So, as you may have noticed, the whole 2015 book challenge didn't really work out. Work has left me so emotionally and mentally drained that I haven't really been able to work up the motivation to track down all of the books I was going to read and write about. I HAVE been writing, though; whenever the mood strikes me I've sat down and written a bit, 300 words here, a few tweets-worth there, but nothing I really felt was good enough for this blog. (This is, after all, what I want to be able to point future employers to for samples of my work.) That is, until now. I'm actually pretty proud of this one; I banged it out in one marathon session, and it hasn't been edited at all. I might revise it at some point, or even make it into part of a larger whole, but for now I think it stands alright on its own. Enjoy!
It was just supposed to be an easy raid. There were eight of us, and only one of her.
Sure, she was a Ranger, but we’d killed Rangers before; no matter the skill, one man against more than one is a losing bet. The delta in human reaction times is simply too small to account for a whole other person providing input to react to.
Sure, she had a firearme. But lots of Rangers had armes, and we’d killed them just the same. Darci’s numeneran medkit could give us anything we needed so long as it had flesh to make it from, and flesh was easy enough to come by. So we could risk the occasional flesh wound in the course of staking a good corpse to loot.
But this Ranger was different. Hair white-blonde, drawn back tight into a molecule-precision braid. Eyes cold, grey irises so dark they were almost black. An unusual trench coat the color of sand, stained with blood. And by someone else’s god, was she beautiful. Not that a pretty face had ever stopped us before.
So we moved into the usual position in the silica hills; these vast piles of dust, like dunes but without the gale-force winds to form them. With a mind for ambush tactics and the right color camouflage you could disappear into what looked like flat ground in the glare of the noonday sun, which is exactly what we did. All we had to do was wait for her to cross into the sweet spot, which to our great fortune (hah) she did.
Most people, when four big men in combat leathers with swords and spears rise up out of the silica like wraiths, tend to break and run, or just break down and cry. We always give our targets a chance to drop any valuables and leave, as a courtesy. Some take it, others don’t. Always ended the same way. We gave her the same chance. I told her our terms, “Drop the arme and the satchel, and just keep on walking.” In response, she leveled the arme, and fired, filling the air with thunder. Not aimed at me, or any of the men with me, but past us, at Kira. Kira was our archer, a prodigy with a bow, and better at ghosting into the silica dust than any of us. Even I couldn’t have seen her, and I told her where to hide. Her head exploded, a gush of blood and brain suddenly marking her for all to see. That’s when we charged. I led, sword raised, roaring in her face. She racked the slide of her firearme, ejected a casing the size of a fist, and blew my sword arm to bloody ruin. I dropped and tumbled to a stop, clutching my arm close, blood staining the pale white hills.
I remember little of the next moments, only that I spent them trying to drag myself away from what was quickly becoming the worst fight of my life. The Ranger dodged easily away from my friends, thunderbolts dropping them with holes in their bodies the size of melons. Little Darci, bless her soul, broke from cover, sprinting towards the fight even as I, dazed from pain and blood loss, tried to wave her off. “Not worth it!” I tried to shout. “Save yourself!” But the strength wasn’t there. I felt a dampness in my midsection and looked down; in my fall my own sword had cut me open from chest to stomach. Darci ran, knife in hand; she would take one of her own fingers off to feed the numenera in her pack. Then the Ranger caught her, and a blast to her upper torso ripped her apart. I rolled onto my back on the shifting silica, and collapsed.
I saw the coward, Luz, had skirted the battle, hiding behind his invincible shield. At seeing Darci slaughtered he almost regained his nerve, closing in on the Ranger from behind. He was too slow; she fired, and he brought his shield up to block it a hair too slowly. Although even the Ranger’s big arme couldn’t pierce the fantastic alloy (we’d salvaged it from a crashed skyship), sparks ricocheted in all directions. One found his eye, and he collapsed. The last two, lovers Tom and Vic, had given up and gone running away down the hills; the Ranger sighted them and shot them down, all tangled limbs at the bottom. At least they’d still be together in death.
