emerald eyes, Sigurd saw the fiction of life. The same fiction he had learned as the names on the Wall of Heroes expanded with each foray away from civilization.  Life is just a fleeting dream, before a long black sleep. This girl would be sleeping soon, sooner than she deserved given her adolescent appearance. Even so, when he looked at the girl’s grimaced face and splayed-out onyx hair, it was as if his hands moved on their own in an effort to save a life. Given the disposition of the wilds, that feat was becoming more untenable with each passing heartbeat.

          Troubling sounds had eliminated from all around them for quite a while; a concern Sigurd could not force himself to ignore, even while trying to keep his focus elsewhere. Struggle as he might to keep them glued to the wound’s treatment, his eyes wandered in a search for a predator still concealed by the jungle’s growth. The metronomic sounds of rushed human breaths, the rustling of brush, and winds dancing through the canopies all worked to obscure the direction of the heavy-set footfalls that were growing louder in Sigurd’s ear. The mere fact he was hearing the thing coming was bad enough, causing anxiety to start to well in the man’s throat, what was worse was the increasing panic the girl had in her eyes. She knew Sigurd would leave her when it came down to her life or his. If only Sigurd knew.

Collective dread thickened the air like the jungle’s mists as Sigurd refocused his concerns completely on the girl before him. The faster the work went, the more likely the two of them would both manage to survive the ordeal, but even if he got her stabilized before the horror of the wilds was upon them, the girl's survival was still in the hands of a higher power.  He had payed enough attention during first aid instructions to know she had lost an awful lot of blood, meaning with each passing grain of the hourglass her death became more and more undeniable. It looked painful to be sure, the wound was as jagged and vicious as it was large. If it were a solid gash like the bite of an axe or a sword it would be one thing, but this looked as if a mass of teeth had torn away at the flesh. If only I had something to numb you from the world. It was his silent wish to allow her to retreat back into the recesses of her mind if only to escape from this living hell, but he carried no drugs of any sort. Hell, the extent of his trauma kit was a roll of bandages and a metal pin to hold them in place. Sigurd was a picket after all, meaning he was just meant to keep an eye on the perimeter and call out any incoming threats while avoiding them himself. The nearest person with a good set of medical supplies was Danthia, and she was at the salvage sight around 150 meters to the East. At that moment a word of wisdom materialized itself in Sigurd’s head, coming to him via the voice of his mentor. Where there is no tenable position, movement is life.

          “Don’t-” he began, in yet another pointless attempt to put the girl at ease. The rest of the words vanished from Sigurd’s mouth in an instant as he watched the girl’s weak movements. Her arm drifted down to her belt causing Sigurd’s heart to sink as if it had been cast into the abyss. It must have been painful to tug at her belt, but she was able to draw a dagger that Sigurd had overlooked. With so much pain and terror in the girl, it was not hard to imagine that the girl might lash out at Sigurd. As his time in the infirmary back home had taught him, the sick and wounded were rarely ever in their right mind. Sigurd might have actually chuckled if the girl had gone and pointed the dagger at him. Such a spectacle in the face of death and unknown dangers would have helped to put the trooper’s mind at ease, but the sight before his eyes pained him.

          Rather than hold the dagger firmly by the hilt so she could slash out at him, the sheen of a blade could be seen beneath her thin little fingers. The girl’s mouth let loose some words Sigurd had no way of knowing, yet they defiled the air like a noxious miasma. Despite the barrier of language, the declaration was more then just vocal. Sigurd could read the missive hidden in the depths of those emerald eyes. End this misery, don’t leave me to suffer.

          He wrapped his own fingers around the blade’s hilt, uncertain of what he was going to do with it. His mind wracked itself over, trying to figure out how he could get out of this situation. Killing someone was a chastity the world had yet forced him to deflower. This was only Sigurd’s third excursion into the wilds beneath the maelstrom, but he had already seen so much consternation and loss. He had rent lives free from the mortal coil sure on missions prior, however, none of those things were human, or at his mercy. To kill the beasts of the wilds he had exhausted every bit of muscle, all of his guile, and an extreme amount of skill. Any bit of hesitation and Sigurd would have been just another decrepit piece of carrion rotting without even the sanctity of a shallow grave. This was different.

