The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

Archive for the category “Steel in Shadow”

Steel in Shadow, Part 1: Life Made Flesh

Teeth. Teeth each as sharp as a dagger’s edge, and of the same keen shape of such a weapon. They were feral, violent in design, and utterly inhuman. They were her own teeth. She traced them with her tongue, its tip flitting like a serpent’s. She explored her mouth as though it were the first time she’d felt it. And why not? It was, after all.

The teeth were hard, more solid than a human’s. ‘Why do I know that?’ she wondered. It did not matter the origin of the knowledge, she knew it to be true all the same. Her tongue was thinner, too, than that of the humans with whom she inexplicably held herself in contrast. Again, into her thoughts, came the word ‘serpent,’ implanted in her mind by some benefactor of partial information. How was it that she could liken any aspect of herself to a thing whose visage she had never seen? ‘Seen!’ Her mind came alive at the word. In addition to a mouth full of dagger-like teeth, she also had eyes.

They sprang open and, less than a second later, squeezed themselves closed, accompanied by a throbbing ache of blue light that thrummed about her eye sockets. Slower this time, she cracked her lids open and peered into the world beyond their shielding darkness. Before her, not but a few steps away, hovered a sphere of pulsating blue energy; the source of her eyes’ previous displeasure. In that strange, massive orb, a figure hung with a sleeping stillness, punctuated only by the rise and fall of her chest. The suspended figure was naked in its globe of hovering light. Its ankles were crossed and its arms folded over its chest. The waking woman-and how, she wondered, did she know that was the right word for herself-gazed down at her own body. The same ivory flesh, the same length of limbs, the same curvature of breasts. At the very least, if she was a ‘woman,’ then this sleeping form looked to be a woman as well.

The face of the sleeping woman was unmoving. Her almond-shaped eyes were closed; not squeezed shut, but a gentler posture that imparted the notion of a peaceful, dreamless slumber. Her pale skin contrasted with ebony hair that flowed like a rolling wave down past her shoulders. Her ears were not rounded like a human’s, but pointed, and the subtle parting of her lips revealed gleaming hints of the same sharp teeth that the waking woman felt in her own mouth. Conscious now of her ears, she reached a hand up and ran her long, slim fingers over the sensory organs on either side of her head. They too terminated in points, just as the sleeper’s did. Was this resting figure her kinswoman?

A flicker of light in her peripheral vision caused the woman to turn away from her sleeping twin. What she beheld made her eyes go wide with wonder, confusion, and a deeper, more primal chill in the pit of her belly; fear. The room around her was cavernous, its walls set wide apart and its ceilings built high and crossed with beams for support. Pathways shot across the open space between floor and ceiling, to allow access to the many levels of its contents. It was the contents of the chamber that sent fingers of ice down her spine. She stood on a plinth of sorts, a circular, flat-topped platform, whose edges sloped away to a wider, round base. Each level of this great chamber contained row after row of identical platforms, above each hovered an orb of throbbing energy, and in each orb, an identical figure rested. ‘Are they resting?’ she wondered. ‘Are they trapped?’ But more to the point, why had she been freed? Why did she now stand on her platform, while her sisters remained suspended in these prisons? ‘Sisters…’ The word felt funny in her mind. It was unfamiliar, suggestive of a kinship she could not at present comprehend; and yet, it was perfect.

The bodies of her sisters were identical to her, each being of lithe build and average height. It was only in their faces, framed by the same ebony hair, that they differed. Their eyes were all closed in that strange state of suspended animation, and their ears shared the same pointed shape. No, it was in the specifics of their mouths that she and her sisters were not utterly as one. Each bore a mouth full of deadly sharp teeth, but while some, like herself, concealed those teeth behind full lips and the pale skin of their faces, others were not so aesthetically fortuitous. Some were possessed of lips, but no cheeks, and so offered windows by which onlookers could see the fangs beyond. Others had neither cheeks nor lips. Their faces were set in permanent grins of ferocity, even while their bodies hovered in the tranquility of slumber. ‘Horrific,’ ‘grotesque,’ and ‘malformed,’ were words that flitted through her mind, but not in her own voice, whatever that may be. These thoughts felt like the imagined words of strangers, offered in the hushed tones of the repulsed. Only one thought in her own voice came to the forefront of her mind, ‘Beautiful. They are my sisters, and we are all beautiful.’ And then, one by one, her sisters began to die.