The Ranger found herself with two targets: a bleeding cripple, and a half blind craven. She rounded on me, and I prepared to die. Then, a metallic whistling sound carried across the hills. Luz had found his courage at last, but too late. He hurled his shield, sharp edges spinning through the air, and if his aim had been truer or her reactions less quick, he might have taken her head off. But instead it merely grazed her, splitting the pale skin of her cheek and tearing through part of her ear. Now defenseless, Luz had only time enough to raise his hands in hopeless surrender before she blew his leg off. He screamed piteously as she stalked toward him. I couldn’t watch, and rolled back onto my stomach to crawl to what was left of Darci, dragging myself along on my one good arm. I had to get to the medkit.
I pressed a few buttons experimentally. It beeped uselessly as I heard the metallic click of an empty firearme behind me; apparently the Ranger had used the last of her ammunition. She shouted, a human woman’s voice, high and cold, full of such boundless rage that I could not understand whatever words she spoke, if they were in a tongue I could speak at all. I heard a thud, and a dull crunch, and Luz screamed. I did not need to turn and look to know what she was doing to him, stomping his skull flat into the dust. There was another thud, more cracking, and Luz’s cries stopped. Then another thud, and another, and another. I kneeled in front of the bloody stain that had been Darci, her corpse having been flung away by the force of the shot. She and her pack had been forcibly separated, and I hunted with morbid desperation for some scrap of meat the medkit could turn into chemicals that would let me stand. All I found was a knife. I looked down at my ruined arm, held on only by a few tendons and a scrap of skin at the elbow, and knew what I had to do. I drove the knife into the gristle, and sawed once, then twice, and then once more, trying not to scream. Tears ran down my face, both for my pain and my loss. I shoved my arm into the numenera, and it pulled until the last tendon snapped. My vision went white, literally blinded by agony.
A moment later it produced a vial of fluid the color of old blood, with a short rough needle of bone. I had no idea what it would do; I rammed it into the meat of my leg anyway. Suddenly, the stump of my arm stopped bleeding, scabbing over instantly. The wound in my side sealed itself, torn muscle pulling itself together, skin sealing over in a rough, red scar. New strength welled up inside of me, and I hauled myself to my feet. I took a step, and screamed. Though my arm and side still pained me, it was nothing compared to the volcanic fire in my blood. Every little move brought fresh agony, but instead of robbing me of my focus it sharpened it. I took up my sword with my remaining arm and ran at the Ranger, who had just finished crushing Luz’s skull beneath her boot. She had not reloaded, and brought the arme up to block my wild overhand swing with with a resounding clang and the sound of shearing metal.
My sword was forged by one of the finest blacksmiths the Ninth World had ever seen, and was certainly the sharpest I’d ever held. It could not break the accursed Ranger’s gun, but it marked the metal and sent sparks up, flaring and showing fear in her eyes. I hammered her again and again, each time missing by inches or being blocked by her weapon, which became more and more worn by criss-crossing gouges in the black-tinted metal. She proved as deadly a fighter as she was a sharpshooter, capitalizing on my missing arm to crack me in the face with knees, elbows, the stock of her firearme, or whatever she could find, but the combat drugs coursing through my veins made any pain wash over me like silica on a breeze. My sword refused to find a mark on her skin, but did cut a gash in her satchel. Out poured dozens of shells, ammunition for the arme she carried. The satchel emptied, we shared a moment’s pause. Then she dove down the hill after the rolling shells.
I dove after her, sword in a reverse grip, trying to drive the blade into her spine. We tumbled, practically in free fall, my blade finally drawing her blood in countless glancing blows. At the bottom of the valley between the hills, at the foot of dead trees long since buried and exposed again by the dunes, we came to rest. She scrambled for a shell, frantically trying to reload her arme. I stomped toward her, limping from a twisted knee but too filled with bloodlust to care. I lunged at her, she parried, guiding my thrust into the trunk of a gnarled tree. It stuck there, not long, but long enough for her to swing the arme like a club into my chin, cracking bone and knocking teeth free. I barely felt it through the haze, but still I staggered. She brought it down in an overhand arc onto my head, and dropped to one knee. With the last of my strength I wrenched my sword from the tree, slashing wildly, and for a moment I thought I had her. Another overhand chop, flicked sideways at the last moment, came down on one of her hands holding the arme, cleaving fingers and causing her to stumble backwards, dropping the weapon. She fell against the trunk of the tree. I lunged, putting all of my hate and the last of my adrenaline and drug-fueled power into the thrust.