          The girl posed no threat to him other than her existence being an unneeded distraction and her injured form bait for any predator that caught the exquisite scent of blood in the air. Making her death peaceful and painless would be as simple as nicking the correct artery, but the efficacy of something had little to do with the ethical ramifications of actually going through with it. To kill her, even as a mercy, would still be a murder in Sigurd’s eyes if not in the eyes of his god. Seeing how the girl was also a pillar dweller, and most of the pillars worshiped the same god with similar enough doctrines; the destruction of the self was a sin most significant, even more so than the destruction of others. If she were to kill herself it might mean damnation for her immortal soul. As for Sigurd’s soul, the man had little interest in its emancipation unto the heavens or its fall into hell. While he had cut his teeth reading the words of the faith, he knew his soul was not a part of God’s plan, rather being apart from it entirely. Regardless of his prescribed afterlife, the concept of killing someone even if she was begging for death, would stain his hands in a way no amount of water and justification could ever hope of washing away.

          Finally, something came along to help mediate Sigurd’s dilemma, but its form of mediation would be the brutal killing of both pillar dwellers so that it might feast. From the tall plant life of the jungle floor, it bounded as it chased down the trail of its already wounded prey. What immaculate form the living machine of death took. Claws like knives tore at the dirt allowing the creature’s strong as steel yet lean musculature to pull it forward like an uncoiling spring. In an instant, yellow and black slited eyes, like two piercing lamps, as well as a feline like head behind them, were closing in on the pillar dwellers. It was a creature Sigurd recognized from his briefing, a strych leopard the size of a person and then some. What was worse was it was a tier three predatory species, which meant they were a Kill’em Dead according to the slang of the Expeditionary Core. For a tier three predator, you either killed them on sight or better be prepared to take some losses.

          Strych leopards were extremely well suited for causing losses. Sigurd was not caught completely off guard by the predator, but at the same time, his options were quite limited. The Expeditionary Core did not send out their troops lightly armed. Sigurd was well enclosed within pieces of plate mail, bits of chain mail, and thick leather in a few other places. The soldier’s long dark hair was the only helmet he wore on his head. Next to it was his spear jammed into the ground so that it would be easy to grab when something got close, but now it seemed just out of reach.

          The knife sliced through the air decent enough for something that was not specifically a throwing knife, but it did not matter all that much. It impacted the leopard’s head at a bad angle, glancing off and not even drawing any blood. The blow did not even phase the creature as it continued rushing towards Sigurd and the girl before it left the ground to lunge for the kill. Strych leopards were naturally large creatures, but this appeared to be a smaller member of the species. Its black form with yellow spots appeared to be the size of a large child, but that was not of much comfort. With just a hairsbreadth between a hooked claw and Sigurd’s fair skinned face, the trooper was able to barely stumble out of the way of the creature’s first attack. He eyed the spear, wondering if he could grab it before it came at him again. Wishful thinking. It would not do him any good regardless. The leopard was practically on top of him, and the spear’s added reach would have given him no advantage. Instead, the solider went for the scabbard at his side and drew his short sword. It was not a very elegant or fearsome weapon, but it was reliable and light. In his offhand was a decent sized buckler which he had grabbed from next to where the girl lay as he dodged. He kept close to the dying girl so the thing would not attack her in her defenseless state. The leopard’s fight was with Sigurd, and if it wanted a meal it would have to work for it.

          Again, it came at him. With claws out at full display, it swung wildly. It tried once again to catch Sigurd in the face, but the solider was ready. He raised his buckler, batting away the attack in a display of strength and speed. It was a miscalculation of sorts. While the cat was only an animal, the beast had a feral cunning all its own. The claws had been blocked, but that only meant it could use the deadliest armament in its arsenal to full effect. An array of sharp teeth came rushing towards Sigurd, who had no way of blocking them with his buckler now. As quickly as his arm could manage, he swung his sword up towards the things face, catching it before it reached him, but only managing to smack it with the blunt side of his blade. Had his reflexes been a single hourglass grain slower, Sigurd would have died a torturous death.

 The thing’s head reeled back in pain causing it to yowl out in surprise. Laced on that yowl was the scent of death and that which made the strych leopard so deadly. Its fangs were imbued with a powerful toxin that could paralysis a grown man from even a single drop. From there the beast would be able to consume their prey at leisure. Sigurd, however, had no interest in allowing either himself or the dying girl to become anything else’s meal.

          He began to slash at it in broad strokes; the creature shying away from the blows each time. Slowly but surely, the solider began to make headway in the fight. It was on the defensive, and with each dodged blow he was getting the creature further and further away from the girl. All he needed to do to finish the fight was land a blow and send it running back to its den with its tail between its legs. The jungle had other plans of course.

          Behind him, Sigurd once again heard the familiar sound of brush being trampled. God, not another one. It was too late to pray. In the darkness beneath the maelstrom, light was warped and corrupted by the ever-present clouds above. Simply put, God’s mercy could not reach those already in the purgatory of the wilds.

          From the corner of his eyes, he saw it lurch into existence. A massive dark shape pushed through the foliage into the clearing. Sigurd hazarded a moment to glare over fully at what had arrived and could only feel despair at the reality of his rotten luck.

          The massive creature was one all members of the Expeditionary Core would recognize and fear. It sat high on its six armored legs, each one black and onyx in shade as the next. With their stride came inevitable death. Its form was that of an insectolith, one of the many species of massive insects that dominated all the world's temperate and tropical lands. This particular specimen was perhaps the most dangerous this corner of the world had to offer. Its name hung lips of dozens of the Expeditionary Core’s Troopers as they died, Ashcrown Flailtail. Its motions were a march of rhythmic dread, shoving the jungle and its flora aside in its lone procession. On its body were massive plates of black chitin armor that made up an indomitable exoskeleton unassailable to most of humanity’s weapons. In front of it were two massive claws the creature would use to snap its prey into pieces so they might consume them with ease, but even they were not the creature’s primary means of killing. Its body tapered back and grew thinner until it reached the end of its abdomen. There its body split off into seven similarly sized tails each with an elongated barb as big as Sigurd’s spearhead. Each was flexible enough so that it could jap at the more exposed portions of their prey and the creature had a mind that allowed to move independently of one another. While it was not the fastest of creatures if one of them moved in on an objective, then slaughter was certain to follow. It was for that reason that ashcrown’s were avoided whenever possible. In this case, Sigurd knew there would be no avoiding this creature.

          It was not yet on top of him, unlike another predator. The strych leopard knew better than to take on an insectolith three times its size, but its hunger pains remained. With a renewed furry, it pounced at Sigurd; knowing if it did not secure its kill quickly it would lose any claim it once had to it. Avoiding the leopard proved to be impossible this time around. It was too close and too quick, so when the beast lept from the ground it struck the solider with a solid blow against his chest. Had Sigurd not been wearing his armor his guts would have undoubtedly been torn from him in that very moment, but instead the solider was only treated to the painful noise of the beast’s claws scrapping against metal. Still, while his mind panicked as it became overwhelmed by the creature before him and the monster almost upon him, his body moved on its own. Reacting automatically to the strike, his arm flung out on its own. The sound of metal thudding against meat and bone filled Sigurd’s ears as the recoil of the strike vibrated uncomfortably in Sigurd’s knuckles and wrist.

          When the creature had attacked him, it got its head too close to Sigurd’s sword arm for an effective strike. Instead, he had slammed the metallic edge of his buckler straight into the side of the thing’s skull. Judging from the sound alone that had to have hurt it, and when the beast’s legs gave out from beneath it a second later, he knew the damage was done. In all likelihood, the wound was less than fatal, but it did not need to be.

          As for the oncoming ashcrown, Sigurd was not quite so willing to go up against the creature. He rather enjoyed not being dead and wanted to keep it that way. His heavy booted feet tore across the thick layer of decaying leaf layer beneath him, kicking up soil particulates in his wake. As fast as he was, the ashcrown was almost within a tails length and if it stabbed down at her, then she would know doubt become its meal. The millstone of life grinds ever onward. Sigurd reminded himself. No one would blame him if he turned tail and ran. He owed the girl nothing and the monster before him was more of a natural disaster on legs than a foe to be overcome. He had no intention of dying as a martyr or living as a hero, but to simply survive the day feeling more human than when the day began.

          He managed to get to the girl just a moment ahead of the insectolith, getting  an unwanted close up view of why it was called it an ashcrown for his trouble. Its chitin body was all black save for a single circular patch around the creature’s eyes which sat on the top of its head, almost as if it wore a crown of ash.

          In that gray hue, Sigurd could see nothing but his own death rapidly approaching. His hands darted down like a bird of prey’s talons into an unsuspecting fish. The girl gasped aloud before letting out a howl of pain, it was not the monster’s stingers that made her call out, rather the simple act of being dragged along the ground was just as painful as the alternative.

          While Sigurd was moving at a decent pace, he had the dread realization he was not moving fast enough to outpace the creature. Yet as he moved another few meters, it stayed just far enough that its tails could not reach. A new wave of horror washed over Sigurd making his face shift towards a sickly white. Its toying with us. It could kill us at its pleasure, but instead its pleasuring itself on the thrill of the pursuit. He knew better than to think that thrill would last long. Still, he retreated, having no other options but, to buy himself just a bit more time. What he would do with that time, he could not know. He gazed down at his sheathed sword and the buckler at his side, thinking about the tools at his disposal which is when he saw the fine engraving on his greaves and embraced the last tools of last resort he had been given.

          The odd legends and tall tales that permeated around the dying hearths of the Pillar folk often had tales of magics and arcane knowledge being used to thwart monsters and tyrants, but the real world, the hell that Sigurd dwelt in had no such manifestations of chaos. Power came from order, and there was nothing more ordered than the metalwork of his kind. Every inch of Sigurd’s armor, weapons, and tools was covered in etching and filigree that served to make the impossible more tangible.

          He shifted his grip on the girl, not wanting to stop moving, but also freeing up his off hand. Using his teeth, he pried a small metallic cap from a forward-facing tube on his bracer. A little cord trailed out with it extending to about two feet before coming taut. Finally, he stopped. Sigurd was hot, tired, and drenched in sweat. The few parts of his body that did feature exposed skin were covered in bumps from biting insects. He just wanted to get back to his claustrophobic bunk on the Merciless Wrath and collapse into a black dreamless sleep, but some god damn oversized bug and an inconsiderate mystery girl that just had to start dying in Sigurd’s patrol area were ruining all that for him. There was bad luck and then there was Sigurd’s luck, but hell what did it matter anyway, everyone has got to die someday, today was not his day.

          The beast took an unrelenting step forward, ready to savor the kill. A pull of the cord and Sigurd’s world ignited with crimson flames. He did not know what was in the small tube, but he knew when he tugged on that cord it created a fireball of decent size as its contents sucked in fresh oxygen and flint met steel. Having nowhere to go but forward the flames leaped at the insectoid monstrosity like a pernicious imp being loosed from the bowls of hell. The thing hissed in surprise and anguish, retreating back to what it felt was a safe distance.

          Flames were one of humanity’s few friends in the world of endless terrors. It allowed for complicated tasks like the forging and alloying metals for tools. For more simple tasks of heating homes, cooking food, and allowing for a light even in the darkest of places there was no better tool. Fire, however, was a fair-weather friend at best. All too often fire would burn the flesh so that it might hideously scar, its heat uncontrollable. Fire’s insatiable hunger had been the culprit in the destruction of thousands of humanity’s creations, bringing low all manner of homes and monuments alike. It was that ravenous hunger that those in Sigurd’s line of work relied upon, but also gave them a reason to doubt. Flame was one of the few things most creatures feared instinctively; the emphasis being on most. There was a small minority of horrors that would be drawn to any sign of flames, and it was for that reason Sigurd had been so stingy with the flame thus far. Then again, being trapped in the blazing heat and smoke of a forest fire would not be all that helpful either. There were still another two capped charges at the ready, and Sigurd had no doubt he would need them.

          Lugging a what must have been near a hundred pounds of pain and suffering was no easy feat as the terrain away from the clearing grew more and more difficult to surmount. The floor of the jungle was a fight for what little sunlight could shine through the canopy, so even the undergrowth grew tall. Thistles, pickers, and thick scrub made it a harsh ever more painful journey. It was two hundred meters to the breach point at most, but that did not make things seem any easier for Sigurd. Luckily enough, there was enough prey to pull the ashcrown’s attention away. The Strych Leopard had yet to finish fully recovering from the earlier blow Sigurd had managed to hit it with. It tried with all its might to rise back to its feet only to fall back to the ground once more, its head remaining in far too much pain. There was no escape for the creature as the ashcrown’s focus shifted onto it. Sigurd averted his eyes from the ghastly consequences of his continued survival, well aware of how easily fate baited and switched the positions of its playthings. The savage yowl of a beast crying its last could be heard echoing off the jungle’s towers of living wood before it to was washed away by the chorus of songbirds and insects. Death always gets its due.

          The path continued deeper through a resplendent bath of greens and browns as the jungle’s vegetation became increasingly engorged. The girls face finally broke from its cycle of pained expressions and tears into the blissful agony of unconsciousness. He had hoped she would have passed out sooner if only to ease her suffering, but he made sure to check her weakening pulse with regularity.

          “Don’t worry,” Sigurd said with as empathetic a tone as he could muster, “We’re almost out.”

          It had been a tough day, and all Vetti could think about was the meal awaiting him as soon as he got back to the Merciless Wrath. The mess always broke out the best of the dried meats and canned greens, making sure there would always be enough for leftovers no matter how many plates the returning troops managed to devour. He wished he could see the ship overhead, but the maelstrom, as it typically did, kept the fleet obscured. He hated those grey clouds above, always adding a depressing mood to any missions to the surface. Getting to see the azure that lay beyond those clouds would be a real treat too, but he was still stuck in the hell that lay below.

          “How many more do you think are coming?” Dante asked curiously. He had been standing quietly staring out into the surrounding jungle until that point, catching Vetti and his daydreams off guard. The smile on his face would have been infectious if Vetti was not in such a horrid place. With exsanguinating heat, biting insects, and death hiding behind every leaf and vine there was no lack of things to hate, but Dante seemed as unaffected as he ever was. Locks of black hair pouring out from beneath his brimmed steel helmet and his large blue eyes gave him a downright childlike appearance.

          “How would I know?” Vetti grumbled, pushing a hand through the tangle of blonde threads that sat above his scalp. He was by far one of the more senior members of the Expeditionary Core’s members sent out on this mission being nearly twenty-six, but his volatile temperament and insignificant bloodline relegated him no real position of privilege. After all, he was relegated to the role of a rearguard for one of the exfiltration sights. Alongside him was a one of the younger members of the Core. At only age sixteen, Vetti had a whole decade on his companion, but what Dante lacked in age he made up for in gusto. The idiot had actually volunteered to be a member of the rearguard after all. It was a simple job, defend the ascension pullies with their lives until everyone made it back or it was decided that whoever was yet to make it back would never make it back.

          By that point, a messenger tube had already descended down one of the pullies’ cables, letting the pair know the main salvage crew had made it back abroad and the pickets were in the process of being recalled. Three of the pickets had thus far made it back, but two remained, so Vetti and Dante remained.

          Movement in the jungle once again drew the attention of the two men who fell behind the sights of their crossbows. The two soldiers were ever away of the dangers the wilds held. Every snap of a twig and crunch of a leaf could be a monstrous beast lurking just beyond sight with every intention of killing them in the cruelest of ways. As afraid as Vetti was, there was a certain excitement in the air as tense as the strings their bolts were knocked in. The hunt, even if dangerous, got the heart beating and the blood pumping in a way few things could. Vetti’s Brown eyes twitched as the looked for a target, moving faster and faster as the clamber of footfalls drew closer. No predator emerged from the shadows, however, only a man dressed in a similar gray garb as the attentive crossbowmen.

          “Really? Do you intend to shoot me after I had to trek all this way?” A perturbed man’s voice called out as Vetti and Dante lowered their weapons a little too late for comfort. He looked similar in age to Dante, but the stubble on his face spoke to a least a bit more maturity. His eyes were like two green fields encircled by moats of milk, but they were ones Vetti could not place. He was never the best with faces, and the Expeditionary Core had a nasty habit of cycling through familiar faces.

          “Lisha, Karl, and Trevor are already aboard, any idea about the last guy?” Dante had no trouble recalling the names of the others and no doubt recognized the man before them as well, but his voice seemed the slightest bit over excited. Vetti clamped down on it immediately. He wants to leave just as bad as I do. Can’t blame him.

          “Who do you mean, the Tyrant? Beats me. I had assumed he would have made it back before me. He was a bit closer than me.” The Tyrant? How wonderful. Vetti had not realized he was stuck waiting on the Expeditionary Core’s biggest prick. He was certainly not a man worth dying over. As far as Vetti was concerned they had waited for him long enough.

          “When you get up their let them know that were probably only gonna get you four back then.” Vetti proclaimed, trying and failing to empathize with their missing comrade.

“Sure thing, don’t take too long though. There’s no doubt in my mind that something had its eyes locked firm on me as I headed over here.” As the solider spoke, he kept a side eye at the jungle behind him. Danger remained only as far away as one remained vigilante.

“We’ll be careful,” Dante said as his eyes shifted back to scanning the jungle. With that, the man approached one of the ascension harnesses and began preparing for his departure. The mechanism was not overly complicated. Attached to the end of a long thickly woven rope was a vertical metallic beam with several metal bars jutting out of it. It was designed so that one could situate their body and all their gear inside of the array of metal bars and ascend without risk of falling. It also was made in such a way so that it could easily be gotten in an out of without cumbersome straps, though some were included for the less bold.

“Stand clear!” The man shouted as he signaled the ship above, causing the ascension cable to shake violently for a few seconds. After a few seconds delay, he shot upward like a mortar shell, up towards a breach in the maelstrom above. After a few more seconds, a massive counterweight broke through the canopy and impacted against the earth with a tremendous thunk off a ways from the pair that remained.

“Come on, let’s get going ourselves.” Vetti’s words were filled with joy, only a man pardoned from the noose as he stepped onto the gallows could match. He carefully aimed his crossbow into the dirt and let loose his knocked bolt. Having a cocked crossbow strapped to his back was not the most dangerous thing, but there was no need for the added risk. Finally, suppertime.

“What about the Tyrant?” Dante finally piped up as he saw his companion heading for one of the other ascension harnesses. His face looked mildly frightened, but not of the jungle, his fear was strictly centered around the judgment of others.

“What about him? Do you think anyone aboard is going to care if he comes back or not?”

“It seems wrong to leave, what if he’s on his way?”

“And what if he’s already dead and we end up dying because we wouldn’t take the hint and leave already? We leave or we die.”

“I don’t think the Captain would agree with you.”

“Do you see the Captain here with us? No, he was in charge of the salvage team. Seeing how I’m the one in charge here, I say we cut our losses and head back.” The frustration Vetti held bled like a jugular wound into his voice. It would be simple to say that Vetti hated the trooper almost all of the Expeditionary Core called The Tyrant. That simplicity came at the price of a more multifaceted contempt that was just as much Vetti’s fault as the man he hated. The Tyrant was only nineteen, yet he was always welcome in Captain Mercada’s councils. He thought himself so high and mighty, acting like he was not just another disposable solider in an army of others just like him.

“But-” Dante began to interject, but his words were rapidly cut off.

“Fine then. If you want to stay down here by yourself then do it. I’m heading back to the ship with or without you.” As he spoke his words, he wondered if he was going to far. Leaving the Tyrant to his fate was one thing, but leaving without Dante could be construed as abandoning his post. That was a court-martial and a long walk off a short plank just waiting to happen. Luckily enough, his words hit home.

“Alright, alright I’m coming.” The youth said walking over towards his harness. A wave of relief finally washed over the beleaguered Vetti. Finally, we can leave. As he began to climb into his harness the sound of a branch snapping out in the jungle could be heard over the loud chatter of a million insects. The noise only made Vetti get himself into his harness faster. Dante, however, moved away from his harness.

“It’s some animal, or monster or something, just get in the harness already.” The young solider did not listen to his counterpart’s pleas, instead rearming his crossbow. Soon enough, Vetti found himself grabbing a bolt for his own weapon. As much as he wanted too, he was not about to leave Dante to fight by himself.

The noise of the jungle shifting as yet another unknown horror approached, made the hair on the back of Vetti’s neck stand up on end. Each breath could be his last, but he had stood to face the worst of the world could offer for years. While he was a bit warier than most, he was well aware of his own capabilities.

He aligned his eye with the fletching of an arrow. He was confident enough to boast he could take the head off a squirrel at fifty yards, if something was looking to fill its gullet, it better be prepared for a disappointment. The only one that would end up disappointed, was Vetti.

From through the trees and shrubs, came an odd pairing. It was clearly the Tyrant his dark hair and grey eyes focused on the path ahead of him. In his arms was the unconscious form of a girl that while Vetti could not recognize her, he was completely certain no one else in the Expeditionary Core would recognize her either. Dante immediately moved to help carry the girl, but Vetti remained staunch in maintaining a readied arrow.

“Where in the world did, she come from? Better yet, why did you bother dragging her all the way here.” He demanded as the direction of his bow drifted dangerously close to the forms of the others. The Tyrant gave no answer though, deeming it far from necessary to waste his breath justifying himself to timorous malcontent like Vetti. He simply continued ahead, giving the crossbowmen only a few seconds of a scornful glare as a response.

The blood in Vetti’s veins filled with a hatred so severe and overbearing it felt as if his blood was on fire. He would have been able to stop himself from enacting his more violent fantasizes, but the slight demanded recompence. He was about to have gone on the most vulgar and longwinded screaming rant he could muster about what he thought of the Tyrant’s smug façade, but he caught movement out of the corner of his eye.

As much as he wanted it to be yet another irritating slowpoke dragging their own burden behind him, he knew too well that everyone from their area was already accounted for. Instead, he was left to scan the green, his eyes and ears becoming exclusively focused on the search for any hints of what might be out there. His eyes worked with the diligence only experience could provide as they would lock on to hints of something that did not fit in the greater picture like a bright colored flower or the movement of a bird from one tree to the next, before excluding even them from his search. Still, he saw nothing more dangerous than a few poisonous fruits hanging low on a tree’s branches. Perhaps I’m just a bit jumpy is all. He thought to himself in an attempt to get his heart to descend from where it had lodged itself in his throat. An errant glare back at the others proved they had only covered half the ground needed to reach the ascension cables.

Then all at once, Vetti realized he had not been wrong to stay so on alert. The Jungle, which had been alive with the chirping of birds, buzzing of bugs, along with the occasional calls of other animals went completely silent in the blink of an eye. It was as if Vetti had suffered a sudden fit of deafness, but he better. That silence was not something he had ever experienced, nor was it anything he had ever heard about. That was what truly frightened the man. Give a fifth of whiskey to any of the older breach divers and their loosened tongues will deliver all sorts of tales of doom and gloom. This was something different, something new, or at least it never had any survivors left to tell its tale.

Still, the silence alone was not enough for Vetti to lose his nerve. The man’s panicked mind went into overdrive to blurt something, anything innocuous that could be the cause of that silence. When the thing finally materialized through the foliage and grinned, that was when Vetti’s tenuous grip on his mettle finally broke.

Sigurd and the others were within a few steps of the ascension harnesses when the sound of rapid footfalls approaching from behind filled their ears. An over the shoulder glance showed that Vetti had abandoned his crossbow and was pumping his arms as legs with as much vigor and grace as his armor would allow. The look on his face was one of sheer terror. Sigurd had noticed the silence, but what was he to do about it. He was just a few steps from safety after all. Whatever horror that was on their tail could stay there and bite at their dust for all he cared. The problem was Sigurd caught a glimpse of what was chasing them, leaving him befuddled.

That isn’t supposed to be there. Approaching at a meandering pace was something Sigurd had never expected to see out in the jungle. A figure in a black long jacket walking from out of the foliage on a direct path towards the group. No one in the expeditionary core wore anything like that into the field so it confused Sigurd, but then again, it would not be the first person he found out of place that day.

As his eyes drank in more of the approaching silhouette, he began to feel the same terror that had broken Vetti’s resolve writhe in his bones. The thing looked human only from a distance. Its awkward steps were the first sign the thing was something other than what its outer visage made it appear as. It looked as if it took impossibly long steps, its leg stretching out farther than it had any business doing, yet it glided seamlessly across the uneven earth. Neither did its upper body bob or sway in pace with its gauge, instead it remained static as if it were floating freely through the air, unfettered by the reality of the world around them.

Almost immediately after his eyes focused on the horror before him, Sigurd could feel his breathing change from somewhat controlled and purposed in their exasperation towards the ragged breaths of a hunted animal dominated by panic. Similarly, his steps which had been fluid and strong despite the aching pain of overuse had suddenly lost their rhythm as what was left of Sigurd’s control went towards dragging the girl onward. Dante was not fairing much better, even though his breathing had become harder to find in the overbearing silence, he could tell with a quick glance that the boy was terrified. It was only a few more steps, but even those few extra seconds could be the difference between life or death.

“Dante, go get yourself situated, I’ll strap her in myself.” Even with his lungs screaming at full capacity, his words were barely audible. That silence was perhaps the most troublesome facet of this new creature. There was no hearing it coming, and if he turned to look at it, Sigurd knew he would only panic more.

Somehow, Dante did as he was told and sprinted off towards his own ascension harness, just as Vetti’s frantic waving finally caught the attention of the lookouts above. A jolt ran through cable holding his harness and he went rushing upwards into the heavens. One was away, his oh so courageous display doing nothing to build confidence in his own chances. All I need is a little bit of time.

Just a few seconds behind him was Dante, who did not even bother with any of the straps, he simply waved to go up as soon as he jammed himself between the thing’s metallic bars. For Sigurd things were not quite so simple. His hands moved as quickly as possible to work the leather straps, ensuring the girl would not fall out. All of Sigurd’s efforts would be for nothing if she ended up dying.

With shaking hands, Sigurd’s fingers flew to the last two fasteners. As he did so the sweat on his neck was becoming like ice. The fear that burned like ice within his heart was the most intense it had ever been for the young solider. Despite his experiences, that thing did more to frighten him than any other manner of monster he had encountered. All his instincts were telling him to either turn and face the foe at his heels or to wave as frantically as possible, the girl be damned, but he did neither. With a final fluid motion, the last strap became taught, and Sigurd’s escape was finally open to him.

          With all his strength he wrapped through the metal bars of the ascension harness, it was far from a safe option, nonetheless, it was far better than staying there. One knuckle turned white beneath his grip while its pair waved with all its might.

          “Pull me up d****t!” There was little chance the lookouts aboard the Merciless Wrath could hear him and the desperate exasperation in his voice as even Sigurd’s screams were drowned out by the sheer difference in altitude. Luckily enough, the meteorologists aboard had done their job and found a maelstrom breach where the clouds parted. With the way his day had been thus far, he figured his luck was running on empty, and he knew if he turned to look, with his failing fortunes, he would have a closer look at that monstrosity than he had ever wanted.