It started at the highest row of orbs, their tops mere inches from the crossbeams of the ceiling. One sphere, in a far corner, surged with light, flaring with an intensity that eclipsed its neighbors. The glow increased to a blinding glare, and then was gone, the orb dissipated, and the naked form once held within now crumpled onto its platform. Somehow, without drawing closer to inspect the unmoving body, the woman knew her sister was dead, her glow extinguished just as the orb that had cocooned her. She felt a pang behind her ribs, an emptiness as if something had been plucked from her chest cavity with cold hands.

A second flare of light caught her attention, and another of her sisters tumbled in an unceremonious heap onto her platform. The aching in the woman’s chest grew greater, but she did not tear her eyes away from the morbid spectacle. This time, she caught a movement, a tell-tale whisper of shadow into shadow. Someone else was awake, moving amongst her siblings, and killing them. A third flash, this time on a lower level. She focused not on the light, nor the body, but the space beyond it; a narrow catwalk that granted the intruder access to the chamber’s upper levels.

‘There!’ A second shape moved on this level, even as orbs continued to flare and her sisters continued to die on the floors above. There were many intruders, and she was no longer safe here, if indeed she ever had been. By the hand of some unknown providence, she had been awakened, and she was free while her sisters slept, trapped and defenseless in their own minds. She could not guess whether this freedom was granted so she might escape, or whether she was expected to fight for her siblings, on behalf of her liberator. Either way, she had to move.

Her legs managed to be both stiff and wobbly, unresponsive and unused to movement as they were. She clenched her teeth and forced the muscles into motion with a tremendous outpouring of willpower. The first step sent her stumbling to her platform’s edge, where she teetered for what seemed like a maddening eternity. Her stomach felt as if it had fallen away, and her arms flailed for purchase on objects that simply weren’t there. She fell forward, rushing to meet cold stone with her unprotected flesh. It was in the microsecond before the pain of impact that her mind erupted like a gentle flame given an abrupt dousing of oil. The heels of her hands met the solid ground, and the impact’s dull, numbing shock throbbed its way up her arms, but her momentum did not slow. She rolled into the fall, transitioning from heel to palm, and then springing forward as her fingers bent back with the pressure of her weight. She tucked her legs in tight and rolled over the platform across from her own, under the sphere of her first sister, the one she’d seen upon waking.

She rose out of the tight summersault onto the balls of her feet, and was forced to throw up her hands to shield herself from the solid barrier before her. It was the chamber’s nearest wall, and she now stood in its shadow, her bare flesh pressed against the cold, smooth surface. She fought to keep her heavy breathing muffled, and to martial her thoughts into some semblance of order. It did not matter how she’d gone from a bumbling first step to a feat of acrobatics that, even without knowing anything of the outside world, she knew to be impressive.

Footsteps on the catwalks above stilled any further self-congratulation. Had they heard her, were they yet aware of her awakening? Waiting around to find the answers to those questions did not seem like much of an appealing prospect, and so, with footsteps as light as she could manage, the woman prowled along the wall, sheltered in the embrace of its darkness. It was only luck that found her in the deeper gloom of a corner when a figure stalked into view. The intruder was tall, his broad frame swathed in a dark robe. The light of the remaining orbs glinted off his shaven head, whose surface was marred by ornate lines inked into the flesh. Cold, dark eyes regarded the still-pulsing spheres, and he stroked his long goatee with a slim, spidery finger. Without warning, he turned in her direction, as though he sensed her unseen presence.

His eyes were as dark and soulless as they’d seemed in profile. There was a spark behind them, but they burned as a demonic inferno, not with the gentle blaze of natural life. He bore several scars, claw-like slashes that scored the tight-stretched skin of his cheeks and forehead. Silver insignia were pinned to his robe’s collar. They appeared to be skulls, whose eye sockets were each transfixed by blades. About his neck, on a silver rope chain, hung a medallion in the likeness of a great eye, bordered by a serpent, who gripped its tail in its teeth to form a complete circle.

‘Liana, move!’

She did not know the name that sprang to her mind, but the command was clear nonetheless. Driven by that same unprecedented athleticism, she sprang straight upward and locked her hands around a support beam for the catwalk above. She swung her long, muscular legs up to snake around the same beam and pulled herself tight against the support structure. Her every thought willed the strange man to not look up, to keep his eyes on… ‘My sisters.’ Her heart pounded at the realization of what she was doing; hiding to stay alive, while they died, defenseless at the hands of unjust executioners. Each of them was a life yet to be lived, now rendered naught but a senseless pile of wasted flesh.

Poised to spring down on the bald-headed intruder, she was stopped only by his voice. The words were not directed at her, but their tone made great torrents of ice pour through her veins. She shook on her perch, senses numb with fright.