But may someone else’s god curse me and my terrible luck; my aim was not true. My blade buried itself deep in the tree and sawed through her trenchcoat, the armor beneath it, and the flesh of her shoulder with equal ease, but the wound was not mortal. It ruined the use of her arm, but her free hand searched within her coat and found a knife, black metal glimmering with flecks of starlight. The first slash caught me across the throat, and I gagged as my lifeblood splattered across her face and coat. She plunged the knife into my chest again and again, but I was beyond pain. All strength fled from me, drugs or no. I fell to my knees, and her good arm drove the knife into my chest. Then everything went black.
I awoke….later, curiously numb and well-rested. A respirator wheezed somewhere nearby, and a tall, but stooping figure swathed in layer upon layer of earth-toned fabric loomed just out of arm’s reach. I noticed that instead of a face, it had a single ovoid lens, black like a starless night sky, looking like less a visor and more a portal into the cosmos. For some reason, this did not bother me.
“The Raider lives again,” it intoned, with a voice somewhere between the clatter of antique keyboards and the chittering of insects. “For a time, it was in doubt that it would do so. Does it remember its name?”
“-Stoneheart. The Raider. Do you remember their faces?”
“Wait, whose faces?”
“The faces of your friends. Do you remember their faces at the moment of their deaths?”
“Frak you, whatever you are. I’m not talking-“
“This one is Philethis.”
“Is that your name, or your species?”
“DO YOU REMEMBER THEIR FACES?” It suddenly loomed over me, a thin hand laid with inhuman tenderness over my face. Its voice echoed, booming with such volume and force that it cowed me all on its own. The hand smelled of rubber; I couldn’t tell if that was its skin or it was wearing gloves. It had seven fingers.
I hesitated a moment; the great lensed face lowered itself closer. I could not see my reflection, despite the polished shine. “Yes, I remember their faces. Every one. Where’s that Ranger? Where are we?”
“You are sheltered, not far from the scene of your struggle with the Pale One. You fought with courage and skill; not many can move the unstoppable from their course, even if only slightly and only for a moment. A worthy death.”
“So I did die.”
“Indeed. We were able to bring you back. At least, the parts of you that remained.” The hand disappeared back into the massive cloaks, and bonds around my wrists and ankles snapped open. I’d been so distracted by my strange caretaker that I hadn’t even noticed them. “You will see we have done our best to repair what was damaged, but some was beyond our skill.”
My torso was a wreck of scars, jagged and still livid pink, and I saw that the respirator was no external machine at all, but implanted, seemingly replacing my lungs. A glowing cylinder sat dead center in my chest, an electric pulse replacing my heartbeat. My right arm, my sword arm, was now a gleaming prosthetic, metal bonded directly to flesh. I felt around inside my mouth; they had even replaced my teeth.
“You can work miracles. Why do I have so many scars?”
“Time is, was, and will always be short. The Pale One is still walking, and the rose petals are falling.”
“What? Who’s this Pale One, and how can I stop it?”
“You came very close before, but this one fears her full strength will be too much. Find friends. New ones. Strong ones. Better than the ones before.”
“Frak you, again.”
“Again, no. You will need all the help you can get, especially when the dead feed themselves to the unliving and the moon cracks and bleeds.”
“So I find people to help me kill the frakking Ranger-“
“RANGER. And stop her from, uh…”
“Feasting on the dead to crack the Moon.”
“Right. I still don’t understand that part.”
“You will, when you see what has become of your friends.”
“Why? They’re dead already. Nothing can change that, other than you. What’s happened to my friends?”
“It is better that you see for yourself.”
“What?” I pushed past the Philethis, scrambling up the side of the hill, barely thinking of the wires and actuators that drove my limbs where nerves, veins and muscles once did. When I reached the top of the hill, looking across to the site of our doomed ambush, I swore a blood oath before my own gods, and no one else’s. I swore by the sky, the sun, my ancestors, whatever would listen; I swore I would find the Ranger and scatter her pieces across the four corners of the world.
Because when I looked across the hills, I saw bloodstained silica, and the tattered remains of our combat leathers. Luz’s shield, all the spilled firearme shells, and Darci’s numeneran medkit were all gone. And so were all of the corpses.