When he felt its breath tickle the hairs on the back of his nape, he could not help but choke down a gasp as his hand instinctively dove for its sword. To late. He knew. Even if managed to grab his sword, he wondered what he might actually accomplish.

As if god above had shined down a holy ray of absolution, the chains above him gave out a choir of chimes rang out above the silence as they were suddenly pulled taut. Both Sigurd’s Spirits and his body began to rise, unfettered by the doom of the ground. The jolt would have knocked him free had it not been for the ebbing strength left in his arm and the footholds he had barely managed to keep grip of. With the weight of gravity and inertia pulling him downward, it was entirely possible that Sigurd would lose his grip should his other hand remain flailing in the wind. The easiest purchase the trooper found was the soft flesh of the girl’s copper toned arm. Its not as if she can mind, she’s still out cold. Sigurd told himself as his fingers wrapped around her wrist like a form fitting bracelet.

That was the moment when everything began to fall apart. Sigurd’s grip was tight as a vise. His fingers wound themselves around the girl’s wrist like a viper constricting its prey, so he should have felt a beat of life beneath the skin. He should have. Stillness had taken her even as rushing air cascaded through her obsidian locks. Her lips hung limply from her face, the last remnants of her final breath leaking unlike the blood from her wound. Those emerald eyes that were so alive with fear, stared out hollowly at the world below. Sigurd knew so little about her but seeing her like that made it feel like his heart was being ripped from his chest. He had been so prepared for this eventuality, but his chest felt as if it were on fire. Damn it all. The world had once again cheated him, and it was far from done.

That totality of realization had only taken a few seconds from leaving the ground, in a few seconds more he would reach the Merciless Wrath, and there would be at least a hiatus in his suffering. When they got there, the officers of the Expeditionary Core would search her for anything of use or value before tossing her over the side. She deserved better than that, but there was no way Sigurd could talk his captain into taking on a foreigner’s corpse. Little did he know, none of that would be his concern.

Out of the corner of his eye, there was movement. It moved like nothing Sigurd had ever seen. Remaining motionless yet bending and arcing through the air, unfettered by any sense of reality. It bent and twisted at impossible angles, stretching outward far beyond any distance space gave it a right to occupy. All of it lead back down to where Sigurd had just been, that clearing in the jungle where he could still see a dark figure standing, its arm outstretched as unique as a dream, or in this case a nightmare. With a swipe that cheated distance itself, its fingers connected with the metal cage Sigurd Clung to, stopping its ascent. The sudden stop almost sent Sigurd to his death, but his grip remained stern. Furthermore, its strength was enough to overwhelm the harness’s counterweight, and gravity once more began to pull Sigurd towards the jungle.

I’ve survived to much today to deal with you too freak!  The solider said to himself steeling his resolve for one final escape. It did not matter if it could stretch out its arm to infinity if it could still fell pain. With all of his weight focused on the blow, he brought his heavy boot down upon the thing's fingers like a hammer upon a nail. All at once it let got, recoiling as it sheered writhed away. The thing was not graceful in defeat though. Its long fingers suddenly lashed out at Sigurd, luckily striking against his armor. The weight behind the blow had been absurd though, shoving the man hard away from the harness. It was only then he realized he had put too much follow-through into his stomp, as he felt the foot, he had used to brace himself slip from its hold. One hand soon followed, leaving him dangling from the girl’s wrist alone. Despite how much he wanted to hold on to her, his body was just to overtaxed. His grip failed in under a second.

It was funny, as he fell those hundreds of meters back towards the ground, his mind could only focus on one of his mentor’s sayings.

Death always gets its due.



© 2021 ColdMan


Author's Note

ColdMan
Harsh Critique is by all means encouraged

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I really like the phrase/ idea of "fiction of life".

The shift in perspective and the driving character's imminent death make me wonder whether he's a character I should sympathize with, or if I was tricked into following. I would definitely turn to the next chapter to find out if he was miraculously saved, but if he wasn't, I'd be a bit turned off.

I'm a little hesitant about the scene change within the chapter. I see why you did it, but it's a bit jaunting. Is there any way to establish the other characters and the ship's blocking in a prior chapter perhaps? Maybe establish more of the setting at the same time?

Just some thoughts. I'd love to see a second chapter, please.

Posted 8 Months Ago



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Added on April 3, 2021
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ColdMan
ColdMan

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Pillar World Pillar World

A Book by ColdMan