“By my authority as Executioner General, appointed thus by the First Echelon of the Order of the Consummate Verity, and for your crimes unto the sanctity of the existence of mortal flesh, I sentence you to death.”

His words, though spoken at a muted volume, reverberated in her mind like the age-worn bell in some forgotten temple. The Executioner General raised his pallid, spindly fingers toward the nearest orb. His scarred brow creased with concentration, the orb’s light grew, and then died away. The figure within collapsed like a child’s doll cast aside. He scowled at the body and stepped past it to the next orb, while his comrades carried out similar duties on the floors above. There could be no doubt left in her mind, if they found her, they would kill her.

‘You have to leave, Liana. Now! If you don’t, their deaths will be in vane. You cannot save them. Let them live through you.’

Again that name, again that voice that spurred her on. Was the voice her own? It seemed at once to be hers and that of another, a distant other, guiding her through her first clumsy steps in this rude and confounding reality into which she’d awakened. Either way, Liana-for she now accepted that to be her name-heeded the command, and hastened to obey. Her legs unwound from the beam, and she swung down to the floor, landing in a low crouch. The Executioner General had his back turned to her, a fact which surprised her by how much it steadied her heartbeat and set her breathing at ease. Just looking at that face, and those ruthless eyes of cold fire, was enough to set her on edge.

He’d come from a door a short distance ahead. To Liana, those several steps felt like a trek of miles, each movement threatening to alert the Executioner General to her presence. The door hung ajar, taunting her with its promise of safety. She made the last, agonizingly slow steps and slid between the door and its frame, still pressed close to the wall. This was it, she had left her chamber, the place where, for all intents and purposes, she had been born into consciousness. As with a baby from its mother’s womb, there was no going back now.

Beyond the chamber’s door, a corridor stretched to the foot of a short stairway. Wary of her would-be killers working their vile deeds in the room behind her, Liana padded along the floor, whose stone tiles felt chilly under her bare soles. She moved as fast as she dared, while trying to keep silent the sound of skin meeting stone with each stride. One step after another, she crept along, each footfall possibly the last she’d make before the Executioner General rounded on her and put an end to her fledgling existence. So great was her concentration on the silence of movement that Liana reached the base of the short flight of steps before she’d expected to. A door stood closed at their summit, and beyond it, her keen ears detected the sounds of whispering wind and gently chirping creatures. ‘Freedom.’ And, along with it, another sound. A steady, rhythmic crunch. ‘Footsteps.’ The door swung open on quiet hinges and a figure regarded Liana from where it stood, framed by silvery moonlight. His robes rustled in the gentle breeze, and the light glinted off his death’s head lapel pin. His head was shaven, his eyes alight with a familiar contempt directed at the thing he saw before him, the thing he saw as naught more than an abomination. His thin lips parted to form a word, perhaps a curse or a shouted alarm.

‘Liana, kill.’

She moved without thought, a blur of motion beyond the capacity of an average human. She extended one leg and planted a foot several steps up the stairway. Using that as leverage, Liana tensed her leg muscles and flung her full weight up the stairs and at the man before her. His hands rose into a defensive posture, but it was nowhere near enough to ward her off. Liana slammed him back through the door and landed astride his torso on the dirt track under the star-flecked sky. More primitive impulse than premeditated act, Liana wrenched her victim’s head back at a furious angle, stretching the flesh of his throat. ‘The soft, warm flesh; so easy to rend.’ A red haze glided over her mind, it tinted her vision, and obscured her every thought, save for the voice that chanted, ‘Kill.’ ‘Yes,’ at last she realized, it was her own voice, the compulsion was her own.

Razor teeth met malleable skin, and the resistance was minor, easily overcome. The muscles of Liana’s jaw forced her mouth of fangs shut like a vice around the man’s neck. Flesh was punctured, muscles stretched and popped, and veins spurted their crimson cargo into her waiting mouth. Liana did not just bite, she ate. Mouthfuls of flesh and muscle slid down her throat, lubricated by torrents of blood that stained her face like coppery war-paint. Liana could not stop, nor could she compel her body to recognize the horror dawning upon her mind. Could it be that this was not horrible, that this was what she was meant for? Liana had time for no such questions until her belly was filled, and the would-be aggressor lay lifeless, his neck and much of his face stripped clean of their meat. Liana could not stop to think on what she’d done, could not possibly hope to understand what force drove her to such a gruesome feast, yet kept her from feeling it to be as grotesque as her cursory thoughts perceived. She wasted no time on such musings, and instead sprang to her feet and fled, naked and blood-drenched, into the dark of night, while below, the Executioner General concluded his own gruesome deeds.